Monday, December 27, 2010

The History of Japanese Pedestrian Traffic Rules

I learned something really interesting on my last trip to Japan, and I know everyone reading this blog reads it sometimes for educational purposes, so...

In the U.S. one customarily defers to the right when walking down a sidewalk, to avoid running into oncoming pedestrian traffic. In Japan however, pedestrians do not defer in either direction when on the sidewalk. It is not uncommon in the land of the rising sun to be caught in a "shall we dance" pas-de-deux right in the middle of the Shibuya Scramble Intersection for hours. I wondered why such an efficient and over-logical people would run into this problem and discovered why.
The origins of this behavior can be found 300 years ago. In the Edo Period, when urban planning began on old Tokyo, people walked right into each other, at which point samurai swords would be drawn (lower castes would draw bamboo sticks, and women would draw ninja stars). Whoever successfully swung the sword through their opponent's torso first would naturally win the right of way, which frequently ends up being a left of way, because sword sheaths are usually kept on the left side.
This practice became unwieldy and messy, not to mention all the deaths meant women were now working overtime to replace human capital with babies. Lots and lots of babies. Women, tired and more fearful for their lives, learned to duck quick when swords were swung at them on sidewalks. They deferred by bowing. This is where the customary Japanese greeting originates. Bowing is a literal "bowing out." Now a de rigeur greeting, bowing is still a traditional Japanese's preferred hello.
Unfortunately, bowing out has become so inculcated in the Japanese moor that no one gets killed in pedestrian battles anymore, and many an educated academic blame this act for the precipitous decline in the country's population. The Akita Prefecture has been hit particularly hard, where the population has more than halved in the last twenty years. It is no accident that Akita translates to "faceless halves."
One peculiar exception to the rule of no rules in pedestrian traffic is on escalators. Misbehaving on an escalator is a crime punishable by excommunication. And visitors are not exempt. Anyone who's been on a Japanese escalator can tell you, one always rides on the left, leaving an aisle open to the right for those wishing to use the escalator as a traditional set of stairs, and step up or down. This practice too, has a peculiar ancient origin.
An enduring myth of heaven and hell in the Shinto religion is "The Stairway to Heaven," believed to have been first communicated in the Jomon period, when the very first steps were created leading up to animist shrines to the Gods of fertility and crop. In "The Stairway to Heaven" myth, it is believed that only those deceased who have had enough faith in the stairs while alive, will be carried to that "other side" in a moving stair. This is where the phrase "spirited away" comes from.
In the myth, those who didn't believe in the moving stairs would of course, start walking up the stairs to heaven. Unfortunately they would end up in hell, as punishment for not believing in the moving stair.
Today, those who still believe in Heaven will stand paitently on the left column of an escalator, while the right side is reserved for atheists, nihilists, felons and Koreans to walk up or down.


Nate said...

damn, here i was reading your blog for the dick jokes and anus neologisms and you go and drop KNOWLEDGE on me. also, can i see your ninja star collection that you have, since you are a lady?

ill iterate said...

you can NOT see my ninja star collection, for I am not just a lady, I am a dame.

Anonymous said...

In Japan people STILL walk in one way.
the crossing in Shibuya CAN NOT be example!is people from four sides on the street at same time.
alot of people.
walk enven at Shinjuku station and you will see.
also about stairs,Osaka and all Kansai area people stop at right side.

ill iterate said...

There is nothing I can do for people who don't recognize sarcasm. Nothing at all.