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

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?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: £20000 - £25000 per annum + c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a number ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Sales Consultant - OTE £45,000

£15000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want to work for an exci...

Day In a Page

Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

Latest on the Labour leadership contest
Froome seals second Tour de France victory

Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

The uses of sarcasm

'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

No vanity, but lots of flair

A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

In praise of foraging

How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food