Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Japanese traffic

Previous experiences with Japan had girded me against nearly all the vagaries of culture shock, but there was one part of the country that just didn't wash: The driving was just plain messed up. I haven't had the pleasure yet, but I've gleaned a fair amount just by observing my surroundings, such as the razor-thin alleys and switchbacks that pass for residential streets in the country. Reed Richards would be hard-pressed to squeeze through the average Japanese neighbourhood. Roads near my university were so poorly maintained that cars rolled up and down like a ship on stormy seas, creating the impression that everyone was constantly flashing their lights at you, a prospect that seems not entirely unrealistic to a foreigner in Japan.

Vehicles are not allowed to turn left on a red in Japan, which to me seemed totally bizarre until I realised the reason for it. Fact is, stop lines are generally set back several hundred kilometres from their associated intersection, requiring all Japanese motorists to carry a telescope in the glove compartment in order to discern when the light changes. This would make any attempts to creep up to and slip around the corner potentially disastrous. The eccentric positioning of these stop lines is, in turn, a necessity borne out of the narrow streets, as any lateral traffic that turns towards you needs to be able to swing into your lane without punching you in the face, otherwise buses, fire engines, and monster trucks would find most every route impassable.

But that's just the conditions; the real issue is the participants. Driving in Japan is less a means of transportation and more a contest to see who can break the largest number of traffic laws at a time. When I first arrived and began observing the traffic, the entire ecosystem seemed chaotic and dangerous. Japanese drivers constantly made risky manoeuvres that would have caused Canadian passengers to scream in fear and anger. They pulled out to block an entire lane so that they could turn in. If somebody ahead of them was waiting to make a right turn, they freely swerved around them, continuing on like it was no thing.

While often in Canada the centre line may as well be a physically impassable barrier, here it does little more than demarcate the midpoint between either side of the road. You park wherever you can, be it in a marked parking space, a random nook or cranny, the middle of a busy thoroughfare, a stranger's living room, on roofs, in alleys, every way but upside down, really. People whip around at a startling pace, dodging grannies and inconveniently placed hydro poles, giving the reflexes and brake-pads of every other driver a good solid workout, and it's all just considered normal.

Pedestrians aren't much better, possessing a relationship with self-preservation that is antagonist at best. They are fond of wandering around on the road when there's a perfectly good sidewalk across the street, swaying back and forth, stumbling around blind corners, and generally presenting as large a profile as possible when ambulating in groups, for the benefit of any casual human-hunters should they happen to make a go of it on their way to the store. I ended up becoming eminently comfortable with cars hurtling past my body at breakneck speeds, casually forgiving scandalous incursions into my personal space bubble that would earn them a stream of expletives and public humiliation in Canada.

At about the seven-month mark, however, it finally dawned on me that while the Japanese style was certainly much less cautious, it wasn't necessarily worse. I never actually encountered an accident, after all, despite weekly witnessing situations that in Canada would have caused ruination or, at best, an interminable delay as the confused drivers tried to work out how to extricate their vehicles from the tangle they'd tied. Japanese drivers, meanwhile, balletically weave between each other at high speed, never in doubt, never in danger. It was frankly beautiful to see in action. It was as if tight Japanese traffic conditions had forced the drivers to hone a better sense of timing and spatial understanding, a deeper intuition regarding the intentions of the vehicles around them, or, if not that, then at least they as Japanese drivers had a better sense than I had of how another Japanese driver was liable to react at any given moment.

In other words, all these differences that had initially seemed incredible turned out to have their own logic, which became perfectly clear once I'd discovered it – much like many things I came to grips with in Japan. It was an interesting revelation. Culture really is pervasive. When we imagine foreign countries, we think of the food, the music, the language, but the driving culture doesn't generally occur to us until we're forced to confront it. And, as in all those other cases, unfamiliar doesn't automatically mean worse.

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