National / Media | MEDIA MIX

Road rage coverage reveals gulf in awareness of traffic rules in Japan

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

For the past several weeks, media organizations in Japan have been obsessed with a road rage incident that happened in Ibaraki Prefecture on Aug. 10, when a 43-year-old man forcibly stopped another driver on the Joban Expressway and assaulted him as he sat in his car.

The incident drew national attention after the TV Asahi obtained video footage of the assault that had been captured by a dashboard camera. The station aired the sensational footage, along with an interview with the victim, and the rest of the media picked up on the story. Eventually, the head of the National Public Safety Commission was compelled to comment, saying that the assault was outrageous, and the suspected aggressor became the object of a national manhunt. He was arrested more than a week later in Osaka.

Such incidents are called “aori unten” in Japanese, a term that covers a wide range of dangerous driving behaviors, from tailgating to relentless honking to reckless lane changes. These actions are not rare but, until now, they have not been treated very seriously by the authorities, despite the fact that in 2017 a similar incident led to the death of two people on the Tomei Expressway. In his regular entertainment column for the Tokyo Shimbun, TV Asahi commentator Toru Tamakawa says the increased use of dashboard cameras and, more significantly, the increased use of such footage on TV programs have prodded the police into action. He thinks that more than 10 years ago, it was difficult for the police to indict a suspect in a road rage incident when victims pressed charges. It was the victim’s word against the alleged aggressor’s if there was no visual proof or witnesses.

Another notable aspect of the Ibaraki incident was the reaction of the victim. He exposed himself to an attack that appeared predictable given the actions of the aggressor, who had forced his car to stop before approaching on foot to punch him out through his open window.

Consequently, a number of media outlets have offered advice to people who find themselves in similar situations. In its Aug. 29 issue, Shukan Shincho cites the “iron rule,” which is to not open the window under any circumstances — the victim in the Ibaraki incident couldn’t understand what the aggressor was saying, so he rolled the window down. A former police detective told the magazine that you shouldn’t try to escape either, since that could cause a traffic accident. He recommends staying put and calling emergency number 110. If the situation develops on a surface road, it is best to pull into a convenience store parking lot since they usually have surveillance cameras.

However, the best precaution is to install an on-board camera and, according to NHK News Web, sales of dashboard cameras have skyrocketed since footage of the Ibaraki incident aired. NHK visited an auto supply store in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, which said that sales in August had increased 40 percent year on year, with an increasingly popular model capable of recording not only what’s in front of the car and behind it, but the interior as well. The main reason given for increased sales is that drivers want to gather evidence in case they’re attacked. Tottori Prefecture is encouraging this civic mindedness by offering a partial subsidy for purchases of dashboard cameras by private individuals.

Consumers  can also purchase exterior stickers, telling other drivers that there is a camera on board and, thus, offering potential aggressors a disincentive to manifest their anger into action. All this pre-emptive preparation implies that road rage is a fact of life and that it is incumbent on all drivers to protect themselves; which sounds like common sense but suggests that the act of driving is inherently competitive. Some drivers are more aggressive than others.

A psychology professor interviewed by the Tokyo Shimbun says that road ragers often target “ordinary people” driving minicars who won’t retaliate. In the same article, the Japan Anger Management Association advises aggressive drivers to chew gum when they start feeling anxious in traffic, or to look at photographs of their families — the idea being that by doing so they will understand that reckless, impulsive driving could have dire consequences.

However, there is also a stereotype at work in the discussion. The perpetrator in the Ibaraki case was driving a rented BMW, and a report in another weekly, Shukan Post, says most people tend to think aggressors drive “luxury cars or sports cars.” However, the magazine mentions a new website that tracks license plates in aori unten incidents, and the most common type of car driven by aggressors are minicars, followed by minivans. This makes sense statistically, since there are vastly more minicars on the road than expensive foreign cars, but foreign cars are more noticeable and tend to be associated with aggressive driving.

In the end, the primary issue shouldn’t be about what causes road rage incidents, but rather how the authorities cope with them. The public may simply be taking irresponsible driving for granted.

An Aug. 10 article in the Asahi Shimbun discusses measures being implemented by the police to reinforce traffic safety before next year’s Olympic Games. In Japan, pedestrians make up a disproportionately large portion of traffic fatalities compared to other countries and part of the reason is that Japanese drivers feel they have the right of way — even at designated pedestrian crossings. Many pedestrians appear to believe this, too. The article quotes a Swedish man who says he’d always assumed pedestrians do not have the right of way in Japan, as they do in many places abroad, because he rarely sees drivers stop at marked crossings, even when there are pedestrians present.

Fortunately, the police are now stepping up citations of drivers who do not yield to pedestrians, meaning they are finally enforcing laws that many drivers have either forgotten or never took seriously. Once behind the wheel, those drivers tend to be in a world of their own.