Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on July 2010

Photo by James Hadfield

Nothing gets your day off to a good start like an altercation with a traffic cop. I was cycling along my usual route to work recently, and stopped to make a right turn at a crossroads, only to find myself caught in the sights of an over-zealous (or possibly just bored) police officer. With stern whistle toots and increasingly vexed shouts of “Dame!” he sought to convey that I should actually be using the pedestrian crossing if I wanted to attempt such a risky maneuver.

Now, I’m not riding a mama-chari. I’ve overtaken ambulances on my trusty steed, and I wasn’t about to be told to act like an octogenarian toddling off on the way to the grocery store. Still, even as I bellowed back that the guy didn’t know what the hell he was talking about and rode swiftly forth, the inevitable doubt began to set in. Surely, surely a cop would be right about something like this?

“Oh, the police don’t really understand themselves,” says Shinichi Maniwa when I recount the story to him. “The beat cops don’t have that detailed an understanding of the traffic laws.”

In his capacity as an adviser at the Japan Cycling Association’s Cycling Information Center, Maniwa spends much of his time elucidating the vagaries of the country’s road rules. And, as you might have guessed, these get a bit confusing when it comes to bikes.

“In general, the Road Traffic Law considers bicycles to be light vehicles,” he says. “But to motorists, cyclists are like pedestrians in the street—they can’t help seeing them as a nuisance.”

The situation was complicated by a 1970 revision of the law that allowed bicycles to ride on the sidewalk. The change came in response to a sharp rise in car use, along with pressure from an increasingly influential auto industry that wanted to keep traffic moving as smoothly as possible on the roads. This in turn helped spawn one of the most ubiquitous features of Japanese society: the mama chari.

“It’s an interesting beast, isn’t it?” says Maniwa. “There aren’t many bicycles which go that slowly. If you ride a bike with drop handlebars on the sidewalk, it’s dangerous. So they kept the rider upright, lowered the center of gravity, and you got something that could travel alongside pedestrians. After that, bikes acquired the aura of something that belonged on the sidewalk.”

Yet the law doesn’t go so far as to state that they always belong there. In fact, bicycles are only allowed on the sidewalk in designated areas—something that even the cops themselves tend to get wrong.

“The truth be known, I actually enjoy the randomly enforced bicycle laws,” confesses long-term Japan resident Byron Kidd, an Australian software engineer who chronicles his cycling exploits in the Tokyo by Bike blog. “As long as you exercise some common sense and ride safely, the Japanese cycling laws are more like cycling guidelines, and that works in a cyclist’s favor more often than not.”

Despite living in “one of the most bicycle dependent cities on the planet,” Kidd thinks that most of Tokyo’s bike-riding denizens are fairly clueless about even the basics. You know, things like which side of the street to ride on. “A large portion of the population either have no driver’s license or are ‘paper drivers,’ [so] there is less awareness of the road rules,” he says.

“As the road rules are so inconsistently enforced, there is a lot of confusion as to what is a ‘law’ and what is simply generally accepted good cycling practice… What works for you on the road today won’t necessarily work for you tomorrow.”

That’s sage advice. When I did some research of my own, I discovered that the officious cop who’d soured my morning ride had actually been right—he was just choosing to enforce a (rather silly) rule which most of his peers might have let slide. But not to worry: I took the same route this morning, and he wasn’t there any more.

For more information see www.j-cycling.org and www.tokyobybike.com.