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!

Advertisements

It’s the little differences

I love learning about foreign cultures. It fascinates me to see all the different ways people from all over the world come up with to do the same thing. That is why I am usually more interested in the little differences, rather than the more obvious, big differences.

I think Vincent Vega, in the movie Pulp Fiction, said it best when he said:

Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just… just there it’s a little different.

pulp fiction europe

Vincent (left) and Jules (right) discussing the little differences, in the movie Pulp Fiction

A good example of one of the little differences is a Japanese taxicab. In Japan, the interior of a taxi is decorated with white, lacy fabric. In Belgium, such fabric is usually only found in the homes of old-fashioned grandmothers. To see it inside a taxi seemed very funny to me. Another remarkable difference is that Japanese taxi drivers sometimes wear a navy-like hat and they always wear white gloves.

Japanese taxi inside

The inside of a Japanese taxi

Japanese taxi driver

A Japanese taxi driver – mind the white gloves

Funny car

When walking down the street in Japan, you never know what you’re going to see next. Like this oddly shaped car for example. I have never seen this shape in Europe. Although the design is striking, it hardly seems efficient (in terms of luggage space). Does anyone know what kind of car it is and if it is sold only in Japan?

Oddly shaped Japanese car

Oddly shaped Japanese car

Thanks to a comment by ‘RDS’ (see below), I found out that this model is called ‘Toyota WiLL Vi’. It was only produced for one year, from 2000 to 2001 and was only sold in Japan (as far as I know). It was targeted at young women in their 20’s and 30’s. In addition to this car, WiLL-branded computers, phones, and perfumes were sold on the internet. Toyota experimented with this new branding strategy to attract a new generation of buyers. It was a huge success; the demand exceeded the supply.

Click here to read more about the WiLL-Vi.

Ridiculously clean cars

One thing that’s typically Japanese are the ridiculously clean cars. I have no idea how they manage to keep their cars that clean. It’s not like all the Japanese are collectively washing their cars on Sunday. In fact I hardly catch anyone cleaning their car ever. But somehow all the cars in Japan are sparkly clean.

Maybe there are some car-cleaning-fairies that secretly clean all the Japanese cars at night and refuse to clean the gaijin cars. Whatever the reason, our car makes for a grim contrast with the Japanese cars. It’s almost getting to the point where it’s a little embarrassing (and yes, we have tried washing it but it just gets dirty very quickly again).

dirty gaijin car

Dirty Gaijin car

You might think the above picture is not so bad. Indeed in Belgium there are lot’s of cars that are worse than that. But it’s the contrast that does us in. Have a look at the next picture. It is a very good example of a typical Japanese car. In fact this was just the car standing next to ours in the parking lot. It is so incredibly clean! And almost all the cars look like that in Japan. Amazing!

clean Japanese car

Clean Japanese car

Pimp My Ride Japan

When walking around in Japan, you never know what you will see next. Like a pimped out turquoise car for example.

pimp my ride Japan

Pimped out turquoise car in the Nagoya City streets

The rims on the turqoise car

The rims on the turquoise car

Detail on the rims

Detail on the rims

 The car just stood there by the roadside, blasting Japanese hip hop music while the owner was casually making a phone call a little bit further off.

Pimped out car owner acting casual

Pimped out car owner acting casual

Running out of gas in the middle of nowhere

During our recent trip to Hokkaido (see post about Hokkaido) we covered quite some distance by car. At one point we drove all the way from Hakodate to Kushiro, about 585 kilometers in one day.

Hokkaido from Hakodate to Kussharo

The blue line indicates our road trip

A large part of this route included highway, which is closed off by toll booths at the beginning and end. It turns out there are no gasoline stations (‘gasorin sutando’ in Japanese) on the highway in Japan, or at least not in Hokkaido. Here’s the story of how we found out:

We entered the highway above the left-most black arrow. We saw a gas station right before entering the highway but we still had enough gas for about 160 km. So no need to fill up the tank. Or so we thought.

So we start to drive. And drive. And drive some more. After about 100 km we start to get a little worried. Where are all the gas stations? When is this highway going to end? There’s not an exit in sight.

When the highway finally ends, after 127 km (right-most black arrow), we’re relieved. There’s bound to be a gas station soon. Right? Think again. The highway ends on a road that leads through the middle of nowhere. We’re in the mountains, night is setting in and we don’t even pass any side roads, just the entrance to a farm here and there.

Hokkaido mountains at dusk

The mountains at dusk. Very gloomy.

Meanwhile our estimated driving range has dropped to 4 km. Gulp. It’s time to do something now! So when we finally come across a side road, we make a turn. It’s supposed to lead to a village 12 km further. We start driving along this road, only to see this road take us further into the mountains and further into the middle of nowhere. By now our estimated driving range is 0 km.

Estimated driving range 0 km

Estimated driving range 0 km

Feeling slightly desperate, we decide to stop at the next farm to ask for directions. It feels strange just driving up someone’s farmyard but we don’t have a choice. After shouting ‘sumimasen’ for about 5 times, a very sleepy woman and an old man come to see what all the fuss is about. I can only imagine their surprise when they see two gaijin standing on their porch.

We try to explain in our best Japanese that we’re looking for a gas station. ‘Gasorin sutando???’ they repeat with a puzzled face, like we just asked them if there’s an ice cream parlour around here. After talking back and forth some more, it turns out there are no gas stations around here (we already figured as much). But they understand our problem and generously offer to sell us some of the gasoline they have in their barn.

They transfer 10 litres to our car and we shower them with thank you’s, bow about a hundred times and pay them 3 times the amount we would have paid at a gas station. With this we should be able to make it Kushiro.

I can hardly describe the relief we felt seeing the first houses by the roadside again, the first convenience store (a sure sign you’ve entered civilization) and of course the first gasoline station.

Gasoline station, Hokkaido

Finally a gas station!