Home > Focus on Japan 2003 > Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers

Seasonal Fair-Weather Daylight Enforcers

June 4th, 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.

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  1. Luis
    June 4th, 2003 at 21:08 | #1


    The weather was supposed to be OK today, but unexpectedly turned rainy. I did see some traffic cops caught out–but they were set up under an elevated highway, ticketing people only in a spot where it didn’t rain. Figures.

  2. Beau
    June 12th, 2003 at 12:29 | #2

    Man you are so correct it hurts. I have been nailed on my 50cc scooter about 8 or 9 times. Luckily I often get released with a caution. I intentionally wear an identity shielding balaclava which invokes the “oh my god I have pulled over a foreigner” response when removed and often directly results in my release. I have been picked up for both crossing a solid line and for right turns over a multi lane scenario. Not to mention the ever popular “pulled over for a traffic offence” converted to “your Gaijin Card is not enough identification you need someone to bring your passport or we hold you indefinitely” deal. Oh what fun. They do always hang in the easy apprehension positions and I never get nailed in the wet.
    Don’t let the soft outward behavior fool you though they become real tyrants when they get you back to the station.

  3. February 17th, 2005 at 01:35 | #3

    Enjoying reading your blog on Japan (hence the comments dotted here and there) and my word, the above, like another of your postings on speed cameras, is exactly the South African Traffic Police.

    Over here, the Traffic Police aren’t just a bunch of lucky ordinary coppers who get to ride bikes and drive fast pursuit cars, they are a different division. Thus, you never ever see them at night or early in the morning and they congregate where its easiest to catch a hapless motorist. That is of course when they can be bothered. Most times I’ve seen them they speed too and don’t worry about stopping people. I was doing 120Km/h along the motorway (the legal limit) and got passed by one doing about 130-140. They weren’t in pursuit mode – no lights, not really going flat out. Just trundling home no doubt for supper…

    Although the Japanese Traffic Police seem more zealous then ours they do share the same small minded mentality of our cops.


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