Little Rebellion: Japan’s love of Mamachari

2011-12-02 at 08-20-08
1. A utility bike for getting around, about as disposable as an umbrella.
2. A traffic hazard in the hands of the unskilled or reckless.
3. A vehicle for little rebellion.

My experience with mamachari goes back to 1999 during my first visit to Japan. I was living in Osaka, a city famous for its bad drivers and traffic accidents. On the morning after I arrived I was walking down a sidewalk when suddenly an old lady burst into the road from an alley without warning, slowing or even looking back. Putting her life in her hands she had pulled into the road on her bicycle and swerved into traffic without so much as a glance to see if there were cars or pedestrians, trusting that her luck would last and she would get to the store another day. At first I thought this was unusual coming from a relatively orderly bike-friendly city in Canada but alas, I saw he same type of situation repeated daily. Walking down the sidewalk hearing the constant ding-ding of a bike bell demanding I get out of the way. I could not accept that I should always have to wait for bikes to pass, it just didn’t seem right!

After asking around, it turned out that from what I could find out it wasn’t right. Riding on the sidewalk in disregard of pedestrians is as illegal here as it is in my hometown in Canada. Feeling rebellious, I took to wearing overhead headphones when walking so I could politely ignore the bells that I couldn’t hear but the paranoia that something was coming up behind me wouldn’t go away. Being a relatively fast walker I am entirely unaccustomed to people coming up behind me on a regular basis and rarely have had to watch my back. After being hit by from behind by several bikes riding on the sidewalk and even one scooter head on coming off the road my feeling of injustice solidified.

Living here in Tokyo has not made me feel any better about bikes, and if anything people’s bike manners here are worse. They ride on the sidewalk, dodge from the road to the sidewalk to the road randomly, wobble, ring bells and park wherever they like. Places there are bike lanes specifically to allow both cyclists and pedestrians to co-exist are so crowded with illegally parked bikes that people ride on the pedestrian side, ringing their bells and expecting pedestrians to jump out of the way. For me, being a cyclist who rides on the road and generally follows traffic laws, it can be fairly hard to take. A woman riding a bike with 3 kids on it in traffic while texting on her phone, only the youngest baby wearing an oversized helmet loose on the back of its head. And again the next day. It is a wonder more people don’t die.

But wait, they do! Recently in Japan there has been a push to actually enforce the traffic code in regards to bikes which, as it turns out, does not allow any but small children and the very elderly to ride on the sidewalk. It seems that Japan has a much higher number of bicycle related deaths than other countries that have clearly enforced traffic laws and bikes are commonly ridden. In fact, the number of bike related deaths has been increasing at a good pace. So what has been the result of the push by the police? Now there are a bunch of wobbly people on the road and no one dares use a bell when they ride on the sidewalk. It seems more like a band-aid than a cure. I don’t think there will be a significant reduction in deaths until helmets laws and rider education/punishment are enacted.

As for the little rebellion: People will park bikes anywhere they like, even beside or on “No Bike Parking” signs. You can see several hundred bikes in a row along a fence that says “No Bikes” or in a bicycle riding lane. I am kind of torn between seeing it as petty rebellion or simply bad manners. When I have seen conflicts over it it has always been quit amusing, with people coming up with excuses like “but it would take over 10 minutes to walk to the station”, “I am only going to leave it here for a few minutes” or my personal favorite “but I have parked here for years and never had a problem!” when you can clearly see the no bike parking sign has been there for several years as well.

To put things in a bit of perspective there are some really bad cyclists in my home town in Canada too. My favorite example from Canada is a “conversation” I witnessed between a cyclist on the sidewalk late on a Saturday night and a police officer:

Police officer: “Please get off the bike”
Cyclist (a bit drunk): “But why, I am just trying to get home”
Police officer: “Are you aware that it is illegal to ride on the sidewalk?”
Cyclist (thinking as fast as possible): “But officer, I thought it would be worse to ride on the road without lights, and someone stole my helmet. Besides, I’ve had a few drinks and thought it would be safer to ride home on the sidewalk since drinking and driving on the road is illegal.”
Police officer: “So your excuse for riding on the sidewalk is that you have no lights, no helmet and are drunk so it would be the lesser of evils?”

….and on it went. It was good Saturday night entertainment.

My point is that there are reckless, inconsiderate people on bikes everywhere, but nowhere in a developed country have I seen it as common as here in Japan. The strange thing is that bike laws are generally for the sake of reducing deaths and serious injury. Why fight them, even as a little rebellion?

I would argue that most people here in Japan use their bikes in entirely illegal ways: they will ride a bike illegally on the sidewalk where they illegally park it, rinse and repeat. Obviously people’s love of mamachari overrides their love of lawfulness: rebellion!

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