Cycling Safely in Japan


Just over two years ago, I was taken off my bike by a car on a safe little back road. In my Mie prefecture, safety for bikes and pedestrians is not a given, we must be very alert and responsible for our own safety. Not only drivers’ habits, but also physical conditions here are different: awareness of those differences is critical.

On my morning commute, one of these came to the forefront as an Audi pilot repeatedly did her best to scrape me off on a stone wall. Fortunately, I foiled her efforts so I can bring my tale to you.

We were on a road with a clearly marked centerline and lines demarking a shoulder area. By American standards this road is narrow; however, there is plenty of width for a car to easily travel between the lines. The shoulder area is also wide enough for even an amateur cyclist to ride without trouble (although there are a few sign posts and power poles obstructing the shoulder, requiring forays into the roadway). Traffic was heavy and halting, so with little effort a bicycle is swifter than the cars which creates interaction and hence risk. I always enjoy roads where bikes and cars are moving at the same rate, minimizing reaction, but we all know that is the rare case: congested areas favor the bike; and open areas favor the power of the engine.

As I was passing by crawling cars, one driver repeatedly swerved into the shoulder as I was attempting pass, with her final move to the edge as she braked for the red light. Eliminating the suggestion that the driver was maliciously seeking revenge (an extremely rare occurrence here) my assumption is that the driver was not looking at her passenger side mirror nor making head checks. I protected myself by braking each time, which a cyclist should always be prepared to do (the car always wins in an accident).

Understanding why this happens helps to alleviate some of the frustration, if not the fear. Many Japanese roads – especially in the more countryside areas – are very narrow. Many times in our city, there are roads on which opposing traffic can’t pass without someone leaving the roadway. As a result, people are taught to pull to the outside edge of the road whenever possible. This practice becomes habit, with many drivers continuously using the shoulder as part of their lane regardless of how much free space there is on the road. These drivers are obvious, but this morning’s driver is the more cautionary situation. Something – perhaps brake lights on the car ahead – were, I assume, triggering her response of pulling to the side of the road when stopping.

While looking for drivers suddenly entering the roadway from the left, don’t forget to watch for drivers suddenly veering left from the roadway.


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2 Responses to “Cycling Safely in Japan”

  1. Stefanie Says:

    Yikes! Cycling in Japan seems to be a rather nailbiting experience. I am grateful for all of the off-road bike paths and the clearly marked bike lanes on the streets here in Minneapolis!

  2. びっくり Says:

    Indeed there are a number of dangers. A friend was just hit with her daughter and a friend while walking. I haven’t gotten an update all weekend, but one of the girls had a head injury. I really want traffic safety to be taken seriously here.

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