Due to a rising number of accidents and collisions involving bicycles on Japanese public sidewalks - including fatal collisions with so-called piste bikes, that have no brakes - Tokyo police began a crackdown on sidewalk bicyclists in October. Before passing new laws to regulate traffic, different options began to be juggled: strictly enforcing the Road Traffic Law, which already bans bicycles from Japanese sidewalks, except for a few exceptions; levying fines merely urging greater caution and manners from pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike; educating and licensing cyclists in much the same way as is done with motorists; outright banning of all bicycles from the sidewalks.
However, the reality is that cyclists here, including the police, habitually ride on the sidewalks. In fact, most people might be surprised to learn that it has actually been illegal in most cases for quite a long time.
I think bicycles do not have to be totally banned from public sidewalks. The problem of the increasing number of accidents involving cyclists is more than a problem of ignorance or flaunting of the law by cyclists. Stricter enforcement of the existing Road Traffic Law, amending the law, or enacting new, stricter laws will not solve the problem of pedestrian fear or reduce the frequency of dangerous cycling because the real problem is that people here too often don’t pay attention to what they are doing. It is a chronic condition in Japanese and other Asian cultures where people ignore their surroundings and blithely behave dangerously in public confident that others will watch out for them and indulge their folly.
Walking down a sidewalk in Tokyocan be a spine-chilling, culture shocking experience for foreigners because it is like running a deliberately hazardous obstacle course. Japanese cities are like big pachinko machines, where humans ricochet off each other in contented chaos. The Japanese cultural principle of “amae” roughly translates into exactly the kind of indulgence I mean. So people are trained by conditioning notto pay attention to themselves and their surroundings. On many other social fronts, as well, they are trained to expect indulgence that sometimes borders on lifelong infantile coddling. So laws, which are taken more as recommendations than prohibitions, will not significantly improve the situation.
If everyone indulges their fellows and looks out for each other then such a system appears to work. But not really. It only appears that way, hence accidents. But appearances are too often taken at face value here. In more individualistic cultures people largely (but not entirely) assume responsibility for looking out for themselves. But that level of individual responsibility here would require a cultural revolution.