Uncommon courtesy: cyclists in Japan
Foreign friends who visit me in Tokyo are astonished when I tell them that Japan is one of the rudest countries I’ve ever lived in. “Everyone here is so polite!” they say. But anybody who’s ever been tinged by a bicycle coming up behind them on the sidewalk knows well: Japan has two faces, and one of them is mean.
Japan isn’t rude in the way that most other countries are. It doesn’t have to deal with surly juveniles, offensive drunks, leery beggars, and the other bric-a-brac of our civilized world, and the men don’t pride themselves on the women they’ve groped.
There’s certainly no comparison with the horrors of countries that suffer repressive governments or religious regimes. You’d be very unlucky to lose your way and stumble into gang territory here in Tokyo. If you did, they’d probably give you directions.
It does, for sure, have a hostile attitude toward foreigners. But it’s not violent. It’s passive aggressive. I’m used to having Japanese salarimen square up to me on the street as if we’re in a sumo contest.
For the most part the attitude toward foreigners is insidious. It’s all prattle and evil whispers. We’re not unique in this scrutiny. Japanese society is held together not by mutual respect, but by constantly monitoring and reporting on each other. In UK, we call out nosy parkers. In Japan, it’s how the community functions.
As I mentioned in my post The Science of sardines, Japanese people hold foreigners to a higher level of politeness than they hold themselves.
Japanese men read porn on subway trains. They spit in the street. They smoke outside kindergartens. But woe betide me if I give my young son a chocolate outside the railway station, as I did the other day to reward him for getting ready in time. The news went straight to the headmaster of his school. “Guess what that foreigner did now?”
Japan’s rudeness isn’t bred of stupidity — of not knowing any better — or cultural norms, however foul those norms might be. It’s purposeful, a fundamental part of that Japanese exceptionalism every Japanese guidebook wants to educate you about.
And note my phrasing here. I’m not saying that Japan is wrong because I’m a superior westerner — that old cliché epitomized by James Bond’s famous retort “The bloody Japs do everything the wrong way around.” I’m saying that rudeness needs calling out no matter how it manifests itself, and especially when it cloaks itself in cultural exceptionalism.
Japanese rudeness is rooted in the in-group/out-group division which means that the same male shop assistant shoving himself into my face on the subway train to work will, half an hour later, be gushing and bowing at me when I come into his store to buy my bento.
The in-group (in this case the customer) is treated with servile respect. The out-group is fair game for pushing, obstruction, and — yes — tinging on a bicycle.
For most visitors to this country, who stay in hotels, travel off-peak or in taxis, and shop for gifts in tourist boutiques, all they see is the in-group behavior. As an example, the CEO of a company I worked for in London came over to buy pearls for his wife in Ginza a while back, and was delighted by how friendly everyone here seems to be.
Of course they’re friendly, dummy. You’re buying pearls in Ginza. For those of us who live here, real life in Japan is quite different. Try taking your son to a Japanese public swimming pool on a Saturday afternoon.
Cyclists really do personify the everyday grind of Japanese rudeness. Japan is bicycle obsessed. Everyone cycles, and everyone cycles on the sidewalk. It doesn’t matter that there’s no law permitting you to cycle on the sidewalk except where there’s a cycle lane marked. When even the police do it, such laws are meaningless.
Yes, I know the issue is complicated. For example, parents here often cycle with one or two children perched on child seats on their bikes. It makes sense for them to use the sidewalk rather than take their kid out into the no man’s land of the Japanese streets, where drivers seem to think that rules of the road are optional. When everyone jumps red lights, it makes sense for parents to stay on the sidewalk. Those who don’t jump the lights get out and push their cars around the corner, just like Mr. Bean!
But the moment you start making exceptions, you’ve opened the door for everyone to do it. Even middle aged men who really shouldn’t be so timid they’re riding on the sidewalk like sissy little girls.
Freddie Mercury would love Japan. Here you really can ride your bicycle where you like. Even the wrong way down one way streets — there are special signs that tell you that you can.
The Japanese government tolerates cyclists on the sidewalk, as far as I can see, because it helps to keep them safe. They mark places at junctions where people should stand to wait to cross, and where bicycles should stop. This attitude may be changing, since recently they’ve begun painting over the bicycle marks, or at least not renewing the paint when it wears out. But not only is cycling on the sidewalk tolerated, it’s sometimes actively encouraged. The photo above is an example.
This was taken in Hiroo, a busy part of Tokyo where my office is situated. To understand what’s happening, I’m standing on the footbridge across a junction where two main roads cross. The footbridge is in the form of a large square with steps on each corner of the junction. Here’s the spot in Google maps. I’m at the top left of the bridge looking north.
There’s no pedestrian crossing at road level. In fact, each of the corners is blocked by a barrier which you can see in white in the bottom left of my photo. (Remember: in Japan people drive on the left, and speed limits are in kilometers an hour.)
There are no ramps to get up to the footbridge. Japan’s aging population, the infirm, the disabled, and those with strollers, all cannot use it. They’re forced to brave the traffic somehow. Bicycles, however, get little feeder lanes, eight of them, separated from the road by orange plastic bollards. As you can see from the photo, the feeder lanes lead out of, and then back into, the sidewalk.
Not only are cyclists encouraged to use the sidewalk, they’re actively steered onto it!
Why isn’t there such a thing as a cycle lane here? The road’s certainly wide enough for it. The answer appears to be that it would interfere with the revenue from the parking meters just ahead where the feeder lane ends. There’s also a bus stop further up which would need to be negotiated somehow.
And anyway, cycle lanes wouldn’t work. Drivers would park on them, and nobody would care.
Another problem is that most of the so-called “sidewalks” in Tokyo are just the sides of the road, demarcated by a white line painted on the road surface exactly like the white line in the photo above, but without the plastic bollards. Cars drive half over the line. Bicycles certainly ride on them.
In fact, oncoming cyclists often ride on the outer edges of the road, presumably where they’re safest, forcing pedestrians — including parents who are walking their children — to step out into the traffic. It’s happened to me countless times.
When there are actual raised sidewalks separated from the road by railings, they’re no guarantee of safety. A few days ago, while I was walking along just such a sidewalk a little south of the crossing in that photo above, I witnessed an elderly Japanese man on a bicycle plow straight into a toddler on the sidewalk. Luckily, the kid was unharmed. He was just shaken up and bawling.
What happened next? Of course: the toddler’s mother apologized profusely, bowing and scraping, that her toddler had inconvenienced the cyclist. After a few unpleasant words, the man cycled on.
What would the outcome have been if it were my child some dick on a bike ran over on the sidewalk? I reckon he’d spend the next week taking laxatives to try to pass the thing. But then, I’m just not as polite as the Japanese.