Bicycles are a common mode of transport in Japan, thanks to several factors: high population density means that many journeys are too short for a car but too long to walk; cars are very expensive to keep and run (parking charges are astronomical in the cities); finally, most cities are built on flood plains (the only habitable parts of three-quarters-mountain Japan) so there are few hills to struggle up.
It’s common to see people travelling two-to-a-bike; indeed, it’s practically a boyfriend’s duty to chauffeur his girlfriend around on the luggage rack of his cycle. On one occasion, I even saw three people on the same cycle, none of whom was under twenty years old. I’m not sure what impressed me more—that the cycle could handle it, or that they were crazy enough to try.
For a country where mobile phones are used more as two-way pagers than as voice communications devices, it’s almost a surprise to see a cyclist using both hands and concentrating on the road (or pavement) ahead instead of composing a one-thumbed equivalent of War and Peace.
Speaking of pavements (Am.E. sidewalk), those are the preferred routes. It’s actually completely legal to ride on the pavement, so watch out, pedestrians! To be fair, given such an option, you’d be a fool to ride on the busy roads.
I’ve noticed that Japanese seem to be more concerned about keeping every last raindrop off their heads than us British. Thus, when it rains, Japanese people like to use an umbrella. True, the British use umbrellas too, but since the chance of rain on any given day is something like 75%, it would be a frightful bore to carry an umbrella around at all times against every little light shower. In Japan, however, when it rains, it rains hard. Cyclists in Japan therefore also carry umbrellas: one hand on the umbrella, one hand on the handlebars, and woe betide anyone who steps in front of them!
It’s therefore something of a surprise to hear that the Japanese police have decided to take action against dangerous cyclists.
Apparently, over two thousand pedestrians were injured, and six killed outright, in bicycle collisions in 2003.
A bit of searching led me to a Biglobe article on the subject. Apparently, the potential punishments are as follows:
- Two people on a cycle: a fine of up to JPY 20,000
- Using a mobile phone or holding an umbrella whilst cycling: up to three months in prison and a fine of up to JPY 50,000
- Death by dangerous cycling: “heavy” involuntary manslaughter penalties
That’s pretty harsh—and I say that as someone who has done two out of those three in Japan (riding two-per-cycle and holding an umbrella; I’m glad to say that I never hurt or killed anyone).