What is the cycling culture like in Japan


Initiatives to promote cycling and the design of cycling infrastructure mostly follow a Eurocentric approach worldwide - this is often done with good reason. Japan is hardly known for its user-friendly cycling infrastructure, which is mostly scarce because little has been invested in promoting cycling so far. And yet the bicycle is an important means of transport in the everyday life of millions of Japanese. Of course, Japan still lacks the usual ingredients for a successful cycling nation - so what is the appeal of cycling in the land of the rising sun?

The cycling activist Byron Kidd and founder of the Internet movement “Tokyo By Bike” has identified several influences and incentives that make a significant contribution to the extent of the Japanese cycling community: Most Japanese people move on their daily journeys with the highly reliable and highly fashionable public Traffic continued. The bicycle is often used as a feeder to the bus or train. Trends in car use in Japan are similar to those in Europe. Fewer young people are buying a car and the age of those who are new to driving is getting higher, also due to the high costs of owning a car. The time for the bike has come, to conquer Japan and complement a changing culture of mobility. Legal regulations for cycling are only sparsely implemented in Japan and offenses are rarely punished - this also makes cycling very attractive in Japan. One could call the corresponding legal norms more like guidelines for cycling, the most important of which is: “Don't build an accident”. Under these circumstances, a free cycling experience is guaranteed. In addition, the bicycle is a very suitable means of transport to get ahead in the urban structures of the country. The Japanese cities are among the most densely populated metropolises in the world; therefore, most places of everyday use can usually be reached within a very small radius. Byron Kidd also says that the courtesy and tolerance of Japanese society go a long way in making Japan a wonderful cycling country. However, if the Japanese population is denied adequate cycling infrastructure, their tolerance in this regard should be limited.

The lack of appropriate infrastructure has become a serious problem in recent years. If cyclists cannot find a place on the street and there is no cycling infrastructure at all, then they drive somewhere and somehow - primarily on the sidewalk. Driving on the sidewalk is almost always legal in Japan and is largely tolerated - unimaginable in the West - which inevitably leads to conflicts between pedestrians and cyclists. Sidewalk cycling has been largely legalized in Japan since 1970 in response to the steadily increasing number of (including fatal) road accidents. In the meantime, the cyclists had been brought to safety, although it was not clear which space in the street they were actually entitled to.

Cycling is currently experiencing a boom in Japan. Since the earthquake disaster in eastern Japan in March 2011, the number of bicycles sold has increased by 12% compared to the previous year. For many earthquake victims, the bicycle was the only remaining means of transport. When nothing works anymore, the roads are impassable and the petrol stations have run out of electricity, the bicycle is a good service. With the increasing number of people cycling, the number of accidents between pedestrians and cyclists on the sidewalk also increased, as Hiro Koike from the Japanese Utsunomiya-Kyowa University explained at the Velo-city conference in Vienna, the largest congress on cycling. From 2001 to 2011 alone, the number of accidents between cyclists and pedestrians increased by 50%. The structurally delimited bicycle infrastructure only accounts for 3.5% of the cycle routes in Japan, and almost the entire rest has to be shared with pedestrians. Hopefully a change in this situation is imminent.

In order to counteract the increasing number of accidents, the national police authority issued an urgent decree in 2011 to change the existing strategy. The aim is to redefine the bicycle as a vehicle and take its place on the left-hand side of the road in traffic, equivalent to motorized traffic. However, this rethinking is difficult to achieve: The lack of structurally separate bicycle infrastructure, unclear and complicated traffic laws that merely confuse most road users, as well as non-existent traffic education and the lack of courses for cyclists make this difficult. In 2012, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport took a big step forward in terms of bicycle policy. A guideline for a safe and comfortable cycling environment was published and for the first time called for the planning of a cycle path network, the provision of space in the street space for bicycles, the actual enforcement of cycling laws and comprehensive measures for the use of bicycles. The Japanese authorities have now at least officially initiated the important process of improving conditions for cycling - but what is going on below the surface?

At Velo-city in Vienna, Peter Smith from Utsunomiya University spoke about a new form of cycling in Japan that encourages important user groups across generations to get on their bikes in their free time: The so-called "Pottering Movement" encourages women, older people Encourage people and children to use bicycles. The term "Potter" used in Japanese is inspired by the English word "to potter" (to stroll around) and here simply means "to ride around on the bike at a leisurely pace". It's about having fun cycling with other people. In Smith's opinion, women in Japan are not yet a serious target group for bicycle traffic and are more likely to be viewed as housewives on bicycles who just go shopping or take the children to school. Apart from that, women are hardly ever present on the bike. Smith says that the "pottering" "Women in Japanese society, in which they often tend to remain in the background, can provide more participation "as it helps them overcome various obstacles faced by female cyclists in Japan. These hurdles can be a lack of technical knowledge, groups of cyclists who focus primarily on men, a macho cycling culture and a lack of female mentors. “Pottering is about social contacts, about fun, about an enjoyable experience of cycling for people of all ages and fitness levels [...]. This will make it an integrating and democratizing force in Japan. "

Pottering has caused a real hype in Japan. Consequential effects include the promotion of pottering by local authorities; Bicycle magazines are now concentrating more on female readers and informing them about routes, bicycle fashion and bicycle know-how. The increase in the cycling population in general will put further strain on the cycle paths - in the case of Japan this is the sidewalks - and also put increased pressure on the administrations. Pottering can thus trigger useful effects for the creation of facilities and infrastructures, as more people are visible on the bike in the street scene. Peter Smith believes the "Pottering movement a desire for cycling in the city and in diverse environments" embodied and hopefully will have a positive effect on the future of Japan as a cycling nation.


Related Links:


Japan - bicycle society http://vimeo.com/26016092



Photos & text: Ulla Thamm