Safety first in Japan

Japanese people are very concerned with safety. One of the first Japanese words I learned after arriving in Japan was anzen (安全 ), the Japanese word for safety.

A well-known example of this concern with safety is the method of ‘pointing and calling‘, shisa kanko (指差喚呼), used by public transport operators in Japan. Japanese train drivers will point at every sign they pass, calling out its status. This looks very funny to Western eyes but it is proven to help keep focus and attention.

Foreign Toyota employees receive similar instructions when they first arrive in Japan. The Toyota headquarters in Japan are so large that they include roads with motorized traffic on them. During their initial orientation, the expat employees are instructed on how to cross the road when they are at headquarters: they have to point to the left, say yoshi (which means something like OK), point to the right, say yoshi again, and only then may they cross. The Europeans, with their disdain for rules, think it is silly and try to skip the yoshi yoshi whenever they can. The Japanese employees, however, diligently follow the safety regulations, much to the astonishment and amusement of the Europeans.

Another example of Japanese concern with safety is this group of school children. They are all wearing helmets, which seem to be part of their school uniform.

Japanese safety anzen
Safety first in Japan: helmets as part of the school uniform.

I guess a country that is frequently affected by natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunami, volcanic eruptions and the like, cannot be blamed for an emphasis on safety. But Japan wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t also a huge contradiction in this concern with safety.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that many Japanese people watch TV while driving! While the Belgian government campaigns heavily against using the phone while driving, let alone watching television, in Japan it seems to be the most normal thing in the world to watch TV while driving. Many Japanese people have their navi system adjusted to also broadcast TV. While this isn’t exactly legal, as I’ve been told, many people do it.

Japanese people ignoring safety and breaking the rules? Just when you think you have things figured out, Japan throws you a curveball. Or is it allright to break the rules because the car is considered ‘private space’ (related to the honne – tatemae distinction) where you can do what you want? I would love to hear other people’s opinion on this. Please share what you think in the comment section!

15 thoughts on “Safety first in Japan

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  1. The train drivers and other staff like cleaners or platform attendants point and talk because it does work to reduce accidents. My understanding is that they borrowed this technique from the military and there is some science behind it all.
    Safety in Japan is a real mix: some is over the top (people directing traffic), other items are incredibly slack (allowing bus drivers to work with no sleep).
    As for TV’s in cars, my 1998 Japanese car has one, but I don’t use it – illegal for my home country. It also provides the display for the radio, satnav, and cd player. Having a tv on in the car while driving around Tokyo you can be distracted as much or as little as you like, but then you might not see the cyclists riding the wrong-way along the street with no helmet or lights at night.

  2. I have often written that the thing I miss most about Japan is the safety. But I also know of people who ignore many rules and drive intoxicated in Japan (as they do elsewhere).

  3. that’s just plain dangerous in my opinion. sure, being in your own car means being in your private space, but the result of one’s driving ability and concentration effect the safety of the public. if the tv is on for the passengers, then it’s another matter. but certainly should not be for the driver. then again, drivers all over the world break rules all the time. they talk on the phone, text messaging on their phone, drink hot beverage, eating, read newspaper, etc… you name it, they probably have done it.

    1. Reckless behavior while driving is certainly not limited to Japan, I totally agree. Somehow I was hoping or expecting Japanese people to be different, with all their emphasis on safety, but it seems like Japanese people are human too, as I have myself argued many times before 🙂

  4. In California bicyclist vs car accidents are quite high, if you are under the age of 18 you are required to wear a helmet. You can’t text or talk on your cell phone while driving too. As for movies, I have seen in-dash devices that are meant to display for your passenger but really what is to stop the driver from watching?

    1. In the end everything depends on the driver I guess. Even without phones or video, if you are sleepy or daydreaming behind the wheel, you are still dangerously distracted. Good that cycle helmets are mandatory in California, although they should be mandatory for everyone. A human brain does not suddenly become less fragile when you are over 18. I always think this when I see parents cycling with their children, and the children wear helmets and the adults do not. That doesn’t make any sense to me.

  5. Did you visit the castle at Inuyama during your stay? The railing around the topmost part (where visitors can walk) is too low to truly prevent falling (and it’s QUITE a fall, should one occur). Made me chuckle about Japan’s selective preoccupation with safety every time I visited the castle. 😀

  6. Out of the 8 countries I have driven in (3 european, 3 asian, 2 oceania) Japan has some of the worst common sense brain fades in road use that I’ve come across. Driving while using mobile phones is ubiquitous much more prelavent than tv watching. The lack of child seat & child seatbelt use is mind boggling. Riding bicycles while holding umbrellas is the norm as is using mobile phones – some doing both – figure that one out. Red light running is breathtaking – even city buses do it in my town. The bottom line seems to be – others will watch out for me. Terrible.

  7. The helmet thing used to be only true in rural areas of Japan and we used to laugh at school kids wearing helmets when I was in school but now most small kids in Tokyo wear helmets on their bikes. May not be true for middle/high school kids still because they look too uncool.

    Speaking on mobiles while driving is banned. Also while on bicycles. You’re not even supposed to use an umbrella on a bicycle. You can be stopped by the police for that.

    1. Here in Belgium wearing helmets when cycling is also getting more important. But same as in Japan, teenagers and also many adults think it is uncool. Often I see parents cycling with their children, with all the children wearing helmets while the parents do not. That doesn’t make any sense to me.

      All the rules about mobiles that you mention and even the umbrella make sense to me, considering what I understand of Japanese culture and the emphasis on safety. But that makes me even more puzzled about the TV thing while driving…

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