The memorial is small: a makeshift alter on a tiny oblong of unused ground next to the train tracks; surrounded by plastic construction site fences that are much too cheerfully green. Behind it a couple of rough tin and wood shacks are collapsing in on themselves and the passing commuter trains on the other side wobble the ground like an earthquake. It is an extra-ordinarily ugly location to honour the life of a woman who did an extra-ordinarily brave thing.
On October 1st 2013 Natsue Murata was driving back to her property company office with her 67 year old father, Shigahiro. They had stopped at a level-crossing just outside Nakayama Station, in Yokohama’s Midori Ward, at around 11:30am when she noticed an old man laying on the tracks. They were at the head of the line of waiting cars and she could see clearly that there was something wrong. The crossing barriers had already closed but the man wouldn’t or couldn’t move to the safer side of them. A train was approaching: the crossing signals alarms were incessant with that warning, but forty year old Natsue knew he was in danger and couldn’t just sit there and watch him get run-over by the train.
“I have to help him.” She said as she got out of the car.
“Don’t go. There isn’t enough time!” Her father called after her but against his advice, she crossed the barriers and tried to pull the old man to safety.
The train driver saw her struggling to move the man and applied his emergency brakes but couldn’t stop in time and Natsue was struck by the train and killed. She had managed to move the 74 year old man enough to save his life however. He sustained head and back injuries, including a fractured collar bone, but is expected to make a full recovery.
The old man doesn’t remember anything of the incident and apparently only became aware of his surroundings in the ambulance. Some people have commented that he may have been trying to commit suicide but it is more likely he had a seizure or “senior moment” on the crossing.
“My daughter was someone who could not ignore a person in trouble.” Shigehiro told the Japanese newspaper the Asahi Shimbun.
“I have to console myself with the fact the old man is alive.” He said, adding that he hopes the man lives to a very old age.
The trains that were stopped for several hours by the accident last Tuesday rattle by frequently again now. The crossing signal sounds and the cars, trucks and pedestrians stop and wait at the barriers until it is safe to cross. The routine returns to normal and the heroism and unluckiness of that day become part of the background like the pure white table cloth covering the makeshift alter which is stained now where the rain has washed the colours from the flowers that are piled above it.
The memorial was set up on the October 2nd, the day after the accident by JR (Japan Railways that operate the Yokohama Line), so many people have left flowers and cards that many of them have had to be moved to another location. More people arrive daily to offer prayers for Natsue however. A piece of cardboard lays on the ground in front the alter for people to kneel on when they pray and two security-guards bow and welcome those that come to offer condolences.
Not only locals have been moved by her selfless act. The Japanese government and national Police Agency (NPA) have presented a medal with a red ribbon, the highest civilian honour, and a silver cup to the Murata family to mark their daughter’s courage. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, also sent a letter of gratitude. Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshida Suga, personally handed the letter to the family on Sunday. In it the PM expressed his condolences and honoured her courage in putting another person’s life before her own.
When politician, especially ones as unscrupulous and stupid as Abe it is easy to be cynical. Perhaps he is coat-tailing an act of unusual courage for political gain: something he can spin into some sense of unique Japanese fortitude that suits his nationalistic agenda. But if so he would need to ask why no-one else there that day thought to help the old man or Natsue as she struggled to move him.
It makes him more human perhaps; more caring in a way his other policies are not but I do not think it so shallow a ploy. Perhaps like many people he has asked himself the question we all do at such events: would I have helped? Would I have been brave enough to do what she did? I’d like to think I would; but with a train baring down and a statically higher risk to my own life as the rescuer, I wonder. I wonder.
All of which makes Natsue Murata’s sacrifice all the more extra-ordianry and maybe that is enough to make all of us, great and small, honour her and we should just leave it at that.