Wheeled Headdress: Motorcycle Helmets in Japan


He has a helmet.  On his sissy bar.  And that's where it probably stays....

He has a helmet. On his sissy bar. And that’s where it probably stays….

“What do you call a motorcyclist who doesn’t wear a helmet: an organ donor.”  ~David Perry

“If you think you don’t need a helmet, you probably don’t….” ~Unknown

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The Japanese have an incomprehensible habit involving their motorcycle helmets: they fail to fasten them to their heads.

So I’m driving home from the Marina where I teach scuba diving, a short drive, perhaps no more than about a mile and a half. However, the road traveled on this particular journey is the main north-south thoroughfare on Okinawa (“Hwy 58”), and the specific stretch of pavement reaching to my home neighborhood lacks red lights, stop signs, and allows some of the faster driving on Okinawa…at a blistering 60 kph, roughly 40 mph!

So on my drive there’s a guy who is bending down at the shoulder. As I close at the speed limit (this stretch of road is well-known for speed traps), I realize he’s retrieving a helmet, and when his “beanie” half-head motorcycle headdress is squarely in his hands, he starts to run up the sidewalk with the flow of traffic.

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My eyes curiously project to his likely destination, and notice a woman, a tiny Japanese girl, who is barely holding up what is considered here a true motorcycle, but at home would be more akin to a large dirt-bike. I pass her, seeing the strain of keeping all 300 pounds of that bike upright and off the ground, and watching in the rear-view mirror, I see the bike’s operator finally reach his certainly-soon-to-be-dropped mechanical steed.

And just as this spectacle is disappearing from the limits of my sight, the dude jumps back on the bike and places his helmet squarely on his head. Backwards and unbuckled.  And takes off down the road, his passenger giddy with delight…the helmet just waiting for the right gust of wind to be castaway, again.

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use.  Notice the bike is NOT moving....

Me emulating Okinawan helmet use. Notice the bike is NOT moving….

In 2013 there were 4,373 road fatalities in Japan (compared to our 33,000-odd annual road deaths), a total that the Japanese consider “excessively high,” even though it’s their 12th year of steady decline.  The Japanese government has responded by taking measures to reduce the number of annual road fatalities to fewer than 3,000 by 2015, in line with its goal of making Japan’s roads the safest in the world.  They are already pretty ding-dang safe.  At least in a car.

What's wrong with this picture:  no dog helmet!

What’s wrong with this picture: no dog helmet!

Thus, one of the “Priority Issues” that is being addressed in Japan’s 2014 Spring Road Safety Campaign include the proper wearing of helmets: of the 760 persons who died in Japan in 2013 while riding a motorcycle, just under half suffered head injuries even though 94.9% of the riders were “wearing” their helmets. A solid 33% of these unfortunate souls lost their helmets at impact. Primarily because they were either improperly fastened (think backwards or way up high on their heads) or not fastened at all (think straps dangling down swinging freely in the wind).

Okay, the cops wear helmets.  But apparently don't know how to use kickstands....

Okay, the cops wear helmets. But apparently don’t know how to use kickstands….

Now let’s be perfectly clear: there is a mandatory helmet law in Japan, for both driver and passenger.  And there is even a bicycle helmet law for kids under 13.  What I can’t find is the actual text of the law.  I have been told, in classic urban legend fashion, that the law only requires motorcycle riders to have a helmet, not actually wear it or fasten it….  Seems too ludicrous to be true, but it’s also oddly Japanese-enough to be totally believable.  Whatever the case, the police here in Okinawa seem to either be oblivious about helmet use (or the law), or simply look the other way.  Or perhaps helmets really don’t need to be buckled and/or fastened….

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet.  Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

An actual pic of a Japanese 2-wheel rider course booklet. Stretching seems to be more important than helmets!

As an aside, there is another facet of Japanese automobile operation that would make most Americans’ skin crawl. Although front seat seatbelt use in Japan is well over 90%, it is not uncommon to see children on the seats of both driver and front-seat passengers, even sitting on car’s dash!  Jody and I both cringe every time we see such a tragedy waiting to happen.

What's wrong with this picture?  No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards.  No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

What’s wrong with this picture? No, not the lack of helmets or riding backwards. No one in Japan has a bike this big!!

Yes, yes, yes, I can hear all the hardcore bikers screaming about their “right” to NOT wear a helmet. Something about freedom and such….  I am a biker and I wear a helmet.  Arguing against such laws is as silly as claiming that the Civil War was really a war of northern aggression and a violation of states’ rights….  I don’t really care what other bikers choose to do.  As long as I don’t have to pay their medical bills or disability (and therein lays the rub).  However, what is clear is that helmets do reduce injury and potentially help avoid fatalities.

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Whatever the case, I really wanted just a few seconds with the helmet-challenged guy who stars in the opening of this blog to explain this: fastening your helmet, besides providing some measure of safety (however little), would at least avoid having it fly off your head, thereby leaving your bike in the care of your 90-pound Japanese girlfriend, who will, sooner or later, certainly drop your ride since her feet can barely touch the ground….  Maybe that would make a little more sense about wearing motorcycle helmets…in Japan!

What's wrong with this picture?  Riding in a skirt, while sexy, can be quite dangerous!

What’s wrong with this picture? Riding in a skirt, while sexy, has to be dangerous to her naughty bits!

2 thoughts on “Wheeled Headdress: Motorcycle Helmets in Japan

    • Hey John, depends on what you’re using it for. That’s actually a picture of me on an old bike in Okinawa, so tell me about the specific blog…. Cheers & thanks for the Far East Flyby!

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