Pedestrians – oh my.

Before you start reading here, please be aware that this post is a bit of a rant.  I know it, and I have to do it.  The pedestrians in Tokyo are really getting under my skin.

When my kids, particularly my son, were small, I spent a lot of time teaching them to stay aware of their surroundings.  “BE AWARE OF YOUR BODY IN SPACE!” I would intone when a child swung his arms wide near a crowd.  My other favorite mantra was – and still is – “WALK FORWARD LOOK FORWARD.”  My kids know to pay attention on the street – not just to cars, but to the other people around them and their general surroundings.  It seems to me as if the Japanese people fail to teach this lesson to their kids, and it has been going on for so long that not only are the kids totally oblivious but so are all the adults.

It is very common for a Japanese person to walk down the street reading a book.  It has also become common in recent years to text and walk.  How this doesn’t lead to more accidents, I will never know.  I have seen some pretty near-misses with people and poles.  But the biggest problem comes when they try to cross the street – they just continue walking regardless of the traffic signals.  Many times I have seen a Japanese person step off the curb into oncoming traffic even when their light has flashed “don’t walk” for a few seconds already.  Last week that happened to me and I very narrowly missed hitting the person.

The worst part of a near-miss with a Japanese person is that he or she will refuse to look at you.  I honked my horn – insistently – and the woman did not turn her head a millimeter toward me; she just continued walking.

Now that I am a cyclist, the problem seems wildly magnified.  Before, when people walked four-abreast on the sidewalk and I was behind them, I would wait for room to step off the curb, pass them, and then step up again in front of them.  Or if I was in front of them, I would often stop, step sideways and allow them to pass before I continued on my way.  But it is just horrible with the bike.  I ride along major roads where bikes are allowed on the sidewalks, so I prefer to use the sidewalks.  However, I am becoming just as afraid of people as I am of cars.  Japanese people, if they are walking four abreast on the sidewalk do not move for a bike.  I have ridden up toward a group that would not budge and they forced me to stop and move to the edge of the sidewalk.  I have gotten braver and moved closer and closer and in the very end, with millimeters to spare, the group either moves to a side or breaks in the middle, but it is not until I am practically in their laps already.  All bikes in Tokyo have bells, mine included.  So when I ride up behind someone, I ring it nicely.  Sometimes I call out “sumimassen” – excuse me – in my politest voice.  But often, the person refuses to move.  It is common to walk with earphones in, and I don’t object to it on principle. I take my run with a podcast playing. However, the music or whatever has to be low enough to hear one’s surroundings in order to be safe.

Again with the eye-contact thing – there is none.  Even if I say thank you, no one looks me in the eye.  But especially if I have nearly run someone over or someone has nearly bonked into me, they avert their eyes completely and stubbornly.  I am aware this is a cultural norm that is different from mine.  But I like acknowledgement – either positive or negative.

The worst, the very worst, are groups of school children.  There are two or three schools on my route to work, and I try to get going early enough so the kids are not around yet.   They walk and chatter and pay zero attention to anything around them.  Sometimes they even walk backwards; totally unaware of the dangers of not paying attention to what’s ahead. For that reason, the city has multiple crossing guards at many various intersections.  They are hired by the city to help the kids walk.  They hold big, yellow flags and stand blocking the way into the intersection when the light says “don’t walk.”  It’s impossible to avoid them.  They hold their flags sideways when the light changes and all say “hai, dozo” inviting the children to cross finally.  Obviously this is a big enough problem that the city has taken action.  Those kids in groups are horrific.

One day a few weeks ago, a child in a group in front of me stopped short smack in the middle of the sidewalk and refused to budge.  His friends were surrounding him trying to get him to keep walking but the child wouldn’t move.  And I couldn’t get around them.  I had to stop short also – clearly I was following too close, but they weren’t hearing my bell of warning that I would like to pass.  I ended up yelling at the kid.  He never looked back at me – he probably didn’t understand my English – and I walked the bike around the group.  There is a guard at the following intersection, who often greets me in English, and I said, “those kids are going to get themselves killed.”  They were not only blocking the entire sidewalk, but they were adjacent to a major road where cars and busses come flying down. He went to investigate.  Parents and schools are not teaching the kids to mind the others on the road in this congested city.

I am aware that I am generalizing, but these problems seem magnified in the Japanese. The foreigners all seem to watch out around them.  This is just my own anecdotal evidence, but that is what I see as I walk and ride and drive.

I am sure that many of you reading this will tell me to either ride on the road, or stop riding all together.  The former is not an option – the cars still scare me far more than the pedestrians, who have a lower likelihood of killing me.  And I really do not want to give up the bike.  In addition, you could also ask me to stop driving, since the pedestrians really annoy me then too, but I have become a very very careful and slow driver – annoyingly so to my American friends and family – and often don’t bother with the horn anymore since everyone is oblivious anyway.  So I am open to other suggestions if you have them.

In the meantime, I’ll be the one on the road with the stressed out face who is trying with all her might not to yell out obscenities.

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