Japanese bike a lot, especially in Tokyo and Osaka where cycling rates are 20-25% despite having virtually no infrastructure or bike lanes. However, the small sub-tropical island of Okinawa has been dominated by American military bases since the end of the World War two, which has exported US suburban sprawl city ideals and killed any Japanese biking culture that may have previously existed. I got to eavesdrop on a skype chat between one Japanese in Copenhagen and one in Okinawa that was fortunately (mostly) in English.
Okinawa is still quite dominated by “fat american soldiers invading with burgers”, which has apparently made the easy going locals “lazy”. They covet the fancy cars driven by US soldiers, especially anyone with a “Y” on their license plate that gives them access to the base for cheap shopping of “high end”goods. Women hope to marry with soldiers to get an easy life, but at the same time fear meeting young soldiers who have a reputation for causing crimes, especially on the street at night.
Some people would like to get rid of the bases, but Okinawans aren’t especially industrious enough to start up new businesses to replace all the lost jobs. Okinawa is a “developing country that has stopped developing”.
It survives primarily on tourism especially the beautiful ocean and diving, all of which is only accessible by car. Guidebooks advertise “scenic drives”, which are driven by visitors who rent cars straight from the airport. Tourists from Tokyo or Osaka like coming because they often don’t own cars in the city, so they can practice and enjoy the rare excitement of driving. Driving in Okinawa is apparently part of the attraction.
There are no trains and not much of a bus system. The busses run pretty well on time, but people aren’t good at keeping to the schedules so they miss them. Riding the bus for an hour to the capital city in Okinawa costs 1.000 yen (over $12).
Bicycles are expensive by Japanese standards. A cheap new one will run at least 12.000 yen or almost $150. The only people riding bikes are either Americans, health freaks, little kids under 5 (even they rarely have bikes), or “gangsters who can’t afford motorcycles”. It’s also hilly and hot, which never help.
Okinawa: “People STARE if you ride a bike [in Okinawa]. I was riding a bike the first week I was here looking for my new apartment. I rented one from the hostel. I was looking for real estate offices and lots of them spotted me in town ‘because I was riding a bike’. You can easily find places to fix cars but no one fixes bikes! My landlord lady downstairs says she’s never walked to the supermarket 10 minutes away.”
Copenhagen: “Yea here, if you bike, people are nicer to you. I experienced that. Biking is associated with being Danish or integrated into Danish society. But if it’s a normal setting (without a bike) people will be pissed [if you disturb them on the train].”
Sadly, even though she has biked all her life, she broke down and bought a used car. It cost 140.000 yen ($1.700).