Monthly Archives: October 2012

Driving in Japan: Does Cuteness Save Lives?

I had front row seats to the show. A whole two hours of what I assumed would be a thoroughly gruelingly attempt at straining my ears to follow a single word the instructor said and praying to any deity that’d have me for a follower that I wouldn’t be asked to speak in any way shape or form.

Evidently that was simply too much to ask. You see I’d found myself at the local driving license centre in the neighbouring city to mine (small mercy that it was actually that close at all) and as per protocol I had to endure a full two hours plus of administration, eye tests and a lecture on driving safety.

Fortunately my rather unhealthy addiction to anki, a bit of memorization software that is almost entirely responsible for my current level of Japanese, meant that I actually was able to follow the vast majority of what was going on in class.

Well, for twenty-minute intervals anyway. After twenty minutes of full speed Japanese, on a subject I’d never before discussed, it would be an understatement to say I drifted off somewhat.

I wasn’t fully conscious of where my mind wandered at all times (some of the locations may not be appropriate for publishing) but it at some point I’m sure it ambled towards the posters directly ahead of me in my front row seat.

Glossy, largely cartoon figures bidding me to be safe on the roads and one vaguely age appropriate poster that suggests not throwing away my driving license by drinking and driving.

Personally I’d rather they implore people not to drink and drive because they might kill the adorable little cartoon toddler in the poster next to the driving license drowning in a glass of remarkably carbonated beer.

Cuteness saves lives!

But, culturally I’m probably missing a trick here.

The reason I unfailing always buckle my seat belt, aside from the law and not wanting to die at 40mph as I go hurtling through a windshield, is because at a very young age I was suitably emotional scarred by an advert that informed me that if I don’t buckle my seat belt while sitting in the back seat I’ll probably survive… I’ll just have killed the person in the seat ahead of me.

As such, is it possible, that the emotional pull of Kawaii (cute) in Japan might be equally effective in altering the behavior of Japanese drivers?

Evidently not.

A recent editorial in the Japan Times points out that while the number of convictions has decreased as the laws have gotten stricter more still needs to be done to curb drink driving in Japan.

Yet, Japan has some of the strictest drink driving laws in the world, at least as far as what constitutes drink driving and statistically at least appears to have less of an issue with drink driving than many countries.

The thing is the stats are what bother me, because in the talk I received on the matter the focus was certainly not on lives lost, but the punishment and damage to the driver. The fines paid, the loss of your job because you can’t drive, your family leaving you because you can’t support them anymore. Little mention of the victims involved beyond the driver.

Therein lies the problem. When the focus is on the cost to the driver, how much do you think the police are actively enforcing these laws?

The driver first; unless you might run over a vaguely suicidal old person crossing the road that is.

Try not to run over old people with no sense of their own mortality.

Then there was the recreated footage of a traffic accident involving a drunk old man on a bicycle and a woman who clips him with the back of her car as she pulls into her driveway. The moral of the story? The woman should have continued to check where the cyclist was once he had passed her. While that is certainly a very good idea indeed there was no mention of avoiding drinking and cycling or the fact that that too is illegal in Japan.

Check out Surviving in Japan for a full breakdown on cycling law in Japan versus its odd reality.

But then again, this was all pretty fast and I’m sure I missed some chunks while my brain melted like an overheated computer chip as it attempted to translate at speed.

On the other hand, this is simply another reason why I found myself worried by the talk. Not because the instructor wasn’t earnest or that people weren’t paying attention, but because downstairs in the lobby where I filled out paperwork part of the form was handily translated into English; but not a word during the talk.

At one point during the talk all of the participants were asked to participate in a mock test. Asked if I could understand Japanese by the instructor I told him the truth, “Yes, I understand most of what you’re saying however, in this situation I don’t really know much of the driving vocabulary.”

He responded by trying to explain hai and iie to me (the Japanese for yes and no). Then when I assured him that yes I can read a hiragana, katakana and a fair bit of Kanji (the two scripts in Japanese and Chinese characters) and no I probably couldn’t keep up with the mock test he waved my comments away and carried on at full blast.

I didn’t have a chance in hell.

But that wasn’t important. I was there, I was participating and I had the appropriate paperwork.

What does it matter if I couldn’t follow every detail? I’m sure all the important information was relayed to me in cartoon form anyway. If that didn’t cover all the bases, well then, the awesome 80s soundtrack on the VHS video transferred to a swanky DVD will have most certainly conveyed everything I needed to know, right?

Car accident + music from The Terminator OST = Bad Driver.

Got it.


Drunk on Culture

There were a couple moments the other day when I was reminded that Japan does things a little differently. It was about 7pm at the Yokohama Octoberfest, every seat was packed and people were clearly enjoying themselves when a couple of foreign guys stood atop their benches to greet the rest of the crowd. They promptly got a friendly response from all the other revelers but were just as quickly and politely told to sit down by security (a security I hadn’t even noticed until that point). They didn’t complain, they sat down with a smile and everyone carried on as normal.

That this only happened once in the few hours I was at the festival didn’t betray a lack of good times. On the contrary everyone was thoroughly enjoying themselves and when the German musicians came out to greet the tables outside the main tent they got a fantastic reception, glasses and arms swaying as we all cheered along.

So what was different about it all?

To me, I guess it simply felt more grown up.

I hesitate to use the phrase as to suggest that the Japanese are in someway more mature than other nations, to imply that kind of comparison between nations at all feels condescending.

The truth is that what I’m talking about isn’t maturity but a manifestation of culture.

Though people of a European or North American background make up less than 0.5% of the population in Japan the figure is marginally higher in Yokohama which prides itself on being an international city.

Nonetheless however, Yokohama is still overwhelmingly Japanese and as such so was yesterday’s event. Japanese culture, not an international mix was the dominant force in setting the atmosphere of the day and so I doubt 95% of the crowd would even consider for half a second, no matter how heartily they’d taken to the festivities or yards of Heineken they’d drunk (if the crowd wasn’t that international the choice of beer certainly was), clambering atop their bench and drawing all the attention of the other drinkers towards them.

What makes this even stranger is that this kind of behaviour, from a British point of view at least, ought to be more pronounced at a Japanese Octoberfest. That Far East Asian people often have a lower alcohol tolerance than other ethnic groups is a fairly commonly held conception (I wouldn’t like to make too much of a claim as to its veracity, anecdotally at least it seems to hold true…ish) as such shouldn’t there be more not less drunken shenanigans? Hell, even based on the lower average height and weight of the Japanese this ought to hold true.

Yet, no.

Not at all.

Once again I’m inclined to believe that culture trumps genetics because as Kate Fox of the SIRC (Social Issues Research Centre) noted in her episode of Four Thought  on the BBC last October, alcohol by and large has little to do with how we act as a nation when knocking back the booze. Far more powerful are the myths and narratives that we build around it. The self fulfilling prophecy that imbibing inevitably leads to putting a traffic cone atop a bus stop. Or as she rather more academically describes it,

“The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.”

The article further mentions that countries like the UK and US have something called an ambivalent drinking culture, in that we assume all manners of behaviour, usually negative, to be the by product of alcohol consumption.  However, in Integrated cultures e.g. many Mediterranean countries, alcohol is seen as morally neutral  therefore these kinds of negative behaviour aren’t associated with alcohol consumption per say.

So where does that leave Japan?

Well, certainly many things that might be considered to be a moral matter here such as sex and gambling, aren’t viewed in quite the same way as they are in countries with a different religious background. Certainly alcohol isn’t seen to be as much of a moral issue as a practical issue.

Take a look at the decline in Salaryman pocket money over the years or the tradition of handing over one’s pay cheque directly to one’s wife in Japan for example. Men drinking too much isn’t so much a moral problem, it’s a practical one. There are home loans, children’s educational costs and taxes to pay first and if there’s something left over then the husband might be able to spend it on a night at an Izakaya.

There’s one problem with my argument though.

Yes, culture appears to dictate what is acceptable behaviour while drinking, however, while national cultures are persuasive in this way (and the Japanese have the proverb, “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” for a reason) sub-cultures are equally if not more persuasive at times. So as you read about the surprising maturity evident at an Octoberfest event of all places, there is most probably a drunk salarayman asleep across four seats of the train disproving my foolish notion.

Shoganai ne.

Or as we say in English, ‘it can’t be helped, can it?’

Ah well, let’s just stop worrying and enjoy it shall we?