Column: What I Like About America (Letters from Japan, Part 10)

Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia. His most recent book is: Parables from a Not Quite Paradise, Nv 89154: The History News Network Essays . He is a columnist for HNN.

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 Parables from a Not Quite Paradise, Nv 89154: The History News Network Essays

This spring Mr. Thompson is a visiting professor at Osaka University of Commerce. This is the tenth of his"Letters from Japan."

The car culture descended upon the entire American public before it became pervasive around the globe. Actually, the notion of widespread car ownership has not yet come to all peoples. In my observations of driving behaviors in many countries, I have come to the conclusion that I feel one hell of a lot safer in American traffic--as a pedestrian, driver, or passenger, than I do anywhere else. I might not always say this but the generality seems safe for the moment as I venture the sidewalks, streets, highways, byways, and expressways of Japan.

In 1990 I was in Panama for a week. There I did feel safe (in a traffic sense) walking the streets. Noriega was in charge, and that wasn't good, but the government had a traffic policy that seemed to yield beneficial results: if a car hit a pedestrian, the driver of the car was immediately taken to jail for seven days. Only after the seven days were served, only THEN, was the question of fault or blame addressed. Fortunately Noriega is gone, but unfortunately, the traffic policy seems also to have gone away. Now a recovering economy and political stability have brought many more cars for the people and a renewed freedon--to drive--anyway they wish to, and without a regard for pedestrians. During my 1998 visit to Panama City I was in constant fear that a car a reasonable distance away would speed up and aim right at me as soon as I set one foot into the street.

Of course, I found German drivers just downright offensive, and in the lexicon of my liberal friends "mean-spirited." Once I found myself in the second (from the inside) lane of a five lane autobahn--which was sans other automobiles--almost. Mea culpa, mea culpa, there was no car on the far inside lane beside me. I had violated some law Hitler probably put in place. One of those Mercedes bastards came up behind me and nearly bumped the rear of my car (I was going very slowly, only about 130 km/hour). He flashed his lights (it was daytime) off and on, off and on, as I observed in the rear view mirror that he was also shaking his fist at me. There were three empty lanes to my left, but he would not pass, until, I very carefully came out of an almost catatonic posture, slowed a bit, signaled, and eased my car into the extreme right (a position of the liking of the highway Germans). As he passed he honked continuously and cursed (I assumed from the mouth gestures he was making). Somewhere in German heaven Goring was cheering him on.

But hey, we know the Germans--actually, they represent one half of my heritage--I think grandfather was probably cheering the driver on as well. The other half of my heritage is English-Irish (ergo the Thompson name). We all know that the British are very polite. While they don't know the proper side of the road, at least they are courteous to foreign pedestrians--they draw arrows on the London sidewalks pointing the direction from which the automobile beast is about to attack. That way you at least have the opportunity to face your executioner. The automobiles, it seems, have been given the right-of way on the streets, and they have priority over pedestrians when they, the automobiles, turn corners. I was only in my early fifties and still jogging the last time I went to London. So I made do, with several short frantic dashes, but I was quite concerned about those more older than I, and especially the physically impaired. I was at a conference (on gambling) and at a banquet I sat next to a dear man, the late Reverend Gordon Moody. The compassionate Moody had set up the first recovery centers for problem gamblers. As he was a bit older than I, I ventured the question about the cars quickly turning corners, and the opportunity for slower pedestrians to cross the street. I asked, "Isn't this dangerous for the pedestrians?" He took a pause, and in the sweetest soft British accent, he replied, "Oh yes, they do get hit you know."

My one sojourn to central China came a dozen years ago, when bicycles still dominated the roadways--change that, bicycles were still the most prevalent vehicle on the roadways--bicycles and hand-pulled carts. Automobiles, though few in number, dominated. When I was a little child in Eberbach Elementary School in Ann Arbor, I had difficulty with two words, difficulty spelling, pronouncing, and understanding. The words were: deaf, and death. My ears and lips just could not seem to make the distinction. I did not know why until I came to China over forty years later. I was both a passenger and pedestrian in China. Thank God I was warned: DO NOT TRY TO RIDE A BICYCLE HERE. I observed other cars, and also the car I was driving approach other non automotive vehicles and objects in the street. The cars seemed not to have brakes. The only action the driver made as he maintained speed into a crowd of people on foot or two wheels was to lay on the horn. Katy bar the door, he's a coming in. Hearing the horn was the only chance you had. If you were "deaf" you were about to welcome "death."

And now I am in Japan. The cars are on the wrong side of the road, but the polite people here have not chosen to give the North American tourists the reminders with painted arrows on the walkways. My habitual turn to the left to look for approaching cars has brought me close to extinction on at least three occasions in the last three weeks. But here, even if you look the correct direction, you must pause for five seconds before proceeding with a green light or a stop sign in your favor. The phenomenon of the "fresh red" or the "to be ignored at one's own discretion" stop sign is much more in play than in my barbaric hometown of Las Vegas.

And in contrast with my earlier travels here, the cars are so much bigger and newer. I wonder what ever happened to my 1977 Corolla? Actually the government inspection system makes the incentive for having a new car rather overwhelming. Newer cars (less than 10 years old) must have inspections each two years. An inspection is THOROUGH--and costs about $1000 (that is 100,000 Yen). Older cars must have inspections each year. That extra cost on top of less efficient fuel economies make older (and smaller) cars almost unobservable. The politeness of the Japanese seems to go away, as they turn into Germans once behind the wheel. Even in many downtown areas (I have walked many blocks of Osaka) the streets are narrow-- sometimes one way, sometimes two way. I stayed glued to the edge of the road, even while on sidewalks (non-existent on side streets) I stay as far from the driving lane as possible. But to no avail as time and again a bicycle comes hauling my way and without the Chinese horn to warn me. Sometimes with the jingle of a little bell, or a nice verbal polite word, the bicycle barges ahead. On several occasions the rider's shoulder has hit mine as the rider passed. Now, I guess I will be politically incorrect in saying this, but my observation has been confirmed by sight and in conversations with both adult males and females of the Japanese persuasion--many of the most aggressive bicycle riders and car drivers are older women. The roadway and sidewalks have become their domain--get out of their way.

An interpretation of my observances and my jingoistic desire to return to the traffic safety of America is in order. My feelings are actually quite in competition with my admiration and love for many things I find in Japan. But what explains the aggression of vehicle operation here, in China, England, Panama (we don't have to ask about Germany)?

Perhaps there is some of the same feelings in driving (and riding bicycles) as is found in Japanese Sumo wrestling. There the combatants are patient and go through very polite rituals as they eventually line up opposite another combatant. Then a judge waves a paddle one way or another, a staring round begins, and after several such rounds of staring one wrestler lunges and a very brief battle is waged with tremendous ferocity. Then in five ten or maybe twenty seconds it is all over and a serene politeness returns to the stage. The victor causes the opponent to fall from his feet or to leave the small ring of action. If one wins by quick movement that avoids a hit upon the loser, the crowd groans in an almost "boo" as that is not the way one is supposed to win. Victory by stealth is an unworthy victory. The senior robbed judges (with either purple and white or solid purple ties) carry little swords which they supposedly use to kill themselves if they make an error in judgment in overseeing the match--probably doesn't really happen--but I wonder about the past--Sumo has been around for almost 2000 years. Is their hidden within the Japanese polite demeanor a desire for the quick hit, the brief confrontation, followed by a return to normality. Did the military planners of 1941 believe that the attack on Pearl Harbor would be but a Sumo attack with a quick decision then a return to normality?

The driving behavior may also be manifest in the behaviors of crowds--polite as they are--at baseball games. Here in contrast to the terribly boring American games, and crowds, the crowds cheer every single batter and before every single pitch. Drums pound constantly, and full musical bands play during the course of action. Three hours of temporary action and excitement fill moments of a day, and then it's back to life--as usual, as ordinary, as uneventful. Perhaps it is also so with gambling and play on pachinko machines.

Driving and riding bicycles are activities that also give a break from the routine. Most Japanese do not drive during the work week. They take trains to work. Then on weekends they drive for pleasure--and release. Traffic on roadways is very, very crowded much of the time. Perhaps when a driver sees a bit of daylight, they heed the wisdom of Vince Lombardi and they "run to the daylight." Perhaps, but when they do, I find myself running for cover, and thinking, there really is something I long for in the U.S. of A. Traffic patterns I understand.

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John Edward Philips - 7/1/2004

"Most Japanese do not drive during the work week. They take trains to work."

Do you have statistics on that, or is it just an impression gleaned from Osaka and Tokyo?

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