Why Cycling Laws in Japan are like Monopoly Rules

Byron Kidd
Yesterday I recalled reading an article which pointed out that we're all playing the board game Monopoly wrong and have been for decades.

It seems there is a Monopoly rule which, at some stage in history, players collectively chose to ignore and which has long since been forgotten. The rule states that if a player lands on a property and decides not to purchase it, then said property goes up for auction and is sold to the highest bidder. Apparently this rule created conflict in family games of Monopoly and many chose not to observe it as the game flowed more smoothly without it in play.

As children we learn Monopoly from our family and friends and as a result we've never actually sat down and read the formal rules of the game. This means we're all playing on rule set which has evolved from the original over time, yet still maintains the integrity and playability of the game.

The game is barely affected as the socially accepted rules work just as well as the official rules.

Then it occurred to me, cycling laws in Japan are exactly the same!

Cyclists in Japan are never taught cycling rules from an official source beyond the occasional bicycle safety session at school. The job is left to parents, the same parents who taught them bogus Monopoly rules based on the inaccurate rules taught to them by their parents. Is it any wonder they teach flawed cycling rules as well?

In addition to never being formally taught, cycling rules are also rarely enforced with any consistency by the police leaving them wide open for interpretation by the general population. Therefore, with no memory of the actual rules of the road, society has collectively allowed the rules to evolve over time into a set that works for society even if they're not the exact rules laid down by Parker Brothers .. er .. I mean the Japanese Government. Rules, that although not official, still maintain the integrity and playability of the game if you will.

For example the law states cyclists can ride only on sidewalks marked as shared use, but children under 13 can cycle on all sidewalks. From a family perspective this is less than ideal. You're on the road battling traffic while trying to look out for your young child who has just graduated from training wheels and is wobbling, alone, all over the sidewalk with nobody close by to remind them to ride on the left or to pay attention at crossroads.

Therefore, over time and out of convenience, this rule has evolved to mean cycling on all sidewalks is acceptable. This is what children learn from their parents, more through observation than any formal teaching, and its a rule which is never enforced by the police. It has evolved into something socially acceptable and there are countless other examples, such as cycling while holding an umbrella.

Occasionally, after decades of neglect, the police enter the picture and attempt to enforce cycling laws as they're written. This totally baffles the general populace as they believe they're well within the law as its what they've been taught, and the rules to which they adhere are generally accepted by society.

Cycling with two or more children as passengers is another practice that has been socially accepted in Japan until the police tried to put a stop to it. What is a mother to do with her toddler as she cycles her older child to kindergarten? Leave them at home in front of the steaming rice cooker? Did you think of that Mr. Lawmaker? Huh? Parents refused to comply and in the end police had to back down as society deemed the practice acceptable.

By and large sporadic attempts by the police to enforce the law as its written fail. Nobody is forced to "Go To Jail. Go directly to Jail." and after a week or two of effort the police retreat to their koban to play shogi using a flawed set of rules handed down to them by their ancestors.

Love it or hate it cycling rules in Japan have evolved into what is accepted by society, not that which is dictated to them by disconnected, chauffeur driven, bureaucrats not worthy of second place in a beauty contest. If the police expect cyclists to obey the law they had better start both teaching and enforcing it consistently otherwise the people of Japan will continue to play by Monopoly rules.

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  1. You're absolutely right when you point out the disconnection from reality of chauffeur driven politicians. Outside the bike friendly countries like yours, we the cycling people are opressed by the dictatorship of the same kind of rulers, helped by chauffeur driven architects, urbanists, designers, and all kind of "experts" who simply don't get our point of view. Car alienation is a global disease.

    1. "I'm a cyclist too, but..." you hear all the time, from people who ride once a month in summer in parkland. They know little more than the chauffer driven. The chauffer driven cycling advocates and planners remind me of what's called 'Champagne Socialists': even if you think you're on my side, you aren't helping me with your solutions.

  2. If the vast majority on bike and foot are happy to mix it together and it's safe, the law clearly needs changing e.g. make all footways shared use by default, then reassess if too many complaints/collisions.

    Anon 2

  3. Byron, I recorded the following video the same day you posted this. I've only just now gotten around to posting it. It's a perfect example of learning the wrong behaviors from one's parents.


    1. Thanks for sharing that video, it demonstrates exactly how children learn bad cycling habits from their parents. I can't believe those cyclists weren't cleaned up by the cars behind you.

      I just posted your video to the Tokyo By Bike twitter feed for all to see.

    2. Thanks for sharing it on your feed.

      I thought you might like it, especially given the day it was recorded. I'm up to 18 cycling videos on my channel now, so check out some others if you like. Most are just scenic bits from around the area, but there are also some "educational" ones with bad cyclists, drivers and scooter jockeys.

  4. Byron matey. I'm in Tokyo for 6 months. My Japanese girlfriend said I'm not allowed to cycle on all of the roads is that true? Cycling on the pavement here sucks massively! Also do you need lights at night if you cycle on the pavement (sorry sidewalk!) Thanks!

  5. yeah I had an accident years ago - result an elderly lady was injured...kinda my bad, but when I asked the cops who attended the "accident site" about the legality of riding on the rd -one said OK, the other "DAME" ...so even the cops don't know ...basically I think in reality there's no system...everyone just goes for it

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