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Recycled BlogD 2003: Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers

February 5th, 2009

Author’s Note: If you’ve read this blog for a while, then you are probably aware of what little respect I have for the Japanese police. Despite a good reputation overseas (gained by ludicrously inflated conviction rates), they are surprisingly ineffective and all too often inept. Far better at collecting fines, giving directions, and ignoring crimes they feel it’s not likely they can solve, even the Japanese people themselves generally don’t respect them too much.

This has been illustrated in other stories in this blog, such as when a cop just stood by and watched while three gangsters grabbed a man near a police station, tossed him into their car, and then sped off, or the time Japanese cops arrested a guy who doused himself with gasoline to set himself afire, and then gave him a cigarette lighter upon request, leading to a predictable result.

The article below outlines how Japanese motorcycle cops specifically strut around mainly for show, but don’t actually do what they should be doing, which is enforcing laws to make the streets safer.

Please read the postscript at the end.

Also of note in this blog around the same time:

“Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers,” Posted June 4, 2003


The guy at right is probably not as ashamed as you might think, depending on his particular crime. There’s a very good chance that he was pulled over for something that was safe, reasonable, and yet still illegal.

Japanese traffic police are an interesting breed. If we were to class them as we would a species of bird, we would note that they have a very specific range–in this case, primarily along major thoroughfares, especially at intersections or at the exits of underpasses. Their “diet” is primarily motorcycles or other two wheeled vehicles; they might occasionally snack on cars or vans, but they never, ever go after trucks, no matter what crazy thing one might do. And they are most definitely diurnal; you will never see one out after dark. In fact, they never go out when it rains or snows, either; they apparently have a very delicate constitution.

OK, ornithological analogies aside, Japanese motorcycle cops are not exactly doing the job they are supposed to be doing, which is–and I’m making a big reach by presuming this–protecting public safety on the roads. In fact, their mandate is likely closer to what it is for most police in Japan, which is to make a good show of law enforcement without really getting involved, except for high-profile cases.

As I mentioned, Japanese traffic cops have poor habits for enforcement. First, they only venture out onto the big roads, like Koshu-Kaido, Ome-Kaido, and so on. With the multitude of smaller roads and blind corners where traffic disobedience can present real dangers to the public, you might think they would normally patrol these areas as well, but they don’t. Even on the bigger roads, they hang out at major intersections and at the exits of underpasses only. Why? Because it’s easy to catch people there. Seriously. That’s where people slow down, making it easier to pull them over. Also, you can find people violating technical rules there more often, rules that do not necessarily endanger anyone but make for juicy traffic fine fodder.

One example: I knew a guy who rode a 50cc scooter. At one intersection, he got into the right turn lane (in Japan, you drive on the left, so a right turn at an intersection means crossing the opposite lane of traffic), and he got pulled over. The officer gave him a ticket. Why? Because in Japan, if you are riding a scooter under 51cc and you make a right turn at an intersection with two major lanes of traffic and a third turn lane, it is illegal. Why? No good reason whatsoever. They just made the law that way. If you know how Japanese traffic works, you will know that there is no earthly difference between a 50cc and a 70cc scooter making that same turn. A 50cc bike is allowed to drive in any lane of traffic, no matter how many lanes there are. When you go from the rightmost lane into the right turn lane, you slow down, meaning 50cc vehicles have no problem there. Making the turn itself is no problem. There is no part of that maneuver which is not perfectly safe for a 50cc vehicle. But the police can write lots of lucrative traffic tickets for it.

Another profitable spot is at the exit of two-lane underpasses. Why? Because such underpasses always have lanes separated by a yellow (no-cross) line. Why is it there? I can’t think of a logical reason. But bikes will often cross it, and they’re easy to catch on the straightaway or traffic light right after. Also, the cop can hide easily there, as he can at the intersection.

In addition, they go after motorcycles far more often than any other vehicle, far out of proportion to offenses committed. And I have never seen them pull over a truck. One time I saw a truck make a sudden and extremely dangerous lane change, over a no-cross yellow line, no less. A traffic cop was right there, watching. He did nothing. A minute later, a motorcycle crossed the yellow line, in a completely safe way. He got pulled over.

There is also a season, by the way–traffic campaign seasons, multi-week stretches (usually 2 or 3 times a year) when traffic cops are at intersections and underpasses everywhere, writing tickets like mad. Why the sudden enthusiasm? They get paid extra for every traffic ticket they write.

Traffic cops seem to have a good union, because they are never out at night, nor do they come out in inclement weather. Which are, naturally, the times when traffic violations present greater dangers than usual due to lack of visibility and control. But I concluded long ago that cops in Japan are more about show than safety. One example: I have only seen one speed trap (a guy seated on a folding chair with a radar setup, in radio contact with traffic cops at the other end of the street) set up in my years in Japan. It was along a riverside road. The road itself is ludicrous: half a kilometer long, the river on one side, a huge building on the other; no intersections along that stretch, no houses, no pedestrian traffic, just a nice, long unbroken straightaway. So of course the speed limit is 30. That’s Kph, not Mph. It comes out to just under 20 mph. Someone would have to be insane not to “speed” there. They put up the trap there precisely because of that, and because it’s easy as pie to stop people. Does it help public safety? Not in the least.

On the other hand, there is a small street I sometimes walk on, one of those very narrow two-lane streets you often see in Japan, but this one with lots of blind corners and heavy traffic. A straightaway, no stops signs or lights for a 200-meter stretch. People crossing the street all the time, cars coming out of the blind intersections. The speed limit on that road is 40 kph (25 mph), and people speed quite often. It’s one of the most dangerous streets I know of. Furthermore, there is a large police station right smack at the end of the street. And yet I have never seen a speed trap there, nor any cop watching traffic. Go figure.

This all jibes with what you hear about Japanese police in general. Someone stole your wallet/purse/whatever? Sorry, we can’t help you, in fact don’t even bother us by filling out a report. Bosozoku (hot rodders on scooters and motorcycles) racing up and down your street at 2 a.m., endlessly revving their engines at artificially-enhanced noise levels, breaking traffic laws left and right? Don’t bother us.

But if you see a guy on a 50cc scooter going at safe speeds making an orderly right turn on a 3-lane street, by all means, report it immediately. We don’t want a menace like that going unchecked.

Update: I have encountered two more speed traps like those mentioned here. Both were in almost identical circumstances–not dangerous at all, but well-placed to catch safe drivers in technical illegalities. But I have also seen two instances recently which made my eyes pop: a truck and a taxi (not at the same time–different days) pulled over and ticketed. I have never seen that before, either one. Not because they drive safely, especially not taxis, but, I believe, because cops give them a break, either because they share a common background or simply because taxi and truck drivers depend on driving for their livelihood.

Postscript: My past year and a half in Ikebukuro has made one thing clear: you get a lot fewer tickets living in the city. As I note in the above blog post from 2003, the police love to lay in wait on long, wide, deserted stretches of countryside road where it’s absolutely safe to go fast and yet the speed limits are set ludicrously low. Before moving from the more rural area of Inagi, I got so many tickets that I went “mentei” (on probation). However, since I moved to Ikebukuro, I have not gotten a single ticket. Why? Not because I drive any differently, I drive exactly the same as before–safely. The difference is that in central Tokyo, the police almost never set up traps like they do outside the city center. I have seen one speed trap in Ikebukuro (not very effective–it’s right after a major 90-degree turn, where few would be able to speed), but that’s it–I saw speed traps all the time out in the countryside. And motorcycle cops just don’t stalk you on Meiji Blvd. like they do on Route 20.

More evidence that it’s all a scam, more about raising revenue as easily as possible, and not even the slightest about traffic safety.

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