Monday, 22 February 2010

Road Rules in Japan

One in three jobs in Japan is directly or indirectly related to the automobile industry in Japan. Now that the Global Financial Crisis has truly collided with Japan that figure might have changed, but still it indicates just how important the car is to Japan.

Before I go any further I should point out that I am a non-driver. When I tell Japanese people that ‘I can`t drive’, they looked at me all confused. They think I must mean that at present I don`t have a car. When I explain that I simply never learned to drive they look at me as if I`m some sort of care in the community case. This just goes to highlight how fundamental to the average Japanese person`s existence a car is. It seems everyone has a car. Most families have at least two cars. If they are rich they have two cars the size of tanks. If they are middle class then the husband has a juggernaut and the wife has a strange looking little box shaped car with a high roof. On top of that it appears that nobody in Japan can read a map so everyone has a satellite navigation system in their car. Furthermore, it appears that many cannot bear to be parted from the idiot box, so they have a T.V as well in their car.

Another universal truth about cars in Japan is that nobody buys second-hand cars. Driving a used car is as repugnant as wearing used underwear. And the law encourages this wasteful attitude by hiking up the taxes on second-hand cars. On top of that people seem to regard it their civic duty to buy a new car every three or four years. Of course, now that unemployment is a real possibility for many, the vast majority are shirking their responsibilities and holding on to their old vehicles.

So now that I have given you a brief idea of how important the car is to the Japanese psyche, I can proceed to discuss the rules for driving in Japan. The first thing to note is that like most of Asia, the Japanese drive on the left. Someone once told me that the reason for this is that during the wonderfully exploitative days of the samurai people walked on the left so their swords would not bang into the swords belonging to travellers coming the other way. This is all very charming and fits in with the present day nostalgia in Japan for the good old days of tyranny and social injustice.

The odd thing about the drive on the left rule is that it doesn't apply to people on bicycles. This is my own personal bĂȘte noire. Japanese consider bicyclists to be on a par with pedestrians and as such can and should ride on the right or go on the pavement. Or if someone has a mind to, they can ride on the left. Often you spot gangs of school kids riding on both sides of the road simultaneously or riding in parallel and one or more of them will be texting at the same time. Considering how narrow many of the roads in Japan are, it is a miracle that thousands of people aren`t knocked off their bikes daily. One more thing to note about bicyclists in Japan is that the vast majority ride heavy 1950`s style bikes with a basket on the front. These are called ‘mama charees’. This is an example of how Japanese love taking a real English word like for example ‘chariot’ and mangling it and then institutionalizing the bastardized English word. If you are a school kid then as well as wearing your trousers below your bum line it is de rigueur to drop your saddle so your knees rise over your handlebars when riding. All in all moronic.

The next rule under consideration is giving way. Japan never caught on to the energy saving and more organic approach to driving that roundabouts facilitate. Instead the country is infested with a billion traffic lights. Only drinks machines out number traffic lights. And the main thing to remember about traffic lights is that when turning left you have to give way to pedestrians who have a green light at the same time. This seems to be the only instance when drivers give way. When driving on a busy or empty road it is rare for a person to stop and let someone into the flow of traffic. It appears to me that the general level of civility in a country is inversely proportional to how polite the drivers are. So whereas in England we are generally a surly bunch who barely acknowledge strangers and provide terrible service, we are fairly considerate to the plight of others on the road. In contrast, the Japanese who cannot bow enough or mouth enough polite inanities to customers and random folk they hap upon are selfish bastards behind the wheel. There is no way in hell they are going to give way if they can help it. And the same is true for pedestrian crossings. You can stand at a crossing for ten minutes before a car will show the courtesy to stop to allow you to cross the road; which is odd because officially you are meant to stop at pedestrian crossings. In all other respects the Japanese hold a red light sacrosanct. I am forever blithely walking across an empty road while my fellow pedestrians wait like sheep for the light to go green. And by the way, it isn't green in Japan, it`s blue. Well the light looks green to me but for some odd cultural reason that part of the spectrum has been designated as ‘blue’ in Japan.

Parking is another area of cultural interest. The Japanese are truly awful at parallel parking and avoid it like the plague. Instead they prefer parking places which they must back into. You hardly ever see someone take the simple option of driving directly into a space. They all back in and keep backing in until they hit a concrete bar with their back wheels. Without these ugly lumps of concrete the country might descend into parking anarchy.

At this point you might be wondering if I have anything positive to write about drivers and driving in Japan. Well I did admire the way they put toll gates on all motorways. The trains are relatively cheap and extremely efficient and when you combine toll charges with high petrol prices you have an environmentally friendly situation that encourages people to stop being lazy and use public transport. The new government, however, has seen fit to abolish a lot of toll gates. There goes another nail in the coffin of the Kyoto protocol. The only thing that the Japanese can use in their defense is that they do lead the world in the development of hybrid cars. Saying that I rarely see one on the road in Japan; I suspect that the whole hybrid phenomenon is another marketing strategy to dominate the world`s automobile market.

And this brings me onto to my final topic: the cars people drive. As I said before, if you have the money in Japan you buy an SUV big enough and powerful enough to deploy a platoon of soldiers in the desert of Iraq. If you have obscene wealth in Japan you drive an imported German car. If you are a gangster or wanabee bad boy you drive a ridiculous American car with pimpy bumpy suspension and spend your nights cruising in circles around the train station looking to pick up young girls with short skirts and long fake eyelashes. You are what you drive. I prefer on the other hand to take a leaf out the feminists` handbook and state ‘big car, small dick’; or to rephrase big car, big dickhead.  

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