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Modern and Traditional Japanese Culture: The Psychology of Buddhism, Power Rangers, Masked Rider, Manga, Anime and Shinto. 在日イギリス人男性による日本文化論.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012


Cyclist Hand Signals in Japan: Their absence

Cycling Hand Signals in Japan by timtak
Cycling Hand Signals in Japan, a photo by timtak on Flickr.
There are two things I notice about Japanese cycling hand signals. The first is that the left turn hand signal is supposed to be made using the right hand, pointing upwards. This signal is unpopular even in theory, with some advocating the use of a left turn signal as used by the Briton in the photo above.

The other thing I note is that I have never seen a Japanese cyclists make a hand signal! At least I have never seen a university students make a hand signal and this despite the fact that most of the students at my university commute by bicycle, and that most Japanese children are taught hand signals at primary school.

On the face of it, this phenomenon or the lack of it, is very bad for my theory that the Japanese interpersonal and intrapersonal communication particularly emphasises vision. Regarding the lattter intra-personal communication or "communicating to oneself", the Japanese do clearly engage in visual self-communication in the form of the finger pointing checks (please see my video) by transportation workers, and by baseball player Ichiro when he comes to the plate. These finger and bat pointings raise the pointers awareness of what he has done or is about to do and correspond, I believe, in large part to, self directed speech among Westerners. Western train drivers are encouraged to "call the road" saying the names of the colours of the signals that they pass for instance, but attempts to introduce finger pointing checks to Australia failed, despite dramatic increases in safety through their use in Japan.

So why don't the Japanese use cycling signals? Some factors include the fact that most Japanese ride on the pavement rather than the road, using low cross bar "shopper" (or "mother") bicycles at lower speeds. The need for singals increases with speed and the use of roads. But even in the busy roads in my university, I have yet to see anyone signal prior to a turn, and many perhaps most cyclists do not even look behind them either.

Another reason for this to my Western eyes, absurd, behaviour is the emphasis on "paying attention to what is in front of you (先方注意)" treated in a seperate post. As long as Japanese pay attention to their field of responsibility, their visual field in front of them, they feel, and Japanese law to a great extent requires, that it is up to others to ensure that they do not hit the cyclist from behind, even if they turn without making a signal or looking around.

Other possibilities include embarassment (but this was stated as a resason for the Australian train drivers dislike of finger pointing), and a need for visual-self-consistency, and visual-control which I think explain the lack of dancing in Japan (unless very practiced) and perhaps for lack of attention to and use of facial emotional expressions at least around the mouth (Yuki, Others).

A further possibility is that visual signals are thought of as being in some way private, intended for oneself, and people to whom they are addressed (second persons) rather than for otherS in general.

This possibility might mirror and reverse the claim (Nakajima) that in Japan spoken language, in the form of public announcements and signs, is encouraged when public but discouraged when private such as when private opinions are not to be made public in Japanese classrooms, or when mobile phones are not to be used on Japanese trains.

It is possible that there is a Nacalian reversal where Western visual signs are to be made only publically and not to second persons or to oneself. Certainly as already pointed out, finger pointing checks (a visual sign to self) is thought comical in the West, as is the practice of pointing at ones nose to indicate oneself.

This lack of a phenomena needs more thought. In the meantime I must be careful when following Japanese cyclists.

Upper image "Left turn by ♔ Georgie R shows a cyclist signalling to turn left in my native UK.
Lower image: Found unattributed on a Japanese blog, please contact me via the comments below to have it removed. 影像取り下げ希望でありましたら、下記のコメント欄かnihonbunka.comのメールリンクからご連絡ください。

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This blog represents the opinions of the author, Timothy Takemoto, and not the opinions of his employer.