What Makes Japan a Great Cycling Nation?

Byron Kidd

Mikael Coville-Anderson, of Copenhagenize fame, ranks Japan as the world's third greatest cycling nation behind the Netherlands and Denmark. But just what is it about Japan that makes cycling an attractive transport option to millions of people every day?

Japanese cities are amongst the largest and most populated in the world, but most residential neighbourhoods have their own unique small town feel.  In terms of services, Japanese neighbourhoods are largely self contained.  Residents have to cycle no more than 5 to 10 minutes to reach supermarkets, kindergartens, schools, doctors, dentists, in fact most necessities for everyday living are just a short ride away. Without the need to travel excessive distances for daily life’s basics, a bicycle makes perfect sense.

Public Transport
Japanese cities are crisscrossed with a fast clean and efficient train and subway system, not to mention and reliable cheap bus services. So efficient is the public transport system that it is often faster and more convenient to take the train than to travel by car.  While bicycle commuters did increase after the March 11 earthquake crippled Tokyo's rail system, few people are willing to cycle more than one or two stations from their home.  Many use their bicycles to compliment public transport, cycling from their home to the station.

Owning a car in Tokyo is inconvenient and expensive.  Before purchasing a car the buyer is required to provide proof they have secured an appropriate parking spot.  As most city dwellers have no garage hiring a parking space can be an expensive exercise, and that parking space may be many minutes walk from home. For people working in the city, commuting to work by car is not an option as some inner city parking spaces can cost more per month than a small apartment in the suburbs.  Throw insurance and maintenance costs in with all that and riding a bicycle makes a lot of sense.

Forget expensive road, hybrid and mountain bikes, the majority of Japanese ride mama-chari, they're the family station wagon of Japan.  Mama-chari cheap, and come equipped with dynamo lights, horseshoe locks and sturdy rear wheel kickstands right out of the box.  While baskets on the front and racks on the back are standard the options for carrying cargo and children with the addition of accessories are limitless. Carrying two (or more) children by bicycle is not an uncommon sight. Although heavy and somewhat clunky the mama-chari is perfectly suited to the Japanese city environment, and to the tasks that millions use them for in daily life.

Japanese cycling laws are largely unenforced until such time that there is an accident.  This makes for an incredibly free and liberating cycling experience.  I attribute a lot of the popularity of the bicycle in Japan to the ability to cycle wherever and however you like.  Confident in traffic? Ride on the road. Have child passengers? Stick to the sidewalk. Roads congested? Jump on the sidewalk and vice versa.  As long as you are riding safely and with respect for others it doesn't matter how many of Japan's cycling laws (or as I like to call them "guidelines") you're breaking, just don't get into an accident.

Japan has terrible bicycle infrastructure yet millions of people cycle every single day.  Most suburban Japanese streets often do not have a sidewalks so pedestrians, bicycles and car are comfortable sharing the same space. Bicycle lanes are practically non existent, when there is often not enough space for even a sidewalk, how can we expect bicycle lanes? Finding a (legal) place to park is often quite difficult, so parking illegally with everyone else is the accepted norm. Despite this few people are calling for improved cycling infrastructure, and cycling is booming.

A big factor in making cycling work in Japan is the Japanese people themselves. For the most part incredibly patient and polite they're tolerant of the people around them.  You can't live in a city with 12.9 million others without exercising some degree of tolerance and patience.  Pedestrians, cyclists and cars often share the same space and that can not work unless a drivers and cyclists are prepared to travel at walking pace until a pedestrian can get out of their way.

Japanese people also have what is termed the "gaman spirit", which loosely translated is the "just get on with it" along with a "shoganai", or " what are you going to do?" attitude.  So when it comes to cycling to the station in the dead of winter just get on with it, because what else can you do?

There are many factors that go into making cycling the best form of local transport in Japanese cities. Partly infrastructure, partly urban design and partly the police turning a blind eye to cycling offenses when no damage is being done.  But I believe it is the attitude of the Japanese people, the politeness they display to each other on the road that really makes a difference.

Cycling in Japan really is a polite form of anarchy.  People ignoring the rules, cycling and parking wherever they like, yet doing their best to impact as little on others as they can.  Can we replicate this success overseas?

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  1. excellent article. Thanks for writing.

  2. Much of what makes cycling here better is what makes it more tedious: duffers all over the &^%$ed place. I just need to remember it is them dithering all about the road and sidewalk that makes drivers look out for me, and I'd rather be delayed by a grandmother riding her bike more slowly than I stroll than hit by a car driving faster than the speed limit (the Canadian model).

  3. Hi Byron,

    I linked to this article and one more of yours about cycling in Tokyo in a blog post about martial arts. I know - tenuous connection. Anyway thanks for the articles.


    Simultaneously also posted on the aikido website aikiweb


    Cheers, Niall

  4. I like what you write Byron and everything you mention is something I've experienced in more than 25 years I've been cycling in the City.
    I ride a Papa-chari, which is a much larger frame than the usual and it's the best balanced bike I've ever owned. Cost me 55k yen and although it was the 4th or 5th bike I've had in Tokyo, it's been the best. It's only three speed but I've cranked it up on the flat and passed enough cars to meet my needs. My three kids grew up in the front and back baskets. The kid's basket-seat with drop-down leg holes is nested by the handlebars which completely surround it and set low. There's a lock on the front post so the weight of a kid won't swing the front axle around. Like you mention it has the "paper-boy" full stand. And it's never been stolen in 18 years! (secret: nobody steals a mama-chari either and the best security you can get is not the police registration number but your self-made, large PTA sign on the basket, which is usually yellow and covered in plastic-wrap)
    So let's keep all these raves about riding in the City balanced ok? Tell them about all the pedestrian injuries on sidewalks by dumb-ass kids screaming along like they owned the place (usually one standing-driving an one on the back posts or side-saddle. And the number of cyclist injured and killed on the streets. Also you need to find and publish the number of reported thefts. I've had three of my two son's bikes stolen right at the front of my house in the last four years. Usually in the wee hours of the morning, after ther trains stop. One was 80KY and they had to cut the bar-lock. Bikes around the stations are, next to umbrellas in restaurants on rainy days, the most commonly lifted by folks who consider them public property. It's really easy to kick and break off most of the standard C-type locks. I've made it a habit of buying larger framed but cheaper bikes and one was lifted so often by drunks who couldn't find their own as they came rolling home from the station that I took to pulling off the seat and stashing in the bushes. And that bike with it's extra-long extended seat-post was never "borrowed" again.

  5. Anonymous, thanks for your comment and for reminding me to keep things balanced.

    I'm normally quite critical of the Japanese cyclist, but in this article I was trying to examine the factors that lead to such high bicycle usage here.

    In a future post I will address the things wrong with cycling in Japan, those things that need fixing.

    I only wish I could get a good source of accident statistics, as everything I read is years old, or contradicts something I've read the day before.

    Sounds like you have a sweet Papa-chari. Although both my daughters can ride their own bikes now, I find myself using the mamachari more and more when simply cycling around the neighborhood, or taking them to the park. It carries so much more luggage than any other bike I own.

  6. I like the article, too bad it associates Tokyo with Japan. I moved from the city to the deep inaka and the only bike riders you see are guys in head to toe spandex training on their road bikes or the odd junior high kid riding in his school issue helmet. The wagon reigns supreme here, complete with fuzzy dash and curtains.

  7. Those narrow streets without footpaths sound a lot like the Hutong that I rode in Beijing, and the same (fairly) polite anarchy. The same disregard for any rules and similar politeness. It's not cycling paradise there however, the main roads are just too chaotic and bike lanes although everywhere are full of cars and electric motor bikes.

  8. great article, I especially like the comment Cycling in Japan really is a polite form of anarchy". I agree with it all, from the perspective of 3 trips to japan in 4 years (makes me a Japan "expert" :)
    I wish that there was a better cycling culture in Australia.
    I think that Japanese drivers are much more forgiving and accepting and patient with other drivers and cyclists than here in Oz.

  9. It's because that their road infrastructure is built to accommodate cyclists. You can't just cycle your way into a metropolis 'cause it is made for motorized vehicles. Maybe the government wanted them do such thing, it has many benefits, mainly to their health and the environment.

  10. I'm just quite not sure but, I heard there are still some delivering services which uses bicycle as a form of their service transportation. Well, I can see one reason cause I think bicycles could fit in closed-fitting roads and ways.

  11. Their road makes it easier to cycle. Unlike other metropolis, their roads are utilized for bicycle riding. They have bicycle lanes to ensure safety to their riders.

    1. Not really. They don't really have much separate infrastructure. Bikes are usually on the pavement/sidewalk or on the road. Tolerated on both.

  12. I will always be a fan of bicycles and eco-friendly vehicles. I just simply appreciate the goodness these kind of stuff brings to our mother nature.

  13. I think biking should be encouraged in all countries so we can help the environment. If more people will do it, chances of using fuel-powered cars will be lessened because it is one source of pollution.

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