Japan Today



In Japan, the wheels of progress turn slowly, especially on roads


Have you ever wondered why… ? In its latest issue, Sapio (Nov 10) begins a new section that takes questions about various topics and provides answers, which, as its headline claims, "are interesting and will infuriate you."

The first question taken up in the magazine is why the top speed on Japan's expressways never changes. Some major traffic arteries limit their speed to 60 km/h. Contrast this with Germany's Autobahn, which in principle has no speed limit, or Italy's Autostrada, with 130 km/h, or even one highway now under planning in South Korea that will permit speeds of 160 km/h.

Japan's roads, the article explains, are categorized into 16 ranks. The Tomei Expressway for example is a Type 1, Class 1 road, which means it is "designed" for a top speed of 120 km/h. There are moves to raise the top permitted speed on the No. 2 Tomei Expressway, now under construction, to 140 km/h.

The problem is that another law in force supersedes the road classification. And Article 27 of this law enables police to set the speed on expressways at 100 km/h.

The law went into force in 1968, the same year Toyota launched its first-generation Corolla. One would think that after 42 years, vehicle performance and safety would have improved somewhat; but despite better roads and more reliable cars, the law is still sputtering along at mid-20th century speeds.

Next, the magazine asks why the Segway hasn't made inroads into Japan. The electric-powered two-wheeled transporter received huge publicity when George W Bush presented one to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Several hundred were in use at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Shanghai Expo, and they can even be found being rented by tourists in Washington DC and Paris.

In Japan, however, their use is not recognized outside of private property. The Segway, it seems, is caught in another of those legal loopholes. The Road Traffic Law classifies vehicles permitted on the roads as either "pedestrians," "light vehicles" (minicars, electric bicycles, etc.) and vehicles (automobiles and motorcycles, etc.) The Segway, being capable of moving at over 6 km/h (it can do about 20 km/h), does not classify as a pedestrian. Nor does it fill the requirement for classification as a light vehicle or conventional vehicle. Despite its ready acceptance in foreign countries like the U.S. or Europe -- and interest by some of Japan's regional governments, such as the waterfront promotion department of Yokohama City -- it's currently banned from Japan's roads and sidewalks.

How, asks Sapio rhetorically, can a country that uses old regulations as a shield to exclude new inventions ever be expected to come up with new industries or services?

The third question concerns the validity of a driver's permit. Drivers who go to extend their existing permits, provided they already hold a gold card or have had no more than a single, minor offense, may, upon passing a simple vision test, extend their permit for 5 years. The others are for three years, at a charge of 2,550 yen, plus in some cases additional outlays for the safely lecture fee.

In comparison, quite a few foreign countries place no length of validity on permits at all; others issue them with validity of 10 years.

Those renewing permits must also attend a safety lecture, which the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, explains: "The lectures are conducted with the objective of familiarizing drivers with knowledge necessary for safe driving and to raise their awareness of safety."

But Sapio is skeptical. It notes the quasi-governmental Japan Traffic Safety Association receives 500 yen in annual "membership" for every renewed license. This organization serves as a golden parachute for former bureaucrats at the National Police Agency.

In fiscal 2008, the association raked in 3.2 billion yen for supplying lectures and materials for license renewal. If Japan were extend permit validity to 10 years, the association's revenues would drop by one half.

"The longer a permit holder drives, the more skilled he becomes at driving," remarks Hideo Fukui, professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. "Nobody seriously believes that safety can be realized by watching a video. It would be more meaningful instead if medical practitioners were obliged to confirm their familiarity with new technologies or revisions in medical laws."

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If I go jogging, I move at around 8 km/h. Does that mean I'm not a pedestrian? I suppose I'll have to screw a number plate to my bottom.

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I just can't see the segway being used at all in the major cities in Japan. Often times there is barely enough room for just your 2 feet walking down the roads. It would be impossible having big wheels on either side of you. I could see the usefulness in the smaller cities though.

But yeah, it seems to often be the case here that the age-old laws or ideas trump new or innovative thinking. I can't remember the number of times the thinking of 'that's just how it's done here' has caused discomfort to most if not all involved.

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Japan is smaller is size than CALIFORNIA but it has almost half of the USA population, simple math, too many people in too little land, so it takes for ever to get from point A to point B in Tokyo.

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What's the point of a segway when you can get around more traditionally on a bicycle? Perhaps in areas with enough room - Disneyland, perhaps - can benefit but not the streets and sidewalks of Shibuya.

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Where no one takes leadership nothing will improve. No one takes leadership as no one wants to be blamed. Hence nothing improves and the system slowly falls apart.

A recent study found that it would be easy to install bicycle lanes on a number of roads to battle the dramatic rise in accidents with pedestrians.

The implementation is prevented as the ordinance falls under local jurisdiction and the local governments are afraid that one will blame them if any accident between a car and bicycle happens.

(source: mdn(dot)mainichi(dot)jp/mdnnews/national/news/20101021p2a00m0na005000c.html)

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"so it takes for ever to get from point A to point B in Tokyo."

Obviously you have never been to Japan. You can get most places very very quickly.

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You can get most places very very quickly.

As long as you take public transportation; using a car in a rush hour proves to be slower than a fit person on a bicycle.

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Can`t use the Segway in Britain for similar reasons.

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It's to hard to ride/drive a seqwey while staring at your keitai. Bikes on the other hand,can be steered with one hand, and nary a glance at cross traffic.

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Do we really need to raise the speed limits on highways? I was on one yesterday and it was so congested that even doing the speed limit was a god send. Other times that it has been less crowded, I have sped along above the limit but I realize that it is extremely dangerous to crash at those speeds. Some people know there cars and know their limits, while most don't. Probably it is for the best that Japan doesn't raise it because I am sure there would be more fatalities by drivers who are over-confident and underskilled.

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One interesting consequence of lower speed limits in Japan is that cars have lighter bumpers and less side impact protection than the same models abroad. This saves 30-100+ kg off the weight of the vehicle, improving fuel economy, resource use, and handling -- but it's a trade-off against high speed crash protection.

Personally, I don't think cars should be built like tanks. Raising the speed limits, as wonderful as that would be, would probably come with heavier cars.

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Speed on the espressways are fine. 100 or 120km/h is enough. Same as Canada. A huge country with very wide roads. What gets me is the national highways. The limit is often 50km/h which is what you are allowed to drive inside the city! This is the one that throws me. How can city speed and a highway speed be the same? As for the licensing. The writer got to it at the end, to make money and keep useless people employed. I can segway being a messy thing in Japan. Imagine the keitai abusers, smokers, pigbacking small children on these things. Here is Asia and things will likely never change.

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OOps. I can SEE the segway....

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hey JT, thanks for the summary of articles from Sapio! Can you summarize more magazines next time?

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I hate those license renewal seminars. After each one, I vow to drive carefully so as to avoid that necessity down the road. Then, of course, I get ticketed for some minor infraction (the other day: rolling stop at a railroad crossing, despite being in the midst of a long line of cars), and all my hopes at avoidance are dashed. And there goes all my incentive for sticking to the letter of the law.

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Pedestrian, light vehicle, and vehicle. The article doesn't mention where bicycles fall into the mix. That would be the closest comparison to a Segway.

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Next, the magazine asks why the Segway hasn’t made inroads into Japan. The electric-powered two-wheeled transporter received huge publicity when George W Bush presented one to former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Several hundred were in use at the FIFA World Cup in South Africa and the Shanghai Expo, and they can even be found being rented by tourists in Washington DC and Paris.

Yeah, because overseas EVERYBODY uses Segway, don't they? It hasn't made "inroads" ANYWHERE.

A large part of it being that they look stupid.

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folks dont get hung up on talk about segways for pete sake, the problem this article really highlights is a perfect example of what I call institutional corruption, we have a huge organization of damned paradites stealing my hard earned cash, havingo to pay/renew licenses here is a crime against the people!!!

I just wished yr average Tanaka cus see things for what they really are & make some changes before these beaurocrates & amakudari parasites bleed the country dry, in fact I think we may already be too far gone!

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The last time I sat through one of those lectures some old geezer spent 10 minutes with his back to everyone talking to some charts, then came a video on how to adjust your seat for proper driving posture. The whole system is a complete waste of time!

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Can`t use the Segway in Britain for similar reasons.

Really? Cuz what's his nuts, mr. Heselden, the Briton who bough out the co., died riding one over in North Yorkshire --which, AFAIK, is still part of not just the UK but England herself.

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Licence renewal lectures are ridiculous but kind of funny too. The one with the drunken sarariman who gets tanked and then decies to drive home, runsd someone over , ends up in clink and so his missus and kid lose everything etc is a study in J paranoia and the values that make this great country tick.

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In Japan progress happens at about 1/10 of the rest of the developed world

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I just renewed my license today. It was really annoying. Paying this and that !!!!! change the license every year

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"In Japan progress happens at about 1/10 of the rest of the developed world"

How can you say that? Japan is the most technologically advanced country in the world? Are you confused with another country?

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ILoveNippon; Check out the sticks. It is like something out of the 1950's. My realtives about 15 miles away and there whole village are yet to have flushing toilets. Digital tv? Poor and many places without reception.

If there isn't big profit to be had, Jpaan sadly lags behind.

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There is a new stretch of road near my house, big, 4-lanes wide, smooth and 30km/h. A cop was behind me the other day so I felt compelled to drive 30km/h. It is DIFFICULT. You're constantly riding the brake and in 2nd gear.

Moot point though. They've started digging it up for whatever reason. So it's a construction zone now.

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I think some here missed the point and got hung up on the Segway.

I live near a newer ward owned apartment complex that was designed with many apartments for those with special needs so a good deal of my neighbors are in wheelchairs some conventional ( arm power) some electric, 3 of the residents have non conventional wheelchairs.

One has this sleek low riding chair with some very efficient retractable hand powered (cranked ) fifth wheel that he can really move a quite a speed with.

Another one has a similar rigging but a much more traditional chair that it is attached to ( it can be easily snapped on and off for outdoor or indoor use).

The last guy has the the best one of them all a custom made sleek low riding electric chair that he had partially made in the USA, Germany and Japan.

All these men have one more thing in common other that being in wheelchairs and that is they are actually not permitted to use them and have all been fined and even taken to court over their use.

Apparently the 2 manual ones are not approved bicycles and having a gear system or pedal/hand cranking system ( just can't think of the correct term right now) on anything with more than 3 wheels need special approval and would be limited to the road and not permitted on the sidewalks.

The electric one well that one is not on the approved list and would need to be tested and have a registration and licence plate like those little electric cart you sometimes see old people riding but then it would not be permitted inside buildings or the train and it also goes to fast for it to even get that status.

Trust me all of these guys chairs even at top speed I can easily blow past them on my bicycle without even raising a sweat but for some reason the cop just keep hassling them, couldn't the cops just turn a blind eye, its not like everyone is going to rush out and buy one of these very expensive custom wheelchairs!

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I don't think the arguments are that valid:

Expressways - the expressways that have 60kmph limits are generally the urban ones (quite twisty), where if the permitted speed were higher, you would have drivers approaching sharp bends at high speeds - result? More accidents thanks to the idiots who can't control speed (not JT readers of course). There are more cars on the roads now than the 1960's Corolla example, that makes the situation potetially more dangerous despite leaps in technology.

Segways - great fun in open space or on large open and non-busy walkways. How many of those in Tokyo? The rules are there for a reason, Japan can't handle this kind of unit. It really isn't safe. But sure, I'd love one!

Driving licences? At least your eyesight gets validated every year. My UK licence is valid until my 70th birthday (I passed when I was 18) - no intermittent testing required! Golden parachutes, yep, probably happens, but not just in this scam.

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