Really tough traffic cops

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Anyone who believes the RNC or the RCMP are sometimes over zealous in carrying out their duties with highway enforcement hasn’t experienced anything until they meet up with a Japanese Shirobai (motorcycle cop).

At one time in the 1950s, the RNC maintained a small motorcycle division comprised of a couple of Harley-Davidson servi-cars (three wheeled motorcycles). I’ve often wondered why this division was discontinued. To my knowledge the RCMP have never used motorcycles in this province in pursuit of their duties.

Some years ago, I had occasion to visit the “Land of the Rising Sun,” staying at an inexpensive hotel named the Asakusa Wasou. Being too lazy to walk the five or so kilometres to pick up my Datsun (now Nissan) at the Shibuya Ku car rental, I took a taxi. I was on my way back when I had an encounter with a Shirobai.

He was parked on the side of the road, eyes hard behind sunglasses, watching the flow of traffic. To this day I don’t know what driving law I broke, but he came up quickly behind me and motioned I should pull over. I looked up at a stern, unflinching face and knew I was in trouble.

“Okii machigai omae san,” he said gruffly. I understood enough Japanese to know I had made a mistake. “Wasatch ha ohioan aymaras o mistake ta,” he continued. It was obvious I had made a big mistake. I smiled weakly, showed him my passport and international drivers licence, nodded my head in agreement and kept a look of innocent bewilderment on my face.

After a few moments, he became impatient with this obvious inept tourist and gave me a “motto chui shiite” (warning) and waved me on my way. Japanese motorcycle cops have a tough job. Easily recognized by the bai (white) bikes they ride, every time I see one I’d think, Shirobai (white motorcycle police).

At the time, Japanese traffic in Tokyo was undoubtedly the most hideous in the world and probably still is, rivalling Rome, Italy and Quebec City, where you take your life in your hands every time you get behind the wheel. Japan had no notion of paved streets until well after the Meiji restoration of 1868 and the subsequent industrialization of the country. By then it was too late to plan a grid of roads as the principal cities had all been laid out.

The narrow crooked lanes

previously used for pedestrians remained the boulevards even after the Second World War and Japan’s rapid reconstruction. Consequently, there were no road programs in place, just more trucks, cars, buses, motorbikes and rickshaws clogging up the bumpy, twisted roads into one gigantic traffic jam.

When I was there, Tokyo traffic congestion was so bad and the evasive action taken to avoid it so frantic, that ordinarily polite Japanese took to shouting at one another “bakayado” (you stupid dumbass). In many traffic situations, the law was (and probably still is) ignored completely. Trucks would roar along at 50 miles an hour or more in downtown traffic, taxis would go even faster since cabbies make their  living by the mileage they rack up. There would be a grudge match drag race from every traffic light change and drivers would jockey for position more desperately than those at the Florida Daytona Beach speedway.

Bicycles would weave in and out of the snarl of vehicles, with riders trying to balance trays and bowls of rice, noodles and other delicacies in one hand while steering with the other.

The Shirobai would swoop down on the speeding drivers and issue stiff fines, which soon had the errant drivers back using the subway minus their driver’s licence. Back then, the population of Tokyo was about 11 million with just 714 Shirobai in service. In fact, there were little more then 3,000 motorcycle policemen in the entire country, so, unlike my unfortunate experience, the chances of a motorist being stopped were slim.

The Japanese motorcycle patrol corps were organized before the Second World War in Tokyo, at the time the Shirobai red (akabai) motorcycles manufactured by Rikuos. They were primitive by today’s standards, side-valve V-twins with rigid suspension and “fish tail” exhausts similar to the 1936 Harley-Davidson EL-61 “knucklehead” of the era. All Rikuos carried a small metal box of tools in the event of a breakdown, which was frequent. The riders wore papier maché helmets and identical police uniforms.

In the late ’50s, the patrol force graduated to more sophisticated rides, big Hondas and Meguro twins, the latter being the workhorse of the fleet. The Meguros were patterned after British bikes of the era, like the Brough SS100. They came with the same defects as their British counterparts. When the Meguro company went out of business, it was acquired by Kawasaki, which redesigned it and got rid of the problems.

Today, the Shirobai still ride white motorcycles, big fully equipped Honda VFR800Ps. Any policeman who has served at least two years at a Koban (police box) can apply to become a member of the Shirobai. Those who pass a tough physical exam then go through an intensive training program which stresses their role in law enforcement and crime prevention. One of the most interesting aspects of their training is the special high speed riding school which all candidates must attend.

The main concern of the Shirobai, as it is with police everywhere, is impaired drivers and unlicensed, uninsured ones. Getting a driver’s licence in Japan is a rigorous and expensive proposition. Driving schools do a thriving business, but because of the cost, the temptation to take to the road before obtaining one is difficult to resist.

The Japanese Shirobai, like police everywhere, occasionally set up roadblocks and checkpoints looking for drivers under the influence, not wearing a seatbelt, driving an unsafe vehicle or some other infraction of the law. Out in all types of weather, the Japanese motorcycle cop works hard for his pay and earns every yen of it.

Rex Stirling writes from Pasadena.

Organizations: Harley-Davidson, RCMP

Geographic location: Tokyo, Japan, Rising Sun Rome Italy Quebec City Pasadena

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