Red Lights Running: Johnny Law in the Far East


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“A careful driver is one who honks his horn when he goes through a red light.”  ~Henry Morgan

“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight.  The truly wise person is colorblind.”  ~Albert Schweitzer quotes

“Shut the front door!” I scream in my mind as I accelerate through the intersection, realizing I’m actually running a red light…with a Japanese police car right behind.

“Great, just great,” I think as I contemplate braking, but just as quickly realize that I’ve gone too far to stop.  If I did, I would have to back up, which would not be good if the cops had started to follow me through the light.

But the police car didn’t move….

And for the next block before my right turn, and even after that right turn for the four or five blocks until reaching the sanctuary of my condo building’s parking garage, I scanned my rearview mirrors much more than I did the road that lay ahead.

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You see, in Japan, the crosswalk signals for pedestrians utilize the exact same colors as the traffic lights intended for vehicular traffic.  In practice, this similarity might instead result in vehicular manslaughter for an inattentive American…much like me…and others I’ve seen doing the exact same thing.  Modern crosswalk signals in the United States generally use pictograms of an orange upraised hand and a white walking pedestrian.  Notice that the color scheme is just enough from our traffic light color convention that it’s not so easily confused.

28213368-realistic-pedestrian-traffic-lights-off-illustration-on-black-background

Most secondary or tertiary roads in Japanese neighborhoods signal a green “walk” to pedestrians only when all traffic lanes have a red and are stopped.  There is no turning on red either, so in essence, pedestrians have complete right of way by design.  Sometimes there are even diagonal crosswalks, which allows for 6-way pedestrian traffic all at once at busier intersections.  Cars in Okinawa are a much more recent technological invention, and with an older and much more island-time generation on the move, there is simply too much respect for pedestrian right-of-way that the “get out of the way!” attitude that can be prevalent in an inpatient ambulatory America.

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So, drivers here can find themselves sitting at a quiet intersection at night with a red light up over the car for traffic, and while looking at the cop with his emergency light on in their rearview mirror, the same driver can spy out of the corner of their eye a red light quickly flash to green…which means go, and go indeed we all do.  Green means go, right?

A Traffic Intersection in my Neighborhood

A Traffic Intersection in my Neighborhood

You see, the cop and his red swirling light distracted me.  One might think I was already in trouble, but seeing emergency lights in Japan is a much more common occurrence.  Why?  Simple:  Japanese police cars, both marked and even unmarked, routinely patrol with their red lights ON at night.  It’s almost impossible to resist the urge to pull over here when you see these lights; we Americans are so ingrained (at least if you attempt to follow most traffic laws) to pull over for emergency vehicles that it really is second nature.  However, in Japan, pulling over for mere red radiance is actually reason enough for the Japanese to, well, actually pull you over!

Police in Japan (like everywhere else in the world) pull over drivers because of suspicious action.  Ironically, suspicion is often produced when unknowing Americans slow down or pull over for a Japanese police car with their emergency lights on.  Pulling over in this Far Eastern nation for no apparent reason when trailed by a lighted police car may itself be probable cause enough to cause one some unnecessary troubling delay.

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A major – and perhaps the major part of law enforcement in Japan is to DETER crime and to ensure good public order.   The police in Okinawa are nothing like the cops and robbers of American television where the priority is on enforcing the law and catching criminals in the act…or shortly thereafter.  So, red lights in Japan don’t mean an emphatic and immediate “pull over!

“No, it’s a cardigan, but thanks for asking!”  ~ Harry Dunne, in Dumb & Dumber

When Japanese police do wish to ruin your day they use their siren and/or Public Address (PA) system, through which they can bark out instructions like the voice of god.  In fact, in Japan, emergency vehicles of all kinds seem to always be talking.  Some of it is a recording, but some are actually live announcements, like an intention to travel against a red, or to scold someone off their cell phone.  It’s a lot easier to issue a warning if you never have to leave your patrol car.

pull-over-1062

BTW, the Japanese take driving and using a cell phone much more seriously than we do.  It is against the law, and punishments here don’t toy around with mere tickets or traffic school.  Instead, you simply lose your license.  The Japanese are, in fact, so weary of this that when they want to use their cells while driving, they simply place their hazard lights on and literally stop along the right of way, pulled over slightly, but still double-parked.  This often results in a nightmarish blockage of traffic…for which they should also lose their licenses.

Luckily for me, vehicle stops are relatively rare in Japan.  Hell, even seeing a police car actually patrolling the roads is relatively rare…compared to the states.  Japanese drivers do speed (but not by much), but are almost without exception polite and safe while on the road.  The most common reason for a traffic stop here is speeding; no surprise there.  But most of these “stops” are sweeping radar speed traps where you are actually waved off the road and receive punishment assembly-line style.  And Japan, like many other first-world countries, is moving more and more to traffic enforcement cameras.

Bicycle theft takes up more man-hours than traffic stops.

In Japan, bicycle theft takes up more man-hours than traffic stops.

I have no idea why these two particular cops, red running lights on, decided not to follow and stop me having literally run a red light.  Perhaps they saw my Y “Yankee” license plate (which only Americans have) and deduced my mistake…having surely seen it many times before.  That, combined with the lack of pedestrian and opposing traffic, probably was enough for them to shrug this off.  I wouldn’t have been so lucky at home.

Have you had a run-in with the law in Asia?  If you have, tell me about it here!

One thought on “Red Lights Running: Johnny Law in the Far East

  1. Pingback: Japan, You’re Doing it Wrong! (Sometimes) | Far East Fling

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