Happiness is an Empty Pavement

May 21st, 2013By Category: Culture, Outdoor/Sports


Bikes, bicycles, ‘pedal-powered chariots of emancipation’ or however you choose to describe them are, for folks living in Japan, a stable fixture on roads, paths and pretty much anywhere you can imagine.

On a trip to Osaka, I once saw a man cycling through Namba station, somehow navigating his way through a sea of people, coming out unscathed, unrepentant and genuinely unaware that he had done anything wrong.

Bike laws in Japan are there, however their enforcement is pretty lax in comparison with other countries; a recent stint in Australia exposed me to how nefarious bike laws can be. If you don’t wear a helmet and are caught by the police you’ll face a fine of $60, go through a red light and again you face the reality of receiving an infringement notice, play around with the law too much and you risk criminal proceedings.

The forum is abound with arguments from both sides, advocates who are in favour tightening helmet rules and antagonists, who argue ‘if you’re hit by a car, whether you wear a helmet or not, it’s a zero-sum game’ i.e. a moulded plastic head-guard isn’t going to do much landing smack bang on asphalt. Personally I champion the use of a helmet, because some protection is better than none at all, even if it is just a placebo, I feel more comfortable wearing a helmet.

In Japan, if you’re streetwise and play it cool, you can avoid any trouble, even though you blatantly break the laws that are there (and they are actually pretty hefty).  The biggest offenders are:

  • Those who belligerently cycle on the path, officially the rules go; children under 12 are able to do this, however unless children of Japan look older than their years, I mean A LOT older, then this rule is what hardwood flooring is to an Irish Jig.
  • Next is the use of an umbrella or a mobile phone whilst riding a bike, this little infringement is supposed to cost you up to a 50,000yen fine, but again it’s more uncommon to see a cyclist NOT holding an umbrella aloft when it’s raining.

There are plenty of other cycling faux pas that are outside of the auspices of the law which are a daily occurrence in Japan; cycling down the wrong side of the road, going through red lights, unrelenting cyclists who ring their bells at hapless and unsuspecting pedestrians like it was going out of fashion and the ‘chicken showdown’ between cyclist and pedestrian on the pavement, who will move first?

Relationships between the Police and cyclists extend to merely checking whether the bike belongs to the rider, rather than penalizing for any infringement of the law. Until rules, which have been set out in law, are enforced cyclists will happily cycle on their merry way, regardless of who stands in their path.

My time in Japan hasn’t been fruitful in building my relationship up with this hallowed chariot, I am forever checking my left and right before making any sort of adjustment in walking on the pavement, I peer suspiciously around corners in preparation for a ruthless cyclist who pugnaciously takes the corner without care nor thought of who might be approaching on the other side. Even when I visit my native UK, these traits are so ingrained in me now that I must look like I am in sheer terror to other pedestrians whenever I take a jaunt out of the house.

Any thoughts or similar experiences?

Author of this article

Greg Whillis

I work as an ‘instructor’ of English and have done for 5 years, besides this little quip, I enjoy music (playing and listening) and commenting on the world from the hazy perspective that is my eyes behind my dirty glasses. I’m not skeptical, I just don’t trust anything.

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  • Y8 Games says:

    Your initial sentence presently got American state curious about this subject.

  • leslie nguyen says:

    I also heard it is required to register a bicycle with a plate/tag in Japan, which I am not used to. Thanks for the read ~

  • Elizabeth says:


    Walking around the Hokkaido University campus in summer is equivalent to the thrill one typically associates with a skydive. One where you can’t remember if you packed a parachute. It’s a sea of bikes on the pavements all of whom seem to confuse pedestrians with cockroaches.

    It is also amazing how far into the winter the cycling continues. We get more snow than I’ve ever seen in my life in Sapporo, yet people persist in cycling even when there’s almost zero traction.


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