Out of Japan: Love crime-free streets but miss roundabouts

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The Independent Online
TOKYO - I was sitting in a taxi on my way home late in the evening last week, and wondering why it was taking so long to travel a relatively short distance across Tokyo at a time when there were few cars on the street. Finally I realised we were being stopped at nearly every junction by traffic lights, stubbornly blinking red, orange and green in the night, oblivious of traffic flows. And then it occurred to me that there are no roundabouts in Japan: in fact Japanese friends who have been to Europe report their confusion at having to negotiate roundabouts with no signals to tell them when to stop and when to start.

Pondering further, at yet another red light, I took out a pen and piece of paper and began to note down things that are taken for granted in the West and yet are almost entirely absent from Japan. This was not to be a gripe list, along the lines of US trade negotiators complaining about closed markets and all the foreign goods that are shut out of the country. Some of the things on my list that are missing in Japan, like street crime, are welcome by their absence. It was a simple compendium of things that have become so familiar to those in the West that they are barely noticed - until they are missed.

Roundabouts and 'Give Way' signs, with all their flexibility and arbitrariness, somehow seem to rub against the Japanese passion for regulation and order. Even the smallest side roads in towns have traffic lights, many of which emit a syrupy little melody for blind pedestrians that is the same all over the country and that I will be able to hum from memory for the rest of my life.

Twenty-four-hour automatic cash dispensers are another Western luxury: in Japan they are banned because of a wrangle between the Ministry of Finance (MoF), which regulates banks, and the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), which regulates, among other things, the hugely popular postal savings system. The MPT has for years resisted 24-hour dispensers, since, it argues, it would take away from its pool of savings. And with no overriding sympathy for the poor consumer in the halls of goverment, the late- night spender can still not withdraw money from his account at a cash dispenser after 7 pm.

But this late-night spender, if he remembers to take out enough money in time, can enjoy him or herself until the early hours, stagger unescorted through the streets without fear of being mugged, and if he or she does collapse on the platform of a deserted train station, the person who comes to pick him or her up will be a railway employee anxious to make sure the 'guest' gets on the right train, and not a fast-fingered thief looking for a wallet.

In the morning, however, the hungover reveller will search in vain for a newsagent. Despite prodigious newspaper print runs (the Yomiuri alone prints 9 million copies in the morning and 5 million in the afternoon) the vast majority are still house-delivered, and apart from at railway stations there are virtually no newsagents anywhere in Japan. The fact that the newspaper distribution network has ties to organised crime may conceivably be a factor here.

Self-service petrol stations are not allowed in Japan - the official reason given is that ordinary citizens could cause fires and explosions if allowed to dispense their own petrol. But such bureaucratic control has its flip-side - there is also little unemployment in Japan, since many jobs that have long fallen by the roadside in the West are still protected by regulation in Japan. In a country where the average per capita income is more than twice that of Britain, road workers still employ two guards to stand at either end of their site with red batons to wave the traffic past, instead of using flashing-arrow signs.

Tipping is unknown in Japan - efficient, courteous service is considered the only honourable way to treat a customer, a way of thinking that is apparently regarded as subversive in the West.

Birth control pills are not freely available: doctors have found the abortion trade is extremely lucrative, and because of their political lobbying power the government, to its shame, has never broken this cartel. As a result 2 million abortions are performed every year in Japan.

When my taxi dropped me off, and I had paid and got out, I was about to put my list of Not in Japan away, when I thought of one more: taxi doors are all opened and closed automatically, a 'no hands' policy that one gets used to in Japan, much to the fury of taxi drivers in London when one unthinkingly walks away, leaving the door open. In a trade-off of roundabouts against automatic taxi doors - who wins?