Monday, February 27, 2006


It was in Okinawa, back in the early sixties, that I first experienced what was there called by we foreign visitors "kamikaze driving." Many of the streets there, as here in Japan even now, were originally formed for a couple of lightly laden people who kept their arms to their sides, or maybe a small horse cart to pass by.

Most of those streets still exist in the major cities here, threading between the large thoroughfares of modern day. In the countryside there are no thoroughfares of modern day to speak of, other than those bypassing small towns to get to the major cities.

Major highways, other than the national expressways, are mostly narrow two-laners; the remaining local roads are the old horse tracks. In a taxi speeding down one of those, if you opened your door even a crack you'd hit a telephone pole or an elderly stroller; if you dared reach out your arm, you could steal an apple or knock someone off a bicycle.

After a while of driving here you get used to it though; if you meet another car coming the other way on a one-car-wide road, one of you (as determined by a complex formula of driver courtesy) pulls over into one of the mini-pullofs strategically located for the purpose. I say strategically, for there is a transcendent system to driving in Japan, a system put in place by one of the founding gods, probably Susano-O-No-Mikoto, if I know my deities.

But as a newly arrived foreigner not yet familiar with the trafficking ways of Japanese gods, you're not yet a fluid traffic element, so don't hit these mini-pulloffs with the necessary surrhythm so as to advance readily to your destination. By the time you've been driving here for a year or two though, if you're still in one piece and your license hasn't been revoked, you are mystically accepted into the national driving rhythm, and miraculously meet other cars only when there is such a pulloff handy.

It is quite an amazing thing, which on the first couple of occasions you chalk up to Western coincidence; soon, however, you realize that 50 out of 50 is against the odds of any crapshoot you've ever experienced; that's when it dawns on you that somehow you have fully merged with the national driving program. From that point on, you too are a kamikaze driver, and can speed blithely down streets not much bigger than the corridors of your house, quickly spotting bicyclists emerging from behind telephone poles and vegetable-laden elders stepping out of their doorways, without feeling even a tinge of alarm; they too are part of the rhythm.

So in all my 20 years of driving in Japan I haven't hit a single elderly person or other pedestrian, not even a bicyclist, though I have tapped mirrors with other cars on occasion, in sort of a hail-fellow-well-met kind of gesture. I suppose that if as a visitor you were a passenger on one of my kamikaze outings, you'd put fingernail marks in the dashboard, but no need to worry; we'll get there in one piece, unless maybe we run into a new a foreigner coming the other way.

No comments: