Friday, October 1, 2010

The Holy Cow of Japan

I lived in Japan for three years from 1996 to 1999.  During this time I worked as an assistant English teacher.  From time to time I encountered several trying circumstances.  This article tells one such story.
It was on one of those beautiful but cool October mornings that had been brightening up my usually dull and uninteresting journeys to school.  My mood that morning, however, could not be improved by the great weather as I’d woken up to find myself lost in a miserable cold which had rapidly been developing the day before.  Sitting astride my “mama-chari” (a rather nice Japanese term for describing the piece of crap bike that I used to get to work and go grocery shopping each week) I was feeling a little bit rattier than usual at this early hour of the morning.  And so it was I set off on my 25 minute journey to work.
 As I’m sure every newcomer to Japan has noticed, and every long-term resident for that matter, the roads are a little on the narrow side to say the least, so it should be pretty obvious to everyone that anything with four wheels that is bigger and heavier than one person and a bike should be treated with respect.  However, it was not the cars, the trucks, or the motorbikes that were the main danger, not even the fellow cyclists (although I did see several “kamikaze” maneuvers during the first few months after arriving in Japan and I have to admit that I was guilty of a couple myself).  No, the main threat posed to the personal safety and sanity of a cyclist was most certainly Mr. Joe Pedestrian!
This person could without any obvious effort on his part reduce the poor unsuspecting cyclist to a heap of metal, spokes and limbs on the ground, or to a raging, sweating, nervous wreck.  Either way the cyclist felt a certain personal grievance and Mr. Joe Pedestrian just kept on walking, oblivious to the physical or mental damage he may have just caused.
For those of you who would like a clearer picture of what Joe Pedestrian was actually like, let me give you a brief rundown of his main characteristics.  Most often encountered between the hours of seven and nine in the morning and anytime from five in the evening to around midnight, Joe Pedestrian was usually dressed in a dark blue or grey suit with briefcase in hand.  Optional extras included an umbrella, a newspaper, manga (a Japanese comic - yes Japanese adults read comics!!), a cigarette and bloodshot eyes.  All of this of course sounds fairly innocent, except for the manga perhaps, so how could such an ordinary sounding person be of any danger to the average cyclist?
Well if you consider that this person probably didn’t get home from work until about ten or eleven the night before after making his way home via the local “izakaya” (bar/tavern) and that after getting up at around six in the morning and forcing down breakfast, he probably had quite a hangover from the beer and sake he was made to gulp down, it’s hardly any wonder that his mind was in quite a fuzzy state.  So what happened next?  Our man Joe would leave his house with one thought on his mind – I mustn’t be late for work!  Because if he was late of course, he would have just put a black mark on all the good effort he made in the izakaya the night before towards improving relations with his supervisor and colleagues.  So he would leave his house and head towards the station at a fairly brisk pace – nothing would stop him!
This is where I came in.  Not averse to a late night trip to the izakaya myself trying to improve my relations with my own work colleagues, I had been known (on very rare occasions I must stress) to be in a similar state of fuzziness to our friend Joe.  The only difference was that the thought of being squashed between a large truck and the scooter that was trying to squeeze through the one foot gap between my bike and the curb was a very sobering one, and therefore I woke up very soon after leaving my apartment.
Very aware of the dangers and obstacles that faced me on my hazardous journey to school, I still never failed to be shocked and surprised by the sheer lack of awareness of that man Joe, and I’m sorry to say that in those moments the beautiful English language that I was supposed to be teaching escaped me and instead my very worst gutter language came into action.  Thank goodness my mother couldn't hear me!  But do you know what happened?  My curses and screeching of brakes did not even register in robotic Joe and he just kept on walking right past me, in front of me, or anywhere that was in my way.  Remember, he mustn’t be late – nothing would stop him!
And do you know what was ironic?  That same person, who would not even utter the slightest hint of a “sumimasen” (sorry) after nearly making me pile my bike and myself into a telegraph pole, would be apologizing profusely in the office for the slightest infraction into my line of path on my way from my desk to the fax machine.  It was madness!!  Or was it just me?
So to bring this rant to an end on a slightly more serious note, if you ride your bike to work in Japan and know what I’m talking about please take care.  All you need to do is get up a little earlier so you can leave for work a little earlier.  Easier said than done, I know.  And it would have been much easier to get up in the morning if the apartment that I lived in had some insulation, which brings me to another point…