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.