For curious parties, we’re waiting for a visa interview at this point, and then we’re off to the USA. I just have a few more things to get off my chest before that, this time a continuation of my vast array of complaints about driving here – which manages to kill more than twice as many per mile driven as many countries in Europe. Downer. The high fatality rate is attributable at least partly to the low level of consciousness about seatbelts, while the rate being lower than you’d expect given what I’m about to say is in my mind due to the fact that people are used to the obstacle course that constitutes a 10-minute drive to the supermarket here. The idea that you can shut your brain off and drive in a straight line until the next stoplight is quite foreign, or at least it was until people started getting TVs in their dashboards.
I should add the caveat that a lot of what I say is particular to suburban or rural Japan, and that the prefecture in which I experienced most of these has the 4th highest accident rate of all prefectures in Japan (my wife would be dismayed to learn that we are higher on the list than Yamanashi Prefecture, although this seems mostly due to Hamamatsu’s influence). Read on for more road hazards.
Since I succeeded in clickbaiting you here by seeming as if I were going to say something to the effect of “women drivers be crazy yo”, I will first just say that that is not true. It is, however, very easy to come away with that idea if you drive a lot during normal working hours, when 60% of the people you see driving seem to be housewives in kei cars (the remaining 40% being mostly retirees, semi trucks or delivery vans) – and therefore any near-accidents you have are more than likely going to be with a woman driving a kei car. This proliferation of female drivers in tiny cars is one symptom of the power relationship that exists between men and women here, which generally assumes that whatever men are doing, it is solemnly and supremely important, while what women are doing is either a cute and fun diversion or aimed at increasing the family’s status through their kids, which results in women spending a lot of time driving around town between 9 and 5.
Kei cars, if you don’t live in Japan, are a special class of auto with an engine of 660 ccs or less (for comparison, the latest Toyota Camry has a 3500 cc engine). They are generally less than $10,000 and have a host of economic advantages in addition to just being easier to fit in most parking spots. What I think is very interesting about housewives driving these is that in many cases, the nuclear family has two cars, a kei car and a full-size one like a Prius (not a kei car) or a RAV4, and the person who only drives to one place in the morning and back again in the evening gets the full-size one. My theory is that because only men bring status to the family, a car with more than basic functionality is seen as wasted on a housewife. Therefore, housewives have to make do with the cheapest possible vehicle that doesn’t require pushing, although they would seem to need the larger car more as they often have their kids with them.
When you see kids in a car, chances are they will not be in child seats or even just in seats. It has been said that every culture has the same number of taboos, but nonetheless consider different things taboo, leaving newcomers with a constant impression of amorality they see their own taboos being broken and rarely notice the local ones being observed. In Japan, not putting your child in any kind of restraint in the car is not the taboo that it is in the US, but rather is seen in the same way as letting them get up from their seat in a restaurant, part of the common palette of ways that parents indulge their children’s need to be active. This isn’t exactly a traffic hazard for other drivers (except when parents are distracted by their children’s meandering around the interior of the car, which happens) but it is one of the behaviors newcomers to Japan are reliably enraged by. And the base rates (the prevalence of female drivers at certain times of the day overall) would lead one to believe that this is a problem of maternal irresponsibility, but when daddy drives on the weekend the kids are just as likely to be untethered.
The reason that wives cede the wheel on the weekends comes from a type of affected inability, an infuriating acceptance of inferiority in important matters as part of one’s identity. It shows up worldwide, but one of its manifestations in Japan is women claiming not to be able to handle hard decisionmaking and proactively seeking positions in support of male leaders, in the workplace and in the family vehicle. If you schedule a day trip with other couples that takes you outside the city limits, it’s very likely you’ll find the men doing all the driving, because their wives/girlfriends find freeways and new areas “scary”. A more frivolous example is the common confessed fragility in the face of strongly carbonated or flavored drinks, which leads some manufacturers to label certain beverages “for men”. For gender equality, this is equivalent of the funny facial tic that evinces a severe stroke.
The deadliest drivers, as they probably are everywhere, are the elderly and young men.
We were once rear-ended at a stoplight by a super-senior citizen couple, with the man behind the wheel. What was memorable about this encounter besides the jolt of the impact was that it was the wife who then got out from the passenger side (the so-called 助手席 joshuseki “assistant’s seat”, often misheard as 女子席 joshiseki, “women’s seat”) to assess the damage while her husband sat stone-faced in the driver’s seat of the still-running car. I suspect, although I have no proof, that he was past the age of being able to apprehend the situation or explain himself coherently, but none of that mitigated his right as the penis-bearing half of that social unit to be in charge of operating heavy machinery at high speed in public.
Speaking of the elderly, many of the older generation appear to remember when roads were mostly for pedestrians and handcarts and tend to treat them that way even now. When navigating a residential neighborhood, you will regularly need to brake suddenly for 1) drivers pulling out without checking, and 2) old people walking across the street just to stretch their legs.
As for the worst drivers of them all, young men, I will just say that if you’re sympathetic to the idea that men be removed from society and perhaps plugged Matrix-like into a persistent Call of Duty game between the ages of 15 and 35, you’ll find plenty more reasons observing young male drivers in Japan. I’ve had numerous rage-inducing experiences with the male heirs of Yamato here, mostly involving refusing to give way on a street the width of your college dorm room’s sofa and other pissing contest-like infractions. But the prize for most hilarious result of a puberty-induced imbalance in confidence and ability still goes to the teenage Dodge Ram-driving Limp Bizkit fan who, unable to hear the honking over Wes Borland’s sick riffs, backed into the Honda Civic behind him in the parking lot of a Starbucks near my home back in the early 2000s. For this and many other reasons, Japan is lucky that Limp Bizkit never caught on here.
People’s respect for the rules of the road is necessarily lax in an environment where people routinely park blocking 1 lane of a 2-lane street and everyone has to cut into oncoming traffic to proceed. The expectation that you will always be able to pass vehicles stopped in your lane by simply going around them creates some tense moments, as drivers often seem forced to remember by impending collisions that the other lane is still nominally for cars coming the other way. Sometimes it feels like everyone drives on normal streets the same way Americans drive in parking lots – as if traffic rules only apply when they’re absolutely necessary (Japanese parking lots on the other hand are like American bumper car rinks; I’m pretty sure I have never seen anyone stop at a stop sign in a parking lot here). In particular, the principle for staying within lanes seems to be the same as that of polling extremely small samples: the margin of error is about +-50%.
Like I said in my last post on this topic, people can be quite liberal in their interpretations of those lines on the road, which seem to be there as a kind of tastefully understated decoration. The mountain roads on which I often drive feature more than a few blind curves, and at least once a week I enter one and come face to face with a driver who seems to regard the lane marker like the track from Autopia at Disneyland. In other cases I’ve been behind a slow-moving truck approaching a blind curve when the truck signals for me to pass by speeding up and crossing into the opposite lane when I can’t see more than 50 meters ahead. The assumption seems to be that unless hard physical evidence that other cars exist is right in front of you, you should proceed as if driving on a one-way, one-lane street.
A rule of thumb that many drivers obey is that you should never turn the steering wheel more than you can do so comfortably without changing your single-hand grip at the 5 o’clock position. This contributes to the problem of “smoothing curves” on less crowded roads as in the last paragraph, and also to a large number of close calls you’ll have while waiting at an intersection.
The ones who have no choice but to make tight turns as carefully as possible, truck drivers, are actually the safest ones to see enter an intersection in front of you. A young man driving a souped up (i.e., new muffler and anime character painted on the doors) minivan (for some reason, the cars of choice for ne’er-do-wells) will often take a turn in such a way that he comes within centimeters of hitting every other car, pedestrian, and tree at the intersection. In this way he illustrates his dominance over the pack and how crucial the mission he is on is (buying the just-released issue of JUMP).
OK, I think that’s all I have to say on the topic. Back to SLA soon, I promise.