Joy of Obstruction


Roads in Japan can be very narrow. My road is kind of a main thoroughfare and, while the pavement is fairly wide, the area between the white stripes is barely wide enough for two sedans to pass in opposite directions. If anyone is walking on the shoulder, cars could both drive through, but sane drivers wouldn’t want to risk it.

At the first stop I can turn onto a narrower road that handles a much higher traffic flow into town. The space between the white lines is less than on my street, the shoulders are about shoulder width, and there are power poles in the roadway. In the narrowest spot, I think two kei cars (軽自動車) like mine could drive through; assuming the two drivers really, really trusted each other. Driving along this road, one has to occasionally pull into the gaps between power poles or the parking lot of a coffee shop to let oncoming traffic through.

Initially, this may seem crazy to an American, but it works; more importantly, I recently decided that I like it. How does it work? Well first, most of the drivers are willing to yield as often as they are yielded to, which makes for a minimal level of disgruntlement and a lack of deadlock. Occasionally I do see the situation on the really narrow roads where one vehicle needs to back up, but the person who could back up one car length tries to stare down the other, who would have to back up half a block. Fortunately that sort of silliness is rare. Another factor that helps is that most people will acknowledge the other, thanking them with a bow or toot for allowing passage. Humility is probably the word which best describes how this system can work.

Why do I like it? Because it requires cooperation. Is the American system superior? Not necessarily. Wide lanes and curbed sidewalks separate vehicles from each other and from pedestrians which is generally good, but in the isolation we forget how to interact. No matter how wide the roads are, situations always arise which require interaction. When part of an American roadway is blocked, will we respond by thinking of the other first? Or will we, being accustomed to just driving along, merely think of ourselves and our right of way?

I’m happy to submit and spend a lot of time using these smaller roads. Interestingly enough, it always gets me through a lot faster than the big American style roads like Route 23 and 165. Perhaps those roads attract the drivers who don’t want to be submissive or cooperative.


3 Responses to “Joy of Obstruction”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    Interesting. Yes, “cooperation” isn’t a prominent word in the American vocabulary, that’s for sure! I heard a traffic expert once who had concluded that the more ambiguity there is on the road, the safer it is because drivers have to pay attention and negotiate with each other. He demonstrated this by walking backwards through a roundabout he had designed (no rules, no lanes, no curbs) and didn’t so much as get honked at. I guess there are two ways of making people safe–force them to be careful, or insulate them from hazards. It’s hard to say which is better. People seem to insist on killing themselves and other no matter how many signs and barriers and reflective markers are put down.

  2. びっくり Says:

    Good point! We have had debates about whether it is safer to cross in a crosswalk or at mid-block. At the intersections, cars are coming from all directions, changing directions, distracted by vehicles crossing their paths. Also, people are more likely to get anxious or rushed because that traffic light is staring them down; if it changes they are trapped for another rotation. Little people are so much less likely to get noticed. Crossing at mid-block means that cars are only going straight and coming from two directions.

  3. Sylvia Says:

    I’ll remember to tell that to the cop next time I get a ticket for jaywalking! (Not that I’ve ever gotten a ticket for jaywalking.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: