More on Japanese Pedestrians

Since writing the two posts about the Japanese pedestrians reading too much on the road, and being annoyed by them, I have heard from many people telling me that they have the same problems in their various cities.  I’ve heard from people in New York, Connecticut, Hong Kong, London, and lots of other places.  All were kind; all were empathizing with my issues.  However, I was getting upset because I know there’s something different, worse, here in Tokyo and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I’ve been in cities all over Asia and in the U.S.  I don’t claim to know a lot about Europe since I’ve only been in London and Paris, but things just feel different here than in other places.  Then, a guy I follow on Twitter commented randomly that foot-traffic in Tokyo would go a lot smoother if people would look somewhere other than at their shoes.

By George, that’s it!!

I quickly wrote back, empathizing.  He wrote to me again, commenting that he’s never seen people so dangerously unaware of their surroundings.  “In the U.S., they’d be mugged, or worse.”

Yes yes yes!!

I am loathe to say that it’s cultural, since I’m not 100% sure and I need to do some research, but it’s absolutely true that when walking, Japanese people look down at their shoes – or at the street.  They do not look up and see what’s around them.  They do not look both ways when crossing a street, and therefore do not teach this rule to their children.  They always assume that others will look out for them.  They don’t see other people or bicycles coming toward them because they don’t look up.  In any other city, these people would be asking for trouble by not keeping their eyes trained around them.

I am constantly reminding my children to “walk forward, look forward” because  I want them to be aware of what’s happening around them.  But apparently this is not part of the Japanese ethos because the kids are unrestrainedly all over the place on the sidewalks and the streets.  You never can tell when they’re going to pop up in front of you or on the side of you, and their movements are wholly unpredictable.

In most places, you can sort of predict what people will do when you walk behind them, but in Japan, it’s impossible to tell if someone is about to take a sharp left turn in front of you; movements are sudden and without warning.  And they’re slow.  My New Yorker friends are so frustrated when they walk in Tokyo – they always wish for a passing lane of pedestrians because the Japanese walk slowly.  This I am sure is cultural – in the Japanese world, you plan your time so you don’t rush and you’re never, ever late.

I do know that most Japanese people avoid eye contact.  If I’m walking or riding my bike and have indicated that I’d like to pass a person, or even if I’m walking or riding toward people, they never never look me in the eye – they barely look at me at all, and never directly at my face.  Sometimes they will turn their head in defiance.  I’m sure it’s not personal, and I am pretty sure it’s not because I’m a foreigner, either.  It’s just not part of the culture to look directly at people.

All of these issues make walking and riding in Tokyo different and seemingly more difficult than walking or riding in other cities.  Combine these issues with the extreme crowds, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  I love Japan – I love Tokyo, but the walking and riding issues are definitely not my favorite part.

Crash! Japanese Pedestrians

Yesterday I saw two Japanese people crash right into each other on a busy sidewalk in Meguro.  They were walking towards each other and looking at their phones.  I was following one of them on my bike and I could have predicted the disaster.  Both of them were not walking in a straight line or paying attention to anything around them.  Frankly, they are lucky that they bumped into each other and not a pole or something, which would have done some serious damage.

Not to be mean or anything, but I was almost glad to see it happen.  I had been going along thinking that the problem was me – people didn’t get out of the way for just me, or didn’t pay attention to me personally – either because I’m a woman or because I’m a foreigner.  It turns out that I am completely wrong.  Japanese are not considerate pedestrians with anyone.

The amount of cell phone reading on the Tokyo streets has reached epic proportions.  But there’s more to it than that.  People read and walk – books, newspapers, magazines, you name it, they read and walk.  Because of that, the pace is unpredictable, as is the path, so often people are all over the sidewalk.  It is hard to walk or bike behind people who are reading.

People also walk, or even bike, two or three abreast, both on the road and on the sidewalk so that no one can pass from the opposite direction, either by bike, on foot, or even in a car.  I can’t tell you how many times I have approached groups who do not move and I have to step off the sidewalk to accommodate them.  But all of a sudden, I realized that groups make other Japanese people do this, not just me  Once in a group it seems that the group does not step into single file to accommodate traffic – foot or otherwise – approaching from the opposite direction.

There are big signs, particularly in Meguro, about which side of the sidewalk is for bikes and which side is for pedestrians, but no one pays attention to the signs.  I do my best to stay in the designated areas and to stay to the left, and I cycle – or walk – generally very slowly so as not to cause or be involved in an accident, but I sometimes feel like I’m the only one.

Truly, I thought the problem was me, but it is not.  The two Japanese people I witnessed in the minor accident yesterday were both fine.  They were both knocked of balance for a moment, and out of their respective reveries, but were otherwise unharmed.  They bowed to each other and went on their way – both of them back to their reading.  I guess it’s just the Japanese way, something else at which to shake my head in this quirky country I call home.

To be selfishly honest, though, I’m glad it’s not just me.

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.