Over the last few months, there has been a rash of age-related car accidents in Japan. Just yesterday, a 9 year old girl was killed and four other children injured when 70 year old driver rear ended another car and sent it spinning into a group of students walking home from school. Last week, an 85 year old driver who had been warned by his family not to get behind the wheel, veered onto a sidewalk after striking another car and ran down two high school girls on bicycles before flipping his car onto its side. In November, an elderly woman suddenly accelerated through a lowered parking lot gate and shot across the street where she killed two pedestrians. A month before that, seven people, including a two year old boy, were injured when an elderly driver hit the wrong pedal while exiting a parking lot and barreled across crowded sidewalk near a major department store and, earlier in the year, a 76 year old killed one person and injured five more when she lost control of her car in a parking lot.
According to the Japanese police, drivers 65 and older were responsible for 965 fatal accidents in 2016. That’s more than 25% of fatal car accidents nationwide and, because Japan is an aging society, there is a great deal of fear that the number will to grow in the coming years. To help mitigate that growth, in early 2017 a cognitive assessment was added to the existing mandate that all drivers be retested at 70 years of age and, rather than face the possibility of being found unworthy, more than 106,000 people voluntarily surrendered their licenses in the months prior to the new rules going live. While it’s certain that many older people were opposed to the new rules, there was little public outcry.
Of course, it will take time for the rules to take effect. An entire generation of drivers were retested at 70 before the cognitive assessment was added to the regime and they continue to be out on the road. But overall, the new rules are a genteel solution to a serious problem from a civilized society and it says a lot about the Japanese. Of course, I do not believe for on minute that we could do anything like it in the United States without a good old knock-down drag-out fight. We’re just not wired the same way.
The differences between the Japanese and Americans can and do fill countless volumes and one important point that I am sure most will agree upon is that Japan is a collectivist society while America runs more towards individualism. Anthropologists posit a couple of reasons for this but it mainly boils down to the fact that the Japanese – and most other East Asians, in fact – are primarily descended from rice farmers. Rice cultivation is hard work. Seedlings are planted in flooded fields and the labor of an entire community may required to build and maintain the necessary irrigation systems to support the endeavor. Because failure means starvation, the Japanese have learned through bitter experience that cooperation is necessary for survival and that echoes down through the centuries to today in the form of a national ethos in which most Japanese people willingly put the good of society ahead of their own individual interest.
Americans, meanwhile, prize a trait most often found in herding cultures, individualism. Scratch the average American and you will find he bleeds the red blood of John Wayne and the American cowboy. His role models are masculine and self-sufficient and he will suffer long and hard before he puts his fate in the hands of others. This is necessary because cowboys and other herders spend weeks in the fields with their herds or flocks and they alone, or with only the smallest group of compatriots, are responsible for the safety of the animals in their charge. Animals, by the way, are a constant pain in the ass. They are forever getting lost, injured or stolen and it is only through decisive action that the herder keeps his property safe and his herd intact. It is also, by the way, why herding cultures tend towards violence. If a man is ferocious enough, his enemies will stay away and rustling will not be an issue. Asking others for help exposes his weakness and that, in turn, puts him in jeopardy.
Of course, this is all in the distant past and, once a person reaches an age where they find that their ability to see, hear, think and act are impaired, it makes sense that they should give up driving and learn to depend on others. But the message that echoes down through the centuries from our own forefathers is that admitting weakness is a prelude to death. We cannot willingly surrender our mobility, our strength and our independence, and while the vast majority of us dread the idea that we might accidentally hurt someone, our aversion to weakness stops us from doing what is, from a societal perspective at least, the responsible action. And that’s why, when they finally come for my license, I’ll just have to tell them to go ahead and kill me right then. Once it’s gone, I know in my heart that I’ll just be waiting for the reaper anyhow.