Japan must reexamine risks posed by large crowds

The lives of many young people were lost so quickly in Seoul. Once an accident occurs in a crowd, enormous harm is inevitable. Japan must reexamine its safety measures.

On the Saturday night before Halloween, an accident occurred in an alley in Itaewon, an entertainment area in Seoul, when a throng of young people and others entered the sloping street and fell on top of each other. More than 150 people, including two Japanese nationals, were killed in the catastrophe.

Lined with cafes and clubs, Itaewon is a tourist spot known as the setting for a popular South Korean TV drama. It was the first Halloween event held there in three years, following the lifting of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus, and more than 100,000 people are said to have gathered in the area.

The sloping alley is just 3.2 meters wide and mostly wall on both sides, meaning there were few escape routes. A crowd crush is believed to have occurred, in which the falling down of one person could cause other people to also fall down in a domino effect.

The crowding made it difficult for emergency crews to reach the victims, hampering rescue efforts and exacerbating the damage. The South Korean police are hurrying to clarify the circumstances. They should also examine the problems with security for the crowds.

Similar accidents have occurred in Japan. Eleven people died and more than 180 were injured in 2001 when spectators crowding onto a pedestrian bridge at a fireworks display in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, fell down one after another. Senior officials of the city and the local police departments were later found guilty after being accused of mismanaging security.

Crowd crushes occur when 10 or more people are packed together per square meter. They are unable to move and may become trapped under others, causing them to have difficulty breathing.

Measures must therefore be devised to prevent crowding in the first place. If people move freely in a limited space, crowding will intensify. Restricting entry and having one-way traffic at a venue will be effective in achieving the smooth movement of people.

In Japan, COVID-19 restrictions have been eased, and the flow of people is returning to the streets. The Christmas holidays and New Year visits to shrines and temples are also coming up.

Event organizers, local governments and the police should identify in advance where people are likely to stop and stay, and thoroughly take measures such as creating detour routes to guide them. Consideration should also be given to introducing an artificial intelligence system to predict the number and movements of visitors.

The danger of crowds increases when the people gathered have been drinking or are in a state of excitement. On a past Halloween in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, young people overturned a light truck and caused a commotion. Events should be enjoyed with moderation.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 1, 2022)