Monday, October 17, 2011

Bicycle Safety in Japan or Not

Children attending bicycle safety class in Japan

A Bike Accident

Recently, my husband, riding his bike in the neighborhood, was hit by a moped driver going too fast in a narrow alley with a blind spot. The impact sent my husband flying over the bike's handle bars which resulted in many abrasions, a broken bone in his hand, and a great deal of blood. The old man who struck him asked, "Daijoubu?" and then rode off. This is equivalent of saying, "Are you ok?" and then leaving the scene.


Sharing the Road

Sharing the road is part of life in Japan. Bicycles, pedestrians, school children, mopeds, motorcycles, delivery trucks, cars, and buses often share a mere two lanes and sometimes a sidewalk. It is nerve wracking to have a taxi cab blast by with a rush of wind as you walk down the road, have a bus pass within inches of your corporeal body as you pedal your bike, praying you don't wobble, even an elementary school baseball player with his bat tucked into his backpack riding his bike down the sidewalk can catch you unaware. A neighborhood Prius, with its stealthy engine, has snuck up on me once too often. In our neighborhood, an older part of town, one lane and no sidewalk is the norm- goat paths of a sort that are now paved. Road sharing is exacerbated in Japan if you consider population density- the Moose calls it an ant farm, cell phone texting with heads bent down (whether walking or riding a bike), carrying an umbrella and texting on a cell phone- Japan is beautifully green thanks to lots of rain so umbrellas are a frequent accessory, decreased sensory awareness with headphones plugged into MP3 players, or balancing two kids and a basketful of groceries on a bike while navigating cars, tight places- it is easier to balance with forward motion, and then there are the wandering absent minded children and teenagers.


A Bicycle Safety Class

It rained Saturday night. In the morning though the sky remained overcast, it was dry enough to ride our bicycles to shogakko for a bicycle safety class. Upon arrival we were directed to park our bicycles and go to the gym. The obstacle course portion was cancelled due to the wet ground. We watched two films interspersed with lectures and questions by the volunteers. The biggest laugh from the school children resulted from a scene of a child riding an adult's bike which was so big that the child wobbled about, finally crashing into unsuspecting pedestrians. I was amused by the head bobbing parents snoozing in the darkened corners of the gym.

Tired parents head bobbing in the distance
My husband was thunderstruck by the information presented at the bicycle safety course to the children because he said, "No one does it!" His amazement is due to the sharp contrast of rule abiding Japanese society flagrantly ignoring safety rules that are clearly needed. The Daily Yomiuri, newspaper often shows statistics for bicycle accidents- including this graph in an article titled, "More Bike Accidents in Tokyo since Quake." I asked Kendo Mama why so few people pay attention to the rules of the road on a bicycle. Her response, "People think of the bike not as a car. They think of it like walking on the sidewalk." This rationale does reflect what I see and experience- bikes on the sidewalk, no helmets, and few hand signals. It is a bias at work in my own mind- I see a bicycle as a vehicle, not something pedestrian. No wonder our confusion. Westerners are clearly identifiable in their use of bike helmets alongside a smattering of children.
Daily Yomiuri Online

2 Obasans Walking

Yesterday, I came upon a confluence of two obaasans, in this case both kyphotic older women who can barely look up- one with a cane and one with a push cart walker- moving slowly through a narrow spot. I showed up on a bicycle unsure if I should attempt to pass them as they had just come in opposite directions and were nearly shoulder to shoulder with a small gap between them, just enough for a bike to pass, but it bothered my sense of space, seeming too rude to blow by them, so I stopped to wait. Suddenly, two cars from opposing directions closed in on the three of us- in the end, the cars acquiesced and backed out of the way to allow the obaasans to pass. The women had each stopped in deference to the cars not quite aware that there was not enough space for anyone to pass with one of them on each side. In this moment, the Japanese drivers exhibited greater patience than is often exercised by my American compatriots particularly in the Washington, D.C. area, they waited patiently as the obaasans creeped along- it took several minutes. One of the women seemed to be holding onto the wall she was pressed up against as if she was hurrying too much. After the women passed each other,  I called out, "Daijoubu desuka?" It earned me a small grin from one of the obaasans as she lifted up her head just enough to see who was speaking. Her grin told me enough, I rode around.