As a life-long New Yorker, I am intimately familiar with living in a major metropolitan area where walking and mass transit are the norms. However, every time I’ve been to Japan, I’ve found myself at odds with Tokyo’s pedestrian traffic. Despite the fact that I should be accustomed to large crowds, something is perpetually off—as if I’m constantly on the verge of bumping into others.
What I’ve come to realize is that there’s an inherent difference in how New Yorkers and Tokyoites walk in large crowds, and in a certain sense they’re somewhat opposed to each other. So for those who are traveling to Tokyo and feel overwhelmed by all the people (and bikes!) seemingly on a collision course with you, this might prove useful.
One inherent difference is that people in New York City tend to walk on the right, while in Tokyo it’s common to walk on the left, but that doesn’t explain everything. Imagine an ideal situation where pedestrian traffic is flowing through like a two-way street, with an invisible center line roughly dividing the two groups traveling in opposite directions. Take two people walking on opposite sides towards each other. What happens?
In New York City, the common tendency is to avoid the center line as much as possible. The two people will see someone headed their way, and will begin to drift away from that center line to avoid accidentally bumping into each other. In my biased perspective, I consider this “normal.” Moreover, while I don’t think NYC is as rough and unforgiving as is commonly portrayed on TV and in movies, you really don’t want to inadvertently start a fight.
In Tokyo, however, there’s a tendency to gravitate towards that center line as much as possible. If there’s something in the way, they’ll snake around it, hugging the “curve” so that they can get back towards the middle. I’m not really sure why, though I’ve noticed that people in Tokyo take less issue with accidentally crashing into someone. My (unsubstantiated) theory is that people in Tokyo develop a tendency to head towards their destination (e.g. the train platform they need at a station) in as direct a path as they can manage, and that means staying along the center line instead of deviating from it.
Another possibility is that bicycles are allowed on sidewalks in Tokyo but not in NYC, so it might be part of the natural way to avoid bikes. Whatever the reason, walking in Tokyo and not being aware of this can make it seem like folks are constantly making a beeline for you. You’ll think you’re gonna run headlong into someone, only for them to stop at the last second and make a sharp turn to avoid you.
This post has been based largely on my own experience, as well as from talking to people who have been to or live in Tokyo. If you’ve had a different impression of pedestrian traffic there, feel free to chime in.