Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Bicycles aren’t allowed to be ridden on sidewalks –but bicycles are ridden almost exclusively on sidewalks, often after police suggestion. Bicycle riders should wear a helmet –but they rarely do. They are also prohibited from holding an umbrella or using their mobile phone when riding –but this is a country where it rains all the time and where there are more mobile phones than people so everyone does both, often at the same time. Bicycles are supposed to be registered with the city authorities upon purchase (from a store or a previous owner) –but many don’t bother. Parking bicycles must be done in designated spots –but judging from what happens, these spots are everywhere and anywhere. Carrying another person on a bicycle is also forbidden –but school students probably don’t know it. When going through a pedestrian crossing you’re supposed to get off and walk your bike –but no one does. Etc., etc., etc.
For some reason cycling seems to be the activity in which the Japanese exhaust their transgression impulses; and they do it so massively and with such nonchalance that it’s worth wondering what would happen if at some point the police decided to start enforcing the law. The truth is that they do, every spring, a little before the beginning of the new school year, probably hoping that they will stop the next generation of delinquents from joining the previous ones, but the whole matter gets dropped after a few weeks. And from that moment on, everyone keeps on riding on the sidewalks, without a helmet, holding an umbrella or texting on their mobile phone or listening to music wearing earplugs or having drunk a few beers or breaking any other relevant law. And often cause accidents which often can be serious: in a country filled with elderly people, it’s easy to see how bad things can turn, especially if the elderly isn’t just the pedestrian but the bicycle rider as well.
The explanation is rather simple: already popular during the Meiji times, bicycles became extremely popular after the war, when very few could afford a car and the train infrastructure was in ruins and, especially considering the provincialism for their neighborhood prevalent in the Japanese, they remain probably the most convenient means of transportation; newcomers to even the most high-class areas of Tokyo will be surprised by their numbers as well as by the fact that they are ridden by, literally, anyone regardless of age, time, attire, weather or any other condition. When something is that widespread, the only thing the government, even the Japanese government (or perhaps, especially the Japanese government) can do is shrug its shoulders, mutter the national motto of acceptance/abandon, “shoganai” (しょうがない), i.e. “it can’t be helped” and let things roll, so to speak. At any rate, accidents involving bicycles remain rather few; if they weren’t the fleets of “mama-chari” (ママチャリ) or “mom-bikes” with their shopping baskets and their single, double or triple baby seats wouldn’t be so casual in their strolls around Tokyo.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.