Will Harmony Triumph Texting in Japan?

This Japanese town is saying farewell to “smombies” and distracted walking.

(MAHATHIR MOHD YASIN / Shutterstock.com)


Stand at an intersection in a big city and look around. Chances are you will see people with heads bowed, faces buried in their cell-phone screens, unaware. One Japanese municipality, wanting to protect its citizens, passed an ordinance against walking and texting. 

The Japanese, just like other cell-phone users, are glued to their smartphones and are often seen walking slowly while texting, oblivious to traffic, cyclists, and other pedestrians. In fact, as reported on BBC, this is so rampant in Japan, there is even a word for this Arukisumaho  which can be roughly translated as smartphone zombies. In English slang, these are the “smombies.”

Satoru Ohki,  mayor of Yamato, a commuter suburb some 18 miles from Tokyo decided that it was time to correct this behavior. He first ran some studies in two locations of the city and found that 12 percent of all pedestrians were walking with their cell-phones.

He then consulted citizens on this issue and found that some 80 percent agreed that the Arukisumaho behavior should be curbed. So Ohki implemented a ban on walking and texting, the first of its kind in Japan.

Research from the Japanese mobile firm NTT Docomo concluded that when a pedestrian is looking at his phone, his field of vision is limited to five percent of his regular sight according to an article in Daily Sabah.

NTT Docomo then made a simulation of a busy Tokyo intersection with 1,500 Arukisumaho crossing the road. The results? Two-thirds of the smombies did not make it across safely, with 446 people colliding and over 100 being knocked down.

The beauty of Yamato’s new law, according to BBC, is that there is no enforcement. Instead, the mayor is focusing on education, with the train station exit being the ideal place to start. Out of respect, the Japanese do not use smartphones on a train, so many feel compelled to pull them out as soon as they exit the train.

In the first days after the law came into being, workers with vests held up signs outside the train station while pre-recorded messages explaining the law were played. After a while, a few white signs were all that remained. 

Ohki is expecting this change in cell-phone behavior will take time, maybe up to five years, but he is confident it will work. Ohki is assured of this because he understands the Japanese abhorrence of meiwaku, or being a nuisance to others.

“I believe we can trust the people of Yamato to do the right thing,” he explained to the BBC. When a law was implemented against smoking and walking, he said, it took ten years but it eventually worked. As soon as the Japanese understand that a behavior is deemed shameful or disturbing to others, they refrain from doing it.

In Japan, people value harmony. One day soon, thanks to this new bylaw, this mindset will overtake that urge to respond to a text message while walking. Heads up high, this will create a safe, aware, and harmonious place for pedestrians, drivers, and cyclists.

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