small, folding bike
Bicycles are widely used as an alternative to cars. Commuters use them to ride to the train station. Trains stations are generally no further than 1½ miles part and the time spent on a bicycle is generally less than 15 minutes, with the bicycle being faster and more convenient than buses or walking. Most train stations have large bicycle parking lots. There are lots of bicycles in Japan: 86 million of them, or about two for every three Japanese, were counted in 2004. About 11 million bicycles are sold Japan every year.

Young women in high heels, men in black suits and teenagers on cell phones all ride bikes. Mothers use bicycles to go shopping, take their kids to day care and run errands. They often ride their bicycles around with their young children in special seats in the back and at the front of their bicycles, sometimes with primary-school-age kids tagging along on their own bikes. Hardly anyone wears a bicycle helmet but many people ride in the rain with special clamps on their bikes for their umbrellas. If they don’t have the clamps they ride holding an umbrella in one hand.

There are relatively few bicycle paths or lanes in Japan and where there are lanes cars are often parked in them. Efforts to build more bike paths and lanes have not made much difference. The number of lanes built since 2008--when the NPA increased efforts to make such infrastructure more available--accounted for just 0.13 percent of all the nation's roads as of March 2010. In all of Tokyo there are only about 11 kilometers of roads with bike lanes. Many shop owners do not want bicycle lanes to be built in front of their shops because that means vehicles cannot park there. Tokyo’s first exclusive bike path opened in April 2008. Separated from the main road by guard rails, it is only 400 meters long.

Many people don’t lock their bicycles even when they leave their bikes outside busy railroad stations all day or overnight.

Good Websites: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Alien Times on Bike Riding in Japan ; Japan Visitor Blog ; Bicycles in Osaka ; Photos of Bikes in Japan ; Japan Bicycle History Research ; Japan Cycling Navigator Japan Cycling Navigator ; Tokyo Cycling Club Tokyo Cycling Club ; Shimanami Bike Route Kansai Cyclist ; Japan Cycling Navigator Japan Guide first hand report Francois’s Japan blog ; Japan Guide japan-guide Bike Tours Japan Bike Tours Japan ; Book: Cycling Japan by Bryan Harrell. Also Try: The Japan Bicycle Promotion Institute (☎ 03-3583-5444), Nihon Jitensha Kaikan Building, 1-9-3 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo


Good Websites and Sources on Transportation: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive and ; Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Transport Chapter ; 2010 Edition ; News

Increased Bicycle Use in Japan

More and more Japanese are taking up bicycling to work for health reasons and to avoid traffic jams and crowded trains. Some work places and organizations are setting up places where these people can shower and park. The Nagoya municipal government provide people who bicycle to work with transportation expenses.

After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami increasing numbers of people in Tokyo began riding bicycles, apparently to avoid getting trapped in Tokyo and unable to get home as many people were after the 2011 earthquake. According to the MPD, a growing number of people are riding bicycles to work and school instead of taking the train or bus. The March 11 quake paralyzed transportation systems in the Tokyo metropolitan area, leaving many people unable to return home that day. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 17, 2011]

“There have also been an increase in bicycle accidents. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “According to an MPD survey, there were 2,129 accidents involving bicycle commuters from March through August, up 96 from the same period last year. January and February saw fewer accidents compared to the first two months of last year. However, the number of accidents jumped in March, and there were 400 cases in April, up 56 from a year earlier. In most of the following months, there were more accidents than in the same period in the previous year, according to the survey.

“About 32 percent of the accidents occurred from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., while the period between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. accounted for about 20 percent. Many accidents occurred when bicycles collided with cars and motorcycles at intersections after rushing through them without stopping or ignoring red lights.

Bicycle-Sharing Schemes Become More Common

In 2009, Tokyo launched a public bike program similar to ones found in many European cities in which bicycles are left in designated areas and people can pick them up and use them and drop them off in different designated areas. People who use the system in Tokyo have to pay a ¥1,000 registration fee and pay ¥100 for every 10 minutes of use.

Kohei Aratani wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “A new bicycle-sharing service, in which users can borrow a bike and then return it to one of any designated bike "ports," is catching the public eye. The service is extremely convenient, as users do not need to return the bikes to the location where they borrowed them. Some local governments have also begun to show an interest in the system. The Setagaya Ward Office in Tokyo first introduced the service in 2007, and the system is catching on among the ward's residents. [Source: Kohei Aratani, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 16, 2011]

“The ward office set up bike rental locations--"ports"--next to four train stations in the ward. About 1,000 bicycles in total are available at the ports. Registered users--Setagaya Ward residents, or those who work or study in the ward--pay 2,000 yen a month for the service. Other individuals also can use the service by paying 200 yen per time.There are about 800 registered users, and about 200 nonmembers use the service per day.

“Ward officials said people use the bikes mainly for commuting to stations during the morning and evening rush hour. Outside commuting hours, the bikes are used by students commuting to universities, or by salespeople visiting customers in areas around the stations. Residents in other areas of the ward have asked the ward office to set up bike ports in their neighborhoods too. The city governments of Yokohama, Sakai, Sendai, Okayama, Sapporo and Kitakyushu have also introduced or are carrying out trials of the same system.

“There are also cases of private companies offering the same kind of service. One such company is Cogicogi Corp., which provides a total of 100 electric bicycles and 20 bicycle ports in and around Tokyo's Omotesando district, located next to hotels and restaurants. Business owners expect the service will bring in more customers for them.The service--called "Share Cycle cogicogi"--is used by about 600 members, including company sales staff. The fee is 525 yen a month, which entitles members to use the bikes for up to 30 minutes each time. A surcharge of 100 yen per hour is charged if users go over the initial 30 minutes. Company officials said many local governments have approached them with requests for advice on setting up the system.

“In addition to interest from local governments, condominium association boards are said to be enthusiastic about the scheme, as many condos do not have enough space to park bikes. Pedal Ltd., a company in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, sells bike-sharing systems as wholly integrated units. A port with enough space to park 10 bicycles costs about 3 million yen, with bikes being sold separately. In other words, the final cost depends on the number of bicycle ports installed. Users borrow bicycles using an "IC" card, containing an integrated circuit. Because the ports are monitored by computer, if there is an imbalance in the number of bicycles at each port, operators can quickly deal with the situation.

Bicycling Across Japan in 1886 and 1907

Nineteenth-century high-wheeler bicycles were called daruma-gata after the great Buddhist practitioner Bodhidharma and Daruma good-luck doll. Christine Whelan wrote in the Daily Yomiuri. “By far the most sensational daruma-gata of the day was a 1.3-meter Columbia high-wheeler the American Thomas Stevens rode through Japan in 1886 on an amazing 21,600-kilometer ride around the world. Stevens cycled 1,280 kilometers across Japan, some of them along the ancient Tokaido road, at a time when bicycles were a high-tech status symbol.” [Source: Christine Whelan, Daily Yomiuri, June 5, 2011]

Stevens was not only the first person to circle the globe by bicycle, but he accomplished this extraordinary feat on the most challenging vehicle of the time. Given the high-wheeler's limitations and rough terrain, he had to walk for about a third of his journey, as recounted in his memoir From Teheran to Yokohama, the second volume of Around the World on a Bicycle (1887). From his arrival in Nagasaki by boat to his departure from Yokohama, the young American was the delight of Japanese paparazzi.

The press was not alone in its fascination with the young American. According to Yukio Otsu, a researcher on the history of the Japanese ordinary, the last shogun--Tokugawa Yoshinobu--either witnessed Stevens along his route or read about him in newspaper coverage. According to the Shizuoka Daimu Shimbun of February 1887, the shogun, famous for his admiration of modern gadgets, ordered a similar nickel-plated high-wheeler for himself immediately afterwards. The following year, Yoshinobu could be seen daily tooling about Shizuoka on his daruma-gata with a servant following him.

In his memoir “Round the World on a Wheel” (1907), Sir John Fraser of England wrote that Nagoya at any rate was full of bicycles. "I would like to have stayed a week in Nagoya enlightening my mind as to what a bicycle can be made of...The big wheel was usually a cast-off cart wheel, bound with iron, and maybe a couple of heavy wooden spokes missing. As a rule, the backbone was the branch of a tree...and the back wheels had, without exception, devoted their energies in prehistoric times to trundling a wheelbarrow. The seat consisted of a sack tied to the backbone...The rider, his kimono tied about his waist, would mount, wearing his big wooden clogs all the time, and gripping the handlebars and leaning well back was able to push splendidly...And the noise they made!..And there were dozens, hundreds, thousands of these careering about Nagoya."

Recent History of Bicycles in Japan

In World War II, Japanese soldiers used bicycles in their invasion of Southeast Asia and quick advance on Singapore. Whelan wrote, “After the postwar reconstruction period, the concept of a bicycle shifted from the pragmatic to a hybrid of recreational and practical. Affordable easy-to-ride mini-cycles with 50-centimeter wheels drew many women into the bicycle fold. The mama-chari or mama-chariot, a bicycle with a basket in front and a baby-seat behind became widespread and remains so today.

Shimano Inc. is a world leader in high-quality bicycle parts, having designed the first sturdy gear system for mountain bicycles to withstand mud, water and grit.

The March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan also brought the subway and train system of the nation's capital to a halt. About 8 million commuters were temporarily stranded with few and unappealing options--a long walk home, several hours wait for a cab or a night in a hotel. These extraordinary circumstances evidently led to a lifestyle reassessment reflected in a subsequent spike in bicycle purchases.

According to a Bloomberg news report, the Osaka-based Asahi Co. doubled its bicycle sales in the month following the quake, and revenues for the Japan unit of Taiwan's Giant Manufacturing Co., the world's largest bicycle maker, rose 23 percent in March.

In some Japanese cities such as Kyoto, the bicycle serves as a major means of transportation, and adequate infrastructure supports this choice. Bicycle paths along the city's many waterways minimize conflict with traffic and add an edge of intimacy to urban life.

In October 2011, the Tokyo government began cracking down on ultra-light, brake-less, fixed gear track bikes known as pistes. The bikes, which use their fixed gear systems rather than brakes to stop, take more distance to stop than normal bikes with breaks. They have been involved in a number of accidents including one in February 2010 that killed a 69-year-old woman. After being hit by a 34-year-old man on a tracj bike she hit her head and died, As part of the 2011 crackdown Tokyo police are giving tickets to people using bikes without brakes.

Bicycle Accidents in Japan

tricycle pudding delivery
In 2010, 658 people died nationwide in accidents involving bicycles. In Tokyo, these accidents occurred mainly during commuting hours. In 2011 accidents involving bicycles accounted for 37.8 percent of all traffic accidents in the capital, a much higher proportion than the national average of 20.9 percent. In 2005 there were 183,653 accidents involving bicycles. A total of 846 people died and 184,686 people were injured, 34 percent higher than a decade earlier. Bicycle accidents killed 15 people between 1995 and 2008.

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial: “Many people have been given a fright as a bicycle charges straight at them as they walk along the sidewalk. Cases of bicycles colliding with pedestrians while trying to dart by them are hardly rare. Not a few people ride bicycles at night without a light on. People are often seen riding bicycles while talking on a mobile phone--or even using e-mail. Cyclists speeding along sidewalks or making startled pedestrians jump aside at the sound of a bell have become an everyday sight.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 14, 2011]

National Police Agency data on traffic accidents shows that about 20 percent of accidents in the past decade, a high proportion, involved bicycles. Reported collisions between bicycles and pedestrians totaled about 2,900 in 2009 and 2,800 in 2010, a huge increase over about 1,800 a decade before. According to National Police Agency, there were 174,000 bicycle accidents in 2004, 1.2 times the figure in 1996, and there were 2,767 bicycle accidents involving pedestrians, 4.8 times the 1996 figure. Of the 745 people who died while riding bicycles, 67.2 percent of the deaths were caused by head injuries.

In September 2011, an 84-year-old woman died after being hit from behind by a bicycle when she was walking on the sidewalk of a national highway in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture. Six pedestrians were killed by bicycles in 2003, including a 38-year-old mother of four who suffered head injuries after being struck as she crossed the street in a crosswalk by a bicycle ridden ta break-neck speed downhill by 31-year-old man who could squeeze the brakes because he was holding a soft drink. The victim fell into a coma and died two days later. Many bicycle accidents involving pedestrians have been blamed on middle and high school students.

Serious accidents have been caused by plastic shopping bags, umbrellas and feet getting caught in the front wheel of bikes and by poor maintenance of the brakes, rusty gears and other upkeep problems.

In Arakawa ward in Tokyo, authorities began issuing “bicycling licenses” after some pedestrians were killed by reckless cyclists. One official told the Washington Post, “The manners of Tokyo cyclists are very poor and sometimes suicidal.”

Bicycle accidents can be expensive. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “According to court rulings on bicycle accidents in recent years, a high school student was ordered to pay more than 60 million yen in compensation for hitting a pedestrian and causing serious spinal damage, while another high school student was ordered to pay nearly 40 million yen for killing a pedestrian. In contrast to automobile accidents, there is no compulsory liability insurance system to cover bicycle accidents. It is difficult to pay such huge liability judgments, often making it impossible for victims to receive compensation.” [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 12, 2011]

Sidewalk Cyclists and the Pedestrians Who Fear Them

Many Japanese and foreign travelers to Japan complain about the dangers presented by bicycles on the sidewalks. Many people, especially elderly people, have ended up in the hospital with broken bones due to fast and reckless sidewalk bicycle riders. In 2003, 2,045 people were injured as a result of collision involving cyclists and pedestrians.

Teiji Osawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “A steady stream of office workers, high school students and others filled the sidewalks near the station, and many cyclists were riding between pedestrians to reach a large bicycle parking lot. Some cyclists were riding so fast, they would have knocked a pedestrian over had there been a collision. Some cyclists were wearing earphones or headsets. [Source: Teiji Osawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 29, 2011]

“A 47-year-old company employee who rides his bike to the station every morning said: "I sometimes ride on the sidewalk when I'm in a hurry. The police have decided to crack down on this, but they haven't really made it clear if cyclists are going to be penalized." Another cyclist, a 50-year-old company employee, said, "It's not easy to ride on roads because there are so many parked cars." A 40-year-old woman expressed similar reluctance. "I carry my kindergarten-age kid on the bicycle, so I feel nervous about riding on the road," she said.

“Many pedestrians welcomed the decision to crackdown on sidewalk cyclists. A 67-year-old woman who has difficulty walking said: "Once I was hit on the shoulder by a passing bicycle and the rider shouted at me, 'Keep to the edge of the sidewalk.' So I'd be glad to see cyclists ride on roads.”

“A 63-year-old taxi driver said police should do more than just instruct cyclists to keep off sidewalks. "Often times, we [drivers] feel scared because cyclists are riding recklessly, such as ignoring traffic signals," he said. "If police are going to tell them to ride on the road, I also want them to give cyclists more warnings and instructions about road rules.”

Bicycle Laws in Japan

No bicycle parking sign
There are laws in Japan prohibiting riding a bicycle drunk or riding one while using a cell phone or even with an open umbrella. The fine for riding a bicycle while talking on a cell phone is $450 in some places. In 2006 there was a campaign against drunken bicycle riding that accompanied a campaign against drunk driving. Offenders for this offense faced fines up to ¥500,000 and prison terms of up to three years. Most tickets written for bicyclists involve riding without a light or riding with two people.

Bicycles by law must be ridden on the left side of the road, going the same as cars, even though many Japanese ride their bikes on the right side. If bicycles ride on the right-hand side of the road, facing oncoming traffic, there is more accident risk as drivers may not notice them. By law bikes ridden at night are required to have light. In Tokyo, using a cell phone or umbrella while cycling is prohibited. Riding two or more abreast is also prohibited.

Stolen bicycles are reported and tracked down with registration numbers on a little yellow stickers that are placed on the frame of every bike sold in Japan. Stolen bikes are placed in a computer base and can easily be accessed by the police. Victims of theft reports the crime to police and give the registration of the stolen bike and their telephone number. If the police find the bike they call and sometimes personally deliver it to the home of the victim.

Bicycle Laws and Kids in Japan

The Road Traffic Law enacted in June 2008 requires children under 13 to wear helmets when on bicycles. A survey by the Tokyo metropolitan government in 2008 found that 80 percent of parents have bought bicycle helmets for their kids but only about half of them make their children wear them.

There was a ban on riding bicycle with two kids. Many mothers with two kids who relied in a bike to go shopping and take their kids to day care and kindergarten objected. The ban was largely unenforced.

The ban on riding bicycles with two kids was lifted in July 2009 the only catch was that the children had to be carried in approved bikes that cost between $700 and $2,000. Bike companies came up with a number of new designs for bicycles, including one that has a single rear wheel and a double front wheel. Failure to used a authorized bike could result in a fine of $200. Many parents were unhappy about the high prices for the bikes. The $200 fine was generally not enforced on people caught riding with two children on different kinds of bikes.

Many young Japanese use their cell phones while riding bicycles. Thirty-four prefectures including Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka ban cellphones while riding bikes.

Tokyo Cyclists Unaware of Rules

In May 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Only 65 percent of people know children aged under 13 are required to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle, but 94 percent know using a cell phone or umbrella while cycling is prohibited, according to a survey by the Tokyo metropolitan government. Ninety-six percent of respondents knew of the rule requiring bikes to have lights at night. More than 90 percent were aware of at least eight of the 11 rules mentioned in the survey. However, only 78 percent knew that riding two or more abreast is prohibited. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun. May 10, 2012]

“The least-obeyed rule was the nonbinding requirement that children must wear a helmet. Only 64 percent of respondents said they followed this rule. Seventy-two percent adhered to the rule that cyclists must ride on roads in principle, and 82 percent said they always gave way to pedestrians when riding on sidewalks.

“According to the survey, 88 percent of respondents registered their bicycle at the time of purchase to help deter bike thefts, but just 25 percent deregistered their two-wheelers when they disposed of them and 22 percent reregistered a bicycle received from someone else. Only 10 percent made necessary registration changes when they moved to a new address.

Bicycle Sidewalk Rules

Japan is one of the few country that has laws that allow bicycles on sidewalks in some situations. Bicycles are regarded as light vehicles in Japan and are supposed to be ridden on roads but allowance are made if riders are under 12 and the roads are dangerous. In those cases bicycles are expected to be ridden slowly and riders are required to dismount if there is a danger of colliding with pedestrians. According to a government survey, 40 percent of the public is not aware that bicycles are meant to be ridden on roadways.

Yusuke Takahashi and Teiji Osawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Enacted in 1960, the Road Traffic Law stipulates that vehicles without engines--such as bicycles and carts--must travel on roads. However, revisions were made to the law in 1970 when the traffic accident death toll hit a record high of 16,765.

“The changes paved the way for cyclists to use the sidewalks on heavily trafficked roads. The changes soon proved effective in reducing the death toll of cyclists on the road from 1,940 in 1970 to 1,254, about a 35 percent decrease, five years later. The the number of deaths involving cyclists was 658 in 2010.

“Further changes to the law in 2007 limit cyclists who can ride on sidewalks to people younger than 13, people aged 70 or older and people with physical disabilities. However, the revisions also stipulate that cyclists are allowed to use sidewalks when facing "unavoidable circumstances," such as obstructions like parked cars or construction work.

“While there has been a decrease in the number cycling deaths on roads, there has been an increase in the number of accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians. The number of such accidents was 2,760 in 2010, about 1.5 times higher than the figure recorded 10 years ago. Some of these accidents involved fatalities. About 40 percent of the 2,760 accidents occurred on sidewalks.

Police Crackdown on Cyclists Using Sidewalks

Yusuke Takahashi and Teiji Osawa wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “A recent announcement by the National police Agency that it would actively instruct cyclists to ride on roads has caused much confusion and anxiety among bike riders, as the agency apparently failed to promote its real intention of focusing on reckless cyclists. Since the agency announced in October 2011 that it would strictly enforce existing rules regarding the use of bicycles on sidewalks, prefectural police headquarters around the nation have received many queries from the general public. [Source: Yusuke Takahashi and Teiji Osawa, Yomiuri Shimbun, November 22, 2011]

“Some people said they would feel scared riding on roads while ferrying children, while others assert cyclists should only use roads once more bicycle-only lanes become available. Cyclists, pedestrians and drivers have all made arguments for and against the decision, but a senior official at the NPA's traffic bureau expressed puzzlement over the public's reaction, saying, "The rule [requiring cyclists to ride on roads] was established years ago." Police officers have turned a blind eye to cyclists using sidewalks because many pointed out it was too dangerous for cyclists to use the roads.

“By announcing that it would step up enforcement of existing rules on bicycle riding on roads, the NPA aims to encourage cyclists to improve their manners. It will focus on cyclists using sidewalks at high speed, cyclists riding against traffic, cyclists riding between the sidewalk and road who ignore traffic lights, and cyclists riding without brakes. By strictly enforcing current regulations, police will issue tickets to rogue riders, but do not intend to make major changes and force all bicyclists to use the roads.

“Because reckless cyclists continue to go unpunished, people have taken it for granted that cyclists can use the sidewalks," said a senior NPA traffic regulation specialist."If cyclists ride slowly [on sidewalks] or are ferrying children, it's OK; nothing will change.”

“The National Police Agency decided to step up instructing cyclists to ride on roads due to an increasing number of accidents involving pedestrians hit by cyclists riding recklessly on sidewalks. If a rider is found to be riding recklessly on sidewalks after previously receiving warnings, the police will consider charging them with noncompliance. Until recently, police rarely stopped bicycles on sidewalks. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 27, 2011]

“The NPA also instructed prefectural police to reduce the number of sidewalks where bicycles are allowed and guide cyclists to ride on roads. The police had categorized sidewalks as passable for bicycles if they were at least two meters wide. But police will change the regulation to require a minimum width of three meters. Nationwide, about 76,000 kilometers of sidewalks are currently designated as passable.

“More and more people in urban areas commute to work on bicycles, increasing the number of riders on sidewalks. An increasing number are sports bikes, which can hit speeds of 40 to 50 kph, with some riders alternating riding on the sidewalk and the road. Many pedestrians and drivers have complained about this behavior. University of Tokushima Prof. Hideo Yamanaka, an expert in urban traffic planning, said: "Because more sidewalks have become barrier-free with smoother curbs and bicycle speeds have increased, accidents between bicycles and pedestrians can be very serious. To protect pedestrians, bicycles should be on the road.”

Tokyo Man Fined for Riding Racing Bicycle Without Brakes

November 2011, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “An Osaka man who rode a racing bicycle without brakes on a public road has been fined 6,000 yen by the Osaka Summary Court after an indictment had been filed against him for violation of the Road Traffic Law. It is the nation's first case in which a cyclist was fined for riding a racing bicycle known as a "piste bike" or "fixie" on a public road. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 24, 2011]

“According to the police, the 29-year-old manager of a restaurant in Osaka received a summary indictment from the public prosecutor as he allegedly rode a piste bike on a public road in Chuo Ward, Osaka, on the evening of Oct. 8. He was indicted for poor brake equipment under a section of the Road Traffic Law.The fine against him was finalized by the Osaka Summary Court.

“The man was cited by police in August as he rode the bike along Midosuji avenue, but a summary indictment was not filed against him at that time. In response to an increase of accidents involving bicycles and pedestrians, the National Police Agency in October instructed prefectural police nationwide to crack down on dangerous cyclists who repeatedly violate the law.

Bicycle Parking in Japan

bicycle parking
The parking of bicycles outside designated areas, especially around train stations and shopping areas, is a big problem in some cities. Special parking garages for bicycles have been built but bicyclist find them expensive and inconvenient and they are sometimes filled to capacity.

Bicycle parking lots with a capacity of 2.4 million bicycles have been built near trains and subway stations throughout Japan. Some look like parking lots for cars and are massive but even then there are not enough spaces. Bicycles that are left outside designated parking areas are sometimes given tickets or are even impounded by police.

Parking spaces are generally not a problem. There are usually more parking spaces than illegally-parked bicycles. The problem is that many of the spaces are too far away from stations or are otherwise convenient.

On any given day more than 740,000 bicycles are parked at Tokyo train and subway stations. One district in Tokyo spent $67 million to build a cluster of computerized bicycle parking lots that use robotic arms to lift bikes into place. At the end of the day a swipe card is used to locate the bicycle in around 10 seconds.

Illegal dumping of bicycles is a big problem. According to the Japan Bicycle Association 644,000 bicycles were abandoned at railway stations throughout Japan in 1998. To combat the problem one city has proposed charging railway companies $25 for each bicycle they carry away.

Motorized Bicycles, Unicycles and Scooters in Japan

tricycle taxi
In recent years bicycles with small electric-motors known as Power-assisted bicycles have become very popular. The bicycles look like a regular bicycle except for a small motor in front of the back wheel. They are popular with the elderly and housewives who take their children back and forth to day care and nursery school.

The sales of electric bicycle rose from 310,000 in 2000 to 3,644,815 in 2009. New more powerful batteries and folding models and laws passed in 2008 that enable the bikes to carry motors that were twice as powerful as before have given consumers more options and more powerful bikes. About 1 million were sold between 1993 and 2000.

Power-assisted bicycles were developed by Yamaha Motor Co. in 1993. Now about a dozen firms manufacture them. They are especially popular with housewives and elderly women living in hilly areas and are being used more and more by commuters to get from their homes to work or the train station. Over 282,000 of them were sold in 2007, a 10 percent increase from the pervious year.

The motor in power-assisted bicycles is charged at home in a few hours and kicks in to help riders climb hills. A typical model made by Yamaha sells for about $600, weighs 25 kilograms and can run for up to 60 kilometers on 2½ hours of charging. Matsushita makes a bicycle with a global positioning devise selling for between $600 and $1000, they are outfit with the devices primarily so the bicycles can be located if they are stolen.

Power-assisted models introduced in 2009 had twice the power of earlier models thanks in part to changes made in the traffic laws. The new models make it possible for even elderly people to climb steep hills, loaded down with heavy bags of groceries.

Unicycles are very popular with young girls. Two-wheeled scooters like the Razor, which resembled skateboards with handlebars, have been popular since the early 2000s. There has been some discussion about banning them on sidewalks after an old woman was injured after being run down with one. People also worried out of control women in high heels riding them.

German-made bicycle cabs are becoming increasing popular in Tokyo. They have a roof, three wheels and room for two passengers and travel at a maximum speed of around 12mph. The fares are higher than normal taxis. In many tourist areas you can find university-age rickshaw pullers who run when they do their work.

Japan's Orderly Shibuya Scramble

Reporting from central Tokyo, John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In Japan, where pedestrians religiously adhere to traffic laws, there were no jaywalkers or mad traffic dashes. Hundreds of times a day, pedestrians thread the Scramble's needle....On a recent weekday, the easy ebb and flow was apparent. As the traffic passed, several hundred pedestrians slowly congregated on one corner of the interchange, collecting in groups of twos and threes. At choke points across the way, similar groups poised for action. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2011]

Everyone waited, the pressure building, potential energy set to become kinetic. Suddenly, the light changed and vehicles vanished from the vast intersection in Tokyo's Shibuya district. For one eye-blink, the crossing was a no man's land.Then, on cue, the pedestrian masses on the four corners surged forward. Seen from above, they were great armies entering battle, each moving with determination toward their point of contact.

But there was no clash. In the middle, they came together in fluid movement, like cards shuffled in the hands of a Vegas dealer, each sliding seamlessly past the other.For nearly a full minute, the intersection was a sea of humanity. Slowly, the crush trickled out and the asphalt was again almost empty, only a few stragglers rushing to beat the light. Then it reverted to the throb of vehicle traffic, another cycle of Shibuya synchronicity complete.

"It's an unrehearsed choreography," said Tsuyoshi Yamada, an unofficial expert on the history and idiosyncrasies of the crosswalk. "It's a dance."Twice each weekday, on his way to work and home again, Yamada negotiates the intersection, perhaps the most peopled and yet most orderly one on the planet.

“Shibuya's Scramble” is just outside the area's bustling train station, near the popular Hachiko dog statue, memorializing the dog that waited daily at the spot for years for the arrival of his dead master. It's known as the Scramble, and for good reason. The crossing, a 10-lane traffic interchange half the size of a football field, is in the heart of the youth-dominated Shibuya, a barometer of this city's edgy teen culture with its ever-shifting fashions and often-wacky trends. At its rush-hour height, the Scramble is flooded by 2,500 pedestrians — some pink-haired and nose-pierced, others in conservative skirts or suits — with a single change of a traffic signal.

Meaning of Japan's Orderly Shibuya Scramble

“But in this polite nation,” Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “the passing bodies seem less chaotic than in, say, Beijing or New York, moving with the cool predictability of a stopwatch. Despite so much humanity inhabiting such a confined space, there's rarely a collision, sharp elbow, shoulder-brush or unkind word. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2011]

For Yamada, 64, a white-haired veteran in the Shibuya district government office, the Scramble is something of a singular calling: He's a student of the crossing's place in Japanese culture, likening its ballet to North Korea's Mass Games, in which thousands of gymnasts take part in a spectacle of rhythm and order."It's more than just a feat of engineering," said Yamada, a deskbound records-keeper with the title of data management officer. "It reflects the pulse of Tokyo." Yamada said that Japanese seem as proud of its smooth inner-workings as they are of any Toyota or Honda. "It's elegant and works well, and I think people here like that," he said.

On recent afternoon, television photographer Yuzo Yamamoto set up his camera on a sidewalk at the Scramble's edge. He was shooting a summertime feature on new styles of sunglasses and said there was no better place to get the story. Yamamoto said the Scramble captures the contradiction of modern Japan: Although so many young people seek to stand out in the crowd with the latest, zaniest fashion, their upbringing still demands civility: They may look counterculture, but they're still bound to step back and offer a stranger the right of way. "I just like to stand here sometimes and watch the bodies flow," Yamamoto said. "It's amazing, really."

History of Japan's Shibuya Scramble

John M. Glionna wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Although there are 300 Scramble crossings nationwide, the idea isn't Japanese, Yamada acknowledges; the notion was born in the 1940s when a Denver traffic engineer sought to reduce car-people collisions. Henry Barnes' idea was to alternate the right of way between cars and pedestrians: One minute autos would take charge of an intersection, walkers the next. [Source: John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times, May 23, 2011]

Users called it the X-crossing, diagonal crossing and even the Barnes Dance, because pedestrians were reportedly so happy with their newfound freedom, they danced in the streets. In his 1965 autobiography, "The Man with the Red and Green Eyes," Barnes said the idea came to him while watching his daughter make a dangerous dash to school across the street.

"As things stood now, a downtown shopper needed a four-leaf clover, a voodoo charm and a St. Christopher's medal to make it in one piece from one curbstone to the other," he wrote. As far as I was concerned — a traffic engineer with Methodist leanings — I didn't think that the Almighty should be bothered with problems which we, ourselves, were capable of solving."

As Yamada tells it, a Tokyo city official saw a TV documentary and marveled at the simplicity of the solution to handle pedestrian traffic in bustling Tokyo. The city's first Scramble was established in the Ginza district, followed by Shibuya. Yamada isn't sure what year, but by comparing old black-and-white photographs, he's narrowed it to sometime between 1970 and 1976.

Since then, Shibuya's Scramble has become a symbol of the habitability of a metropolis of 35 million. In recent years, the crossing has become a mainstay in tourist guidebooks and has played a cameo role in such popular Tokyo-based movies as "Lost in Translation."

Motorcycles and Motorscooters in Japan

motorscooter and cell phone
Motorcycles are very popular. Obtaining a license is relatively easy and there are lots of good country roads for riding. A large variety of high quality machines are available and parking is not as much of a problem as with a car.

There are also lots of motorscooters. They are used primarily by women, both young and old. There are laws that only one person can ride on a motorscooter at time. Motorscooters are now being produced with motorcycle-size engines. Some motorcycle riders have switched to motorscooters because they like the comfortable sitting position and riders don't need to switch gears.

Three wheel motorcycles are popular in Japan. Many pizza deliver men use them. The vehicles are designed to lean into corners.

The sales of big scooters with engines over 250cc are selling well in Japan. The advantages with these over motorcycles is they have automatic transmissions and don’t require a clutch to drive.

For a long times, laws in Japan prevented motorcycle riders from carrying passengers. In 2005, laws were passed allowing motorcycle riders to carry passengers on expressways.

In the early 2000s, a new kind of scooter with an electric motor and saucer- or plate-size wheels was introduced. It wasn’t quite clear whether they were intended for the road of for sidewalks. Categorized as a mini-bikes but sold as “toys,” they were illegal to ride on the road without a licence and helmet.. A lot of people road them on the sidewalk, adding to the danger of sidewalk life. By the mid 2000s they had largely disappeared.

In August 2007, a man rode his motorcycle for two kilometers before realizing that his leg had been severed 10 centimeters below the knee.. The man probably lost his leg, according to police, while hitting his leg against the corner of a concrete divider on a highway in Nishi Ward, Hamamatsu. The man noticed his leg was missing when he stopped his bike at an interchange.


Motorcycle Industry in Japan

motorscooter mailman
The big four domestic motorcycle makers in Japan are Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki. The motorcycle industry grew very fast in Japan after World War II partly because motorcycles and scooters were the only affordable means of transportation for most people. At one time there were than 2000 Japanese motorbike and scooter manufacturers.

As the industry matured and solidified four Japanese companies — Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki — emerged and grew into the giants that now dominate the global market, while companies like Hosk, Meguro, Lilac and Tohatsu died and have been forgotten.

Motorcycle sales have declined at home as young Japanese have turned to computer games instead of the thrill of the open road for fun and the number of young people has shrunk because of population declines. For new markets motorcycle companies are looking increasingly to elderly baby boomers.

By 2010 domestic motorcycle sales had declined by about 10 percent from the peak mainly due to lack of interest in motorbikes by young people, a trend that some trace back to the 1980s when high school students were prohibited from riding motorbikes to school. The industry also complains of a lack of parking for motorcycles and increased parking wardens giving tickets to illegally parked motorbikes. The industry put its hope in electric and eco-friendly models to rejuvenate sales.

Global sales have been rising due primarily to growing demands in Asian and other emerging economies. Japanese motorcycle companies are increasingly looking abroad not only for sales but also to make motorcycles. High oil prices and rising affluence in the Third World, where an increasing number of people can afford motorcycles but not cars has increased demand for motorcycles and motorscooters.

Yamaha is the No.2 motorcycle producers in Japan. It sells about 6 million motorcycles a year globally. Sales in the January to June period in 2010 were 3.48 million units, up 30.2 percent from the same period in 2009.

There are about 50,000 Harley Davidsons on the road in Japan. About a 10,000 new ones are sold each year. A new Harley FLHRCI Road King Classic retails for $22,000.

See Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki, Economics, Industry, Automobile Industry

Image Sources: Ray Kinnane except mailman (Jun of Goods from Japan)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last Updated October 2012

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