Look around any street in Tokyo and you will see people on bicycles: carrying shopping and children, commuting or just going from A to B without a car. The bike is the only form of private transport for most of the city’s residents yet very few of them (5.6 per cent) wear helmets. Since 1 April, however, a revision of Japan’s Road Traffic Act has made it mandatory for cyclists to wear a helmet. Sort of. Instead of being an enforceable law, the wearing of a helmet is now classed as something that people “have a duty to try to do” (coronavirus vaccinations were in the same category). There’s no penalty for riding without a helmet which leaves cyclists in a bind. Should they wear one or not?
Japanese cyclists resent this kind of interference. Parents rose up in 2008 when the National Police Agency tried to impose a ban on people carrying two children on bicycles (Japan’s hefty mama-chari are designed for that exact purpose) and the police backed down. Grumbles aside, Japan’s helmet-manufacturers say that demand has surged and shops are reporting brisk sales. Some companies have designed helmets that appeal specifically to the urban rider: Osaka-based Kabuto has released the Libero – a helmet masquerading, not entirely convincingly, as a baseball cap.
Judging by my fellow cyclists, most are ignoring the new helmet mandate. Elderly riders seem to be more obliging, while one candidate in local elections has been campaigning on two wheels while wearing a bright-green helmet. The only people who are noticeably wearing their headgear are the police, who cycle around Tokyo on very humble bicycles. Leading by example carries no legal weight but it might at least normalise the use of helmets on city streets.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s senior Asia editor. For more opinion, analysis and insight, subscribe to Monocle today.