Cycling In Tokyo – Irresponsibility + Incompetence

I have been cycling for more than 20 years and have always loved it as a form of exercise, as an ecological way to commute to work or just for fun.
I have cycled in several big cities around the world and I consider myself to be a competent and considerate road user.
Until very recently I had never had any kind of accident and have never been stopped by the Police anywhere in the world for breaking cycling laws.
So it is with some consternation that I have recently been seriously considering no longer cycling in Tokyo.

The short film above attempts to elucidate why.

Cycling in Tokyo is far more dangerous than anywhere else I have ever cycled, simply because of other cyclists.
It may sound like vitriol to some but as stated in the video, the vast majority of cyclists in Tokyo are criminally irresponsible in their use of the roads.
Regardless of laws it would seem to be simple common sense, graspable by all but the most idiotic of cyclists that cycling the wrong way down a major 4 lane road at night, with no lights, with headphones on whilst texting on your phone is at best irresponsible, but I see this and comparably dangerous acts on a daily basis.
Breaking a law that places others in serious danger should, I think everyone would agree, carry stiff penalties.

The problem in Tokyo is made much worse by the fact that despite there being adequate laws and penalties in place the Police do almost nothing, even when witnessing these crimes directly. The willful incompetence of the Police makes them complicit in the 150,000 accidents involving cyclist that occur every year.

As much as I love cycling, when the situation is such that even if I obey all the road laws and am considerate of other road users and pedestrians I am still taking my life in my hands due to the stupidity and criminality of others and the seeming inability of the Police to do anything about it, I am forced to consider the worst every time I get on my bike.

I don’t want to stop cycling in Tokyo, but given the situation, what am I supposed to do?

(I would be happy to hear from other Tokyo cyclists regarding the issues raised here in the comments)

A few facts from the voice over in the video in case you missed them:-

In Japan it is Illegal to:-
cycle whilst drunk,
on the wrong side of the road,
with no front light and rear reflector at night,
whilst wearing headphones,
using a mobile phone,
with an open umbrella,
with a passenger over 6 years of age and on most but not all sidewalks.
These crimes are punishable by up to 5 months in prison or fines ranging from 20,000 to 1 million Yen.
However less than 100 people were charged last year, fewer than the number charged for murder.

There are more than 150,000 Accidents a year involving bicycles, one of the highest rates in the world.

Approximately 800 cyclists are killed a year.

40% of cyclist fatalities are caused by cyclists ignoring red lights or stop signs.

More than 20% of all road traffic accidents involve cyclists.

Several pedestrians are killed and about 2500 are injured a year by cyclist on sidewalks.

(Sources:National Police Agency Of Japan and General Insurance Agency Of Japan)


Filmed using a GoPro Hero 2 over the course of 7 days in Tokyo.
I did not go out looking for these scenes, I merely attached the camera to my bicycle whenever I went anywhere and took it with me whilst walking.

So many crimes were recorded that it would have been impossible to include them all, the edited video would have come out at something like 11 minutes!

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18 comments for “Cycling In Tokyo – Irresponsibility + Incompetence

  1. Don
    July 12, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Thank you for this, it was extremely cathartic. If only the problem was limited to Tokyo.

  2. Shirime
    July 12, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    You are full of shit . Raging over cycling in Japan, Really? Were you emasculated in England before arriving here?

  3. Pavy
    July 12, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    Can only agree with you on this. Cyclists are a plague here. I live in Japan and ride a motorbike almost everyday. I had an accident last November with a stupid cyclist who ignored a stop sign and had an headset. Result for me : broken shoulder and broken bike. Police didn’t have him pay a fine for this … they could but I would have been the one to decide, not them, and in that case I would have to pay something as well as cyclists are considered as weak on the road.

  4. Clinton
    July 12, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Appreciate this vid, of important but largely non-comprehended problem.

  5. Franz
    July 12, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    This problem is already spreading like a cancer (in my opinion)

    In Vienna (Austria) we have nearly the same problem. Cyclists are riding their bikes everywhere and ignore every dangers…

    Red lights are only jokes, lights on the bikes are not that important and if you ride your bike on the street, bike path or sidewalk is everywhere the same, isn’t it?

    I think, the real problem is, that the most people don’t THINK about being part of the driving community and look at cyclists as pedestrians…

  6. July 12, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Nice one. Interesting stats.
    we need to get you out on a longer ride out of the city just so you can enjoy it again :-)

  7. Ben
    July 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I’ve cycled for 2y in Tokyo, mostly drunk. On the wrong side of the road, often while I was on the phone and probably many times those three thngs at the same time. The only thing is that if you are not a delivery man you should not expect people to be fucking robots on their bicycle trying to go faster than cars and yelling at everybody that make offences to the sacred laws of the bicycle god. Japan is cool about that and that is why this is the only city in the world I felt safe cycling in, forget about London, NY or Paris, I fell so stressed that I prefer to take taxis!!

  8. July 12, 2012 at 4:43 pm

    let’s get the terminology straight. these people aren’t cyclists. they are pedestrians, who have unwittingly climbed onto a bicycle. and what do we know about pedestrians in Tokyo? they bumble along in their own little world, oblivious to any threat or danger…..

    I do agree with most of what you’ve written but. let’s take riding in London, England, as a foil. here White Van Man is King. beneath him, in the hierarchy of road users, comes any car costing less than the average 3 bedroom semidetached house in the Southeast of England. take a step down the ladder, and that place is occupied by a motorised vehicle with two wheels. below them, any ‘car’ with 3 wheels. at the bottom of the heap, despised and reviled by every other road user….cyclists. they are like something unpleasant that you picked up on the bottom of your shoe. Oi! No road tax, no insurance! you’re a bloody nuisance! it’s not much better outside the capital either. AT LEAST in Tokyo we get respect from the road users that really matter. the ones that can kill you stone dead just by brushing against you. I think you would have to be really unlucky to be killed by one of these bicycle users. Like everywhere in the world, when you are vulnerable as a road user, you simply need to ride defensively. anticipate the threats; stack the odds in your favour, not theirs.

    I sat out on Kamakurakaido for an hour. It’s what the Brits call a B road. I counted 182 cars, and sixteen bicycles. none of those bicycle users had helmets, on the other hand only (!!) two were using mobile phones, one had a parasol open, one was smoking, no-one had headphones on. half of those bicycle users were on the pavement.

  9. joselitus_maximus
    July 13, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Japanese police, cooler than the rest.

  10. July 14, 2012 at 4:05 pm

    I heard that older Japanese people were taught to cycle on the opposite side of the road (so against the flow of traffic) when they were kids as it was safer.

    Still scares the beejesus out of me when I almost crash head-first into a drunk obaasan with no lights on the way home though.

  11. Ted
    July 14, 2012 at 8:17 pm

    Yep. All of that is why I gave up cycling in the city in Japan ages ago. Had two accident, both with other cyclists, and gave up. However, I now have two problems: actually need the exercise and now have a commute that I could use a bike for one segment , and being a pedestrian doesn’t help. The people cycling on the sidewalk are a menace. Been hit several times, but not flattened (yet).

  12. July 15, 2012 at 5:05 am

    As you know I have had my scrapes with cars while cycling to & fro in Tokyo, as have us all. Why? Because the system is screwed due to a) population density b) a road system not designed for cyclists c) a lax system of policing and, perhaps most importantly d) a lack of proper (cycling) education.

    So what does one do?

    Take up kickboxing (in order to properly exorcise the stress incurred from railing against a system that will not change or be changed in our lifetimes, as well as defending oneself from dangerous cabbies)?

    Or get out in the countryside for a long distance ride (a la Sean)?

    I suppose there is a third option: You could petition your local representative with signatures of other residents whom regard this issue as important enough to affect the next election. You might have to clean up a bit though…Ha ha…

  13. Benny
    August 15, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    this is funny.. nice little short/rant. love the moving offence labels, and undercover voiceover.
    Personally i totally prefer being able to burn about the city and jump lights and ride on the pavements etc without fear of being booked for misdemeanours. (and I’ve never had any crash or accident). Shocking stats though! Nice one.

  14. charlie
    August 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm

    nice one mate.

  15. @seanmaki
    January 30, 2013 at 5:03 pm

    In continuation of a discussion started on Twitter, I strongly disagree with the author’s assertion that the “vast majority of cyclists in Tokyo are criminally irresponsible.” I ride somewhere in the range of 100km per week around Tokyo and generally encounter fellow cyclists using the road responsibly. I always ride on the road (in the right direction) and have never felt my life threatened. I’ve never had a problem with another cyclist, and the (very few) remotely dangerous encounters I’ve had have been with motorists, primarily taxi drivers cutting across lanes to pick up passengers or opening their automatic doors without due care.
    While I agree that riding against the traffic on a busy street is dangerous, I don’t consider this to be in the same category as slow-moving “mama-chari” going the “wrong way” on narrow local streets which are effectively mixed pedestrian/vehicle zones.
    That Japan has one of the highest rates of bicycle accidents in the world is hardly surprising within the context of its extremely high level of bicycle usage.
    Overall, I find riding in Tokyo much safer than in my home country, Australia, despite the much higher number of cyclists on the road here.
    While I don’t share the author’s opinion, I appreciate that he genuinely feels strongly about this issue and respect that he has put considerable effort into stating his case.

  16. January 31, 2013 at 9:17 am

    Thank you for your comment and continuing the discussion here rather than on twitter where the 140 character limit makes reasoned arguments near impossible.

    Whilst I don’t cycle 100km a week, I used to cycle around 50km and my experience has been markedly different from yours.
    I used to have, on an almost daily basis life threatening incidents caused by people cycling the wrong way or not stopping at red lights.
    My opinion stands that as a percentage my experience is that the vast majority of cyclists in Tokyo pay zero attention to the laws, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem if that didn’t place me in danger.
    I’ve had a few encounters with motorists too but they are far fewer than those with other cyclists.
    I respect the fact that your experiences may be different but for me the risk has become too great.
    I stopped cycling, except for very quick journeys in my local area, about 6 months ago due to an incident involving a cyclist coming the wrong way on 246 with no lights who forced me to make a choice between getting hit by a car or hitting him.

    The video was made to show that the laws are there and broken on a daily basis and almost completely unenforced by the police.
    The figures and the incidents I captured would seem to speak for themselves.
    I have never claimed to be a journalist reporting impartially and apologise if I gave that impression.

  17. KanaCocoa
    September 3, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    My absolute favourite (::insert sarcasm::) are the mamachari mothers who have one or two kids on the bike with them and ride against the flow of traffic. Do they not care if their child dies?! I’ve even had to help one such mother out because her bike started to fall over while her toddler was on the back seat, while stopped at a red light.

    I try to be extremely cautious on the road bike because of the speeds it can incur, and the inability to stop as quickly as on a mamachari. That said, as with any vehicle, it doesn’t matter how well you can ride if you chance by some idiot who doesn’t know or adhere to the rules of the road.

    Last year, I was slammed into by a middle-aged guy on a mamachari because he clearly didn’t check to see if anyone was coming down the road that he turned onto. It was a T intersection and I had the right of way as I was going straight on the top of the T, which happened to be a one-way road. The guy decided to fly into the intersection while coming down a hill and smacked into the side of my bike, causing me to fly off. The aluminium frame of my roadie was dented, the handle bars mangled, and I was told by the bike shop where I had bought the bike that it was beyond repair. Also, if the timing had been off, he would have slammed into my leg and I would have undoubtedly fractured it. Did I mention that it was a brand new bike that I had picked up earlier THAT DAY?

    I think it’s not too bad to cycle in Japan if you’re also on a mamachari, but if you have any type of sports bike, there is definitely a LOT of activity that will make you cringe.

  18. hora
    April 4, 2014 at 12:17 am

    If you think cycling in Tokyo is bad, you should NEVER cycle in Singapore.

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