An Introduction To… Japanese Roadwork (part 2)

Read Part 1 here:
An Introduction To… Japanese Roadwork, Part 1: Large(ish) Construction Work

Strange as it may sound, living in Japan I find one of the most reliable sources of everyday amusement and interest is road maintenance. This post is an attempt to summarize the key features which distinguish Japanese work from that in other countries and make it so enjoyable.


An Introduction To… Japanese Roadwork
Part 2: Small Works And Maintenance

As incredible as the big projects are, it’s often the small works which fascinate me most. Maintenance crews will appear as evening approaches and work through the night, completing everything necessary and removing all traces of work by early (often pre-dawn) the following morning. Should one be walking down the street at 6 am to catch a train one would never suspect that a manic hive of activity had taken place just hours before.

And if the work requires more than one night to complete, the same thing happens again the next night – the workers arrive, construct/maintain, clean up and leave again, leaving not a trace of their presence.

I recall works in Australia where if 7 days were required to complete maintenance, then the tools and equipment would be there, unsightly and taking up space for the entire period. 7 days of mess and inconvenience for pedestrians and local residents. In Tokyo this is not the case – during the day one has no idea what was taking place the previous night and is to continue later that evening.

Similarly if the work is done during the day, each evening the equipment will disappear, and the road will appear completely clean, resurfaced and maintenance-free. Wonderful.

The primary reason work is able to be done so efficiently in Japan seems to be due to a combination of skill, an honest and enthusiastic work ethic and sheer number of bodies – people arrive in large numbers, get the job done, clean up and leave without a trace.

The photo below shows this phenomenon, with an almost unbelievable total of 11 people plus the obligatory Pointless Person (and an additional 2 secondaries not in the photo) working on what is only a small section of pipe work.

(click all images to enlarge)

Features Of A Roadwork Site

The general impression one is left with on encountering Japanese roadwork sites is that it’s a combination of overcaution, extreme politeness and playful childlike madness.

On a purely physical level, there are a number of distinctive elements which characterize local maintenance work.

First and foremost of course are the ubiquitous Pointless People (detailed in a post here) but there is also a fantastic variety of signs, blocks, barricades and, most exciting of all, lights.

The Love Of Barricades

Overkill with the barricades is a common sight. The extent to which many small areas of work or pieces of equipment are cordoned off is astounding and often hilarious.

Walking through the Roppongi Hills forecourt a few years ago (hence apologies for the low quality video) I witnessed one of my first experiences of both an excessive number of workers and barrier madness.

The situation was that during heavy rains occasional drops of water were falling from a roof many storeys above, at the time of the video perhaps one or two drops per minute. A towel had been taped to the floor immediately below the drip and 3 workers were spending an inordinate amount of time deciding how to barricade the thing to protect pedestrians. I had already watched them for 3 or 4 minutes before beginning to record the proceedings as they repeatedly constructed different arrangements of the mobile barricades.



This previous post shows a quite bizarre arrangement of maintenance equipment behind barriers. Quite what is being protected from what is uncertain.

This post shows an extreme and rather more perplexing example.

Negotiating the barriers sometimes makes one feel as if one is walking round a child’s toy construction set.

Of course barriers are in place to protect passing citizens from accidentally straying into holes in the ground, and too many are preferable to too few. However although they provide the benefit of granting pedestrians the luxury of not having to look where they’re going, such overkill does tend to breed a culture of non-vigilance, which can of course become problematic in other ways.

More Is Better

The issue of barriers is extended – sufficient signage too seems often to be regarded as insufficient, so the default approach in Japan is “more is better”, whether it be signs, barricades or Pointless People.

Here we see the presence of 2 Pointless People in addition to the already sufficient barriers and lighting around a drain maintenance worker.

(click all images to enlarge)



The following video perhaps sheds some new light on the subject of PP.
Two birds appear to be killed with one stone as we see:
a) a useful function being carried out by a Pointless Person, which in turn
b) justifies the necessity of excessive barriers in the first place.

The Green Rubber Carpet

Bizarrely, although there exists a single obvious route a diversion takes between barricades on either side, roadworks always include a special something at the beginning and end – The Green Rubber Carpet. This I assume is there to make pedestrians feel good about stepping off their normal path, it’s soft to walk on so perhaps is intended to minimise distress from having to negotiate an unfamiliar route. Sometimes it runs the entire length of the diversion. But as you can see, it seems to serve no functional purpose whatsoever.

Note also the wonderful excess of signage and traffic cones in the first couple of images.

(click all images to enlarge)

Let There Be Light

A bewildering array of brightly lit cones and different flashing, revolving and whirring lights appear at Japanese road maintenance sites. A spectrum of coloured glittering jewels along the street which enchant and fascinate small children and (I imagine) quite a few adults too.

On larger roadworks, these lights are incredibly entertaining and rival a small amusement park.

The most basic roadworks simply employ traffic cones – albeit lots of them – to indicate to passers-by that work is taking place and to light their path. Others however go rather a long way beyond what is necessary to indicate that work is taking place. These images and videos were all made on a rather small residential street. Note the presence of the obligatory Green Rubber Carpet wherever applicable.

(click all images to enlarge)

Check the great “rotating electrons” light:

And I enjoyed the expanding “target” light on this one:

The extreme limits of fairgroundlike lighting are reserved for main road night works – like a public art installation, these islands of lights resemble gardens of brilliant phosphorescent flowers, flashing myriad colours in mind-boggling combinations, and often at each end they feature my personal favourite…

The Fake Man With The Swinging Arm Of Light

(click all images to enlarge)

This guy appears in various forms, sometimes as a plain sign (like the above images) or as a realistically painted wooden cutout, other times as a life-size uniformed mannequin.
He seems to be an implicit acknowledgement of the general redundancy of many Pointless People although one doesn’t imagine PPs being completely phased out.

Sometimes the arm is constructed with a simple single bulb:

While at other times the proper red light stick is used:

The Unexpected And The Extreme

Occasionally a truly bizarre addition will feature at maintenance sites such as this enormous floating light-filled balloon which hovered above the work.

(click all images to enlarge)



and here is a video of a rarely seen LED sign featuring a flag-waving man…glimpsed for just a few brief moments as the bus passed…

Read Part 1 here:
An Introduction To… Japanese Roadwork, Part 1: Large(ish) Construction Work

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~ by JapanGasm on 11 July, 2010.

One Response to “An Introduction To… Japanese Roadwork (part 2)”

  1. […] Read Part 2 here: An Introduction To… Japanese Roadwork, Part 2: Small Works And Maintenance […]

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