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In Tokyo, anarchy comes on two wheels

23 Comments
By George Lloyd, grape Japan
Photo: Øyvind Holmstad, CC BY-SA 4.0

Tokyo must be the single cleanest and most orderly city in the world. Everything is beautifully well-maintained, there is no litter on the streets, and you could practically eat your dinner off the floor of a typical subway train. Nor do you have to contend with other people's taste in music blaring from passing cars, or the risk of treading in their pets' offerings as you walk down the street.

This is quite an achievement when you consider that Tokyo is the largest urban conglomeration on the planet. Indeed, it has been said that Tokyo is the only capital city that actually works, which is to say: its infrastructure is well maintained, its transport system works efficiently, and its public housing is actually in better condition than much of its private housing.

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Photo: 7q3kjfehb, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cleanliness and orderliness of the city is down to the rules its people are expected to live by. Don't play your music too loud. Pick up after your pet. Put your rubbish out on the right day (and make sure it is the right kind of rubbish).

While rules are key to the smooth functioning of the city, they can grate, especially if you're accustomed to life in a more easy-going, less disciplined city. So it is comforting to know that there is a realm of relative chaos in the midst of all this orderliness: the world of the cyclist.

In Tokyo, cyclists are free to do things that would get them arrested in any other capital city. Hardly anyone wears a helmet and cycling on the pavement is positively encouraged. Even things that are officially against the rules, like cycling on the wrong side of the road, barely raise an eyebrow. In theory, you're not allowed to hold an umbrella whilst riding a bike, but that doesn't stop millions of otherwise law-abiding, wouldn't-say-boo-to-a-ghost Tokyoites from doing just that every time it rains.

It's not just the police that turns a blind eye to these highway anarchists. Buses keep a respectful distance from cyclists, and taxi drivers give way to them. Tolerance of cyclists' whimsy, combined with literally thousands of miles of cycle paths, means that Tokyo's cyclists enjoy a gilded life. Ask them what a pothole is, and they'll probably tell you they saw one once in a documentary about ghetto life in the United States.

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These bikes parked in Shinjuku will probably be taken away pretty soon.| Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The only rule governing the life of the Tokyo cyclist is that you must not go too fast. This is a golden rule, and if you break it, eyebrows will most certainly be raised. That's because it is only by going slowly that cyclists can negotiate the risks inherent in any system that has no rules.

First and foremost, that means cyclists coming up the street the wrong way, but you also have to contend with pedestrians, who have the right to walk out in front of cyclists at any moment.

Cycling down my local shotengai (commercial district), I feel like one of the thousands of koi carp, gently gliding through still waters. It is an experience quite unlike cycling in London or New York, where cyclists hurtle around like arrows fired from wonky bows, and cycling to work has become a sport for frustrated and over-caffeinated young men.

Indeed, it might be said that ‘Don’t go too fast’ is the only rule of life in Japan. That means 'Don’t rush on crowded train platforms', but also 'Don’t rush through legislation in response to new-fangled concerns like accepting refugees, limiting carbon emissions or ensuring that woman have equal access to schooling and jobs.'

Aside from the unwritten rule that says you mustn't ride too fast, easy riders should also be aware of the ban on parking outside stations. This can be a rude awakening. Suddenly, you find yourself at the limits of the free world, face to face with the surveillance, policing, and enforcement that govern other aspects of daily life in the capital.

It is not clear why parking is banned around stations. According to the flyer from the Tokyo Clean Campaign that I found attached to my handlebars last week, more than 27,000 bicycles are illegally parked in Tokyo every year. Apparently “a considerable amount of tax is spent for the disposition of illegally parked bicycles.” This makes illegal bike parking “a social issue that cannot be ignored.”

At first sight, this might appear to be common sense – with so many commuters, and so many bicycle owners, stations would be overrun with bikes without some kind of policing. But I found it hard to resist the conclusion that they are mainly banned on aesthetic grounds, especially as the flyer warned that illegal bike parking “puts the area around the station in disorder and deteriorates the beauty of the community.”

It also referred to safety - always a good way to get the public’s attention in a country as security conscious as Japan. Apparently, illegal bike parking “obstructs evacuation attempts during a disaster and the passage of emergency vehicles, such as ambulances and police cars.”

Call me over-sensitive, but I also felt a bit offended that the flyer featured a foreigner's mug, in this case that of Nigerian-born tarento Bobby Ologun. Are foreigners really more likely to break the bike parking rules than Japanese?

Well, in my case, the answer is certainly 'yes.' Undeterred by the flyer, a few weeks later I parked my bike in the same spot, only to come back an hour later and find it gone. A kindly passer-by, concerned by the mess I was making by repeatedly hitting my head on the pavement, not to mention the disturbance I was causing by bawling like a baby, told me that it had probably been taken to the local bike pound.

Sure enough, after presenting my ownership documents, a member of staff at the pound confirmed that they had my bike. He was very nice about it too - there was none of the sarcasm or sneering smiles authority figures usually reserve for anarchists. He really was very sorry it should have come to this, he assured me. It was a matter of no little regret for all concerned.

I tried remonstrating. I told him I didn’t know about the 'no parking outside stations' rule. But he just smiled kindly. “That will be 5000 yen please,” he said. I tried to appeal to his tender nature: I told him I'd only parked outside the station because I was taking my mother-in-law to hospital. His smile remained stubbornly fixed. “That will be 5,000 yen please,” he repeated.

I resorted to emotional blackmail, pleading that my mother-in-law was only going to hospital because my wife was about to go into labour, but that didn't work either and neither did my threat to complain to the prime minister (whose son I once taught English to). Nothing could sway that humble public servant from doing his duty. 'God Save the Queen', I muttered, visibly touched, and handed over a hard earned 5,000 yen note.

For more information on where the rules on bicycle parking in Tokyo, see this website.

There is also a YouTube video:

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© grape Japan

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

23 Comments
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It never ceases to amaze me how little regard some 'cyclists' have for their own safety. They just ride straight out from side streets or off the pavement onto a main street without even a glance over their shoulder. Madness.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Evidently someone in the Osaka government is thinking about bicyclists, because they have painted bike lanes in very thick paint on the left side of many of the main streets. But, no one enforces these lanes and they used for illegal parking. Nice thought though.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

There is litter in Japan - stay in the entertainment districts or visit the more industrial, outlying areas. Or just check out the recycling section of most apartment blocks. Areas in front of shops are kept immaculate by model-like staff in smart uniforms, sweeping up every speck, but there is still plenty of clutter around houses and workshops, some litter and even the occasion piece of flytipping. It is far better than the UK though, where fast food packaging, masks, dog ends and pet poop are scattered like mulch.

There is neighbour-noise in Japan. You'd be surprised how many locals watch TV or listen to the radio after midnight in apartment blocks, where the walls seem cardboard thin. Hence the regular news stories of people assaulting their neighbours when they simply can't take it any more.

Cycling on pavements is an absolute menace in Japan. Painting a 'bicycle lane' on a pavement is not a good idea.

Not sure about pot holes in the roads, but Japan has surprisingly poor quality pavements. The persistent rebuilding leaves them with endless changes in height that can easily trip you up and jar your joints. Many roads have virtual pavements - a line drawn on the road. This may assist traffic on narrow roads, but can make for some scarey moments as large trucks go past you.

The 'no parking in front of stations' is there for a reason. Head a little out of the centre of Tokyo and the bike parks by stations swell in size, sometimes catering for hundreds of bikes. This is presumably down to the cycle-to-the-station part of daily commutes. That many bikes cannot be left randomly outside stations.

Where Japan scores points is with the multi-storey parking for bikes and cars to make the most use of small off-street spaces. Tourists, if they are ever allowed back, should search this out.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Worst cycle drivers in the world are those mamacharies who respect absolutely NO ROAD RULES.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I don't think they are the same, but both are cyclists.

So you understand the poster's point, you're just being pedantic. Fair enough.

You asked the cop to explain the rules? Sounds like you were wasting your time.

Yeah. Call me crazy, but I thought that someone who was, ostensibly, enforcing the rules might actually understand them. Or know them, even. Turns out I was wrong.

As a 'cyclist' (I commute 35 minutes each way by road bike and mountain bike on weekends and days off) I obey the cycle laws 99% of the time - there is one point on my morning commute where it simply isn't practical - and am constantly frustrated by those who don't.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

If you think that a road cyclist on a 5 hour training ride for the Tour of Japan is the same as a splay-kneed ojiisan wobbling his way slowly down the sidewalk then that's your lookout.

I don't think they are the same, but both are cyclists.

The last time a police officer stopped me for 'cycling whilst gaijin,' I asked the guy to clarify a few rules for me. He didn't have a clue. I also asked him why he didn't stop the Japanese cyclist who passed us on the wrong side of the road with earphones in. He didn't have an answer for that one, either.

You asked the cop to explain the rules? Sounds like you were wasting your time.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Cardboard boxes on the street ok. I will take my blinders off!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

cyclist /ˈsʌɪklɪst/ noun: cyclist; plural noun: cyclists - a person who rides a bicycle.

You might need to check your vocabulary again.

If you think that a road cyclist on a 5 hour training ride for the Tour of Japan is the same as a splay-kneed ojiisan wobbling his way slowly down the sidewalk then that's your lookout.

The last time a police officer stopped me for 'cycling whilst gaijin,' I asked the guy to clarify a few rules for me. He didn't have a clue. I also asked him why he didn't stop the Japanese cyclist who passed us on the wrong side of the road with earphones in. He didn't have an answer for that one, either.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

There's nothing wrong with what I said.

Sure there is! Is there a time when there isn't?

There's nothing wrong with generalizing. People do it all the time (see what I did there).

And emphasize "always" eh? Okay. Cool story, girl.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Thomas TankToday 10:10 am JST

cyclist /ˈsʌɪklɪst/ noun: cyclist; plural noun: cyclists - a person who rides a bicycle.

You might need to check your vocabulary again.

There's nothing wrong with what I said.

"upwards to 100,000 yen"?? Might want to bump that figure up to 300,000. Could be more.

Okay.

"always, always ride on the wrong side of the road"? Generalizing again? (sigh)

There's nothing wrong with generalizing. People do it all the time (see what I did there).

5 ( +6 / -1 )

this is such a great description of one of Japan's uniqueness! In Osaka it is typical in summer to see a beautiful young mother on her "mamachari", with her two kids, one in front and one behind her, holding an umbrella, happily talking on her cell phone cradled between neck and shoulder, and negotiating heavy traffic through busy avenues.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Interestingly just saw a bike to bike crash the other day when a big guy came barreling down a hill and straight through a stop sign and hit a bike crossing the road and knocked the guy down.

Reckless!

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Interestingly just saw a bike to bike crash the other day when a big guy came barreling down a hill and straight through a stop sign and hit a bike crossing the road and knocked the guy down. Had it been an old lady it could easily have been a serious accident.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

What really bugs me are people who have absolutely no lights during night time.

That and the new, ultra-bright LED lights that leave anyone facing the *cyclist nearly blind.

*a person who rides a bicycle

-2 ( +3 / -5 )

Dear me, another article full of nonsense about cycling in Japan.

Just for the record, wearing helmets is not required here, a 'shotengai' is a shopping street, not a 'business district', and cycling in one of them is usually illegal (the author needs to maybe check that out before he continues to go fleeing down his local one). Parking at stations is prohibited (of course) but there is usually a plethora of bike parking stations located not far from them and many stations in Tokyo provide undercover parking with staff there to guard your bike.

If you want to discuss problems regarding cycling, the law about riding on the footpath, vs the road is very vague, for example sometimes you are required to leave the road then rejoin it later on in response to a little blue sign usually hidden behind a tree. Police also do very little about women riding with 2-3 kids on their bike (also illegal, and a genuine safety hazard for the kids).

There are problems related to cycling in Tokyo, everyone knows this. The author needs to do a bit more research as to exactly what they are.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

The cleanliness and orderliness of the city is down to the rules its people are expected to live by. Don't play your music too loud. Pick up after your pet. Put your rubbish out on the right day (and make sure it is the right kind of rubbish).

Total myths again. Why do they keep perpetuating these. I found that out as soon as I arrived in Japan. And don't get me started on all the bikes abandoned everywhere. It is sometimes really difficult to find a space to put my bike at my workplace because about 80% of the bikes there have been abandoned.

I personally don't care if others don't wear helmets - if they crack their skulls during an accident, that's their problem. Just don't involve me. What really bugs me are people who have absolutely no lights during night time. You can get them at the 100 yen shops, for god's sake.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

They do cycle on the wrong side. Bike owner, a to b, myself.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

“"always, always ride on the wrong side of the road"? Generalizing again? (sigh)”

Much of the time, yes.

3 ( +5 / -2 )

Also, can we not confuse cyclists, who are people who cycle for health, enjoyment, and hobby, who own bikes that cost upwards of 100,000 yen, and who largely obey traffic laws, with "people who ride bikes," who own mama chari that cost 5,000 yen and always, always ride on the damn wrong side of the road.

*cyclist /ˈsʌɪklɪst/ noun: cyclist; plural noun: cyclists - a person who rides a bicycle.*

You might need to check your vocabulary again.

"upwards to 100,000 yen"?? Might want to bump that figure up to 300,000. Could be more.

"always, always ride on the wrong side of the road"? Generalizing again? (sigh)

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

The cleanliness and orderliness of the city is down to the rules its people are expected to live by. Don't play your music too loud. Pick up after your pet. Put your rubbish out on the right day (and make sure it is the right kind of rubbish).

The rules apply to everybody but nobody in particular as enforcement, if any, is quite arbitrary. You can speak anti-foreigner propaganda all day if you are the ultranationalists blaring out of vans non-stop or do like bousozoku blocking traffic and making ear-splitting noise and the cops won't do a damn thing. You have to dodge dog poo in almost every neighborhood I have been in and Shibuya, for one, is absolutely filthy on weekends. This is just your typical clickbait article but for those from other parts of the world who may take this for gospel, Tokyo is much like just about any big metropolis. Yes, crime is much lower and it is fairly clean but don't get the idea that you have a Garden of Eden on your hands.

8 ( +10 / -2 )

"you're not allowed to hold an umbrella whilst riding a bike" Really? Then I suppose the riding-with-umbrella-cigarette-mobile phone-dog-walking acrobats are forbidden as well?

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Not sure if the author has actually been to Japan or not

10 ( +11 / -1 )

They also don't allow parking outside of stations because so many people just abandon their bikes. It costs a lot to store them, and eventually, trash them. In case you did not know, most stations have bike parking nearby that costs as little as 100 yen per day; free on weekends.

Also, can we not confuse cyclists, who are people who cycle for health, enjoyment, and hobby, who own bikes that cost upwards of 100,000 yen, and who largely obey traffic laws, with "people who ride bikes," who own mama chari that cost 5,000 yen and always, always ride on the damn wrong side of the road. I don't know how many times I have almost hit mama as she barrels around the corner without stopping and rides into the middle of the road going the wrong way.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

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