“I’ve stopped racing to get to the red light.” ~Kyle Chandler
“Experience is by far the best teacher. You know, ever since I was a little girl I knew that if you look both ways when you cross the street, you’ll see a lot more than traffic.” ~Mae West
“On a traffic light green means go and yellow means yield, but on a banana it’s just the opposite. Green means hold on, yellow means go ahead, and red means where the hell did you get that banana at…” ~Mitch Hedberg
I have an issue with driving in Japan. No, it is not the “American Vehicular ‘Hello’…” which is flipping on your windshield wipers in the middle of a perfectly clear day when turning.
Think about it.
Right! We drive here on the “other” side of the road, and thus we sit on the other side of the car to drive. Since your shifting hand must be the more free hand – to shift, but more obviously to be placed on your main squeeze’s thigh and other important biologic landmarks – turn signals in cars are usually, by-in-large, on the outboard side of the steering wheel, opposite where the manual shift would be. So, here in Okinawa, it takes some of us a long time (or longer than others) to break the habit of signaling for a turn…using our windshield wipers.
At least it looks as if our car is waving. That’s the charming thing about the Japanese: they are able to always see the bright and cute side of things!
No, it’s about traffic lights in Japan.
“How different can they be?” one may think. Different enough, in some very important and potentially disastrous ways.
In Japan, by convention for which I really can find no clear reasoning, a green arrow is never displayed with a circular green, or even on its own. Instead, green arrows must be shown with a circular red, which denotes that opposing traffic has come to a stop, protecting the flow of traffic in the direction of the displayed green arrow. What results is the potential for a traffic signal to display green arrows pointing in all possible directions, along with a steady circular red! At first this is very disheartening; when glanced while driving, your brain can quickly thin-slice your consciousness into believing you are running a red-light, or worse, your equally unfamiliar gaijin passenger cries out in terror assuming that a red light is being run! Nah, this hasn’t happened to me….
Indeed, here is what a Japanese government site has to say about Arrow signals in Japan: “Even when the traffic light is red, you can proceed in the direction of the arrow.” Okay, so maybe they only want us to figuratively stop and think about the meaning of the conflicting colors.
In American, our turn signals are referred to as “protected greens.” This means, basically, that the green arrow is “protected” by a red light applied to oncoming traffic and pedestrians, with the implication that you are protected in making such a turn across opposing traffic and through crosswalks. In Japan, a “protected green” is displayed quite differently, with green arrows and a circular red combined.
However, something even stranger happens at certain signals in Okinawa.
At such dubious signals without turn arrows at all, you find yourself with a green circle waiting for a break in oncoming traffic to cross in the Far East’s version of our left turn – actually a right. Suddenly, you see the oncoming vehicles slowing…and then stopping…without much reason. Your light remains a steady circular green, but with no arrow to indicate a “protected” status. Or, more eccentrically, you are waiting to turn at an intersection with a circular red and a straight green arrow, which then shifts to a steady circular green…while the oncoming cars remain stopped. Such intersections actually are “protected” as the oncoming traffic light has turned or has remained red; it’s just that you, in the all-too-dangerous position of having to make that turn across traffic, has absolutely no indication of “their” red. So you end up hesitating, wanting to believe that oncoming traffic has stopped, starting across very slowly while you remain very unsure…all the way through the intersection. Sure, once you learn the location of these traffic signals you’re in the know and can zippidy-doo-da your day away on the mean yet slow and polite streets of Okinawa, but until that point, it is a very unsettling feeling indeed.
Oh, and try and pick out the stop sign, the give way sign (actually, it translates to “proceed slowly”), and a fire hydrant sign! These can really throw you for a loop, as you’ve probably never stopped to think about how much you subconsciously “read” traffic signs simply by their shape and color. Catching a glimpse of a partially obscured fire hydrant sign can lead to a passing instant of panic since it is, during your first weeks here, misconstrued as a stop sign….
Driving on Okinawa is actually a very pleasant experience compared with home, ignoring the previously discussed eccentrics. There is NO road rage here; the Japanese are very polite and professional drivers. And that’s simply not just lip-service. Chances are if you are pissed off on the road, it was due to a Yankee-plated American…. Okay, so it’s illegal here to make a left on red (our standard right turn), which can be very frustrating at times. But, the speed limits are all very slow; the “expressway” is the fastest road on island, clocked at a blistering 50 mph (80 kph)! And, using your horn is illegal unless for emergency, and oddly enough, people here actually follow their traffic laws. It’s refreshing to see a community and country appeal to the greater good for everyone and set aside any narcissistic driving tendencies so prevalent in America. Jody, who I believe was very anxious about driving here, had absolutely no issues with the driving, technically that is. Driving naked certainly helps.
However, navigating around the island is a whole different matter!! More on that later.
- The Meanings behind Traffic Sign Colors (roadtrafficsigns.com)
- New-age signal lighting system soon (thehindu.com)
- Traffic Control Signs – a History of Sign Shapes (roadtrafficsigns.com)