How ‘Running Boy’ Became a Japanese Cultural Icon, Even Though It Didn’t Do Very Well

Higashi-Omi, Japan — He’s a familiar face on Japanese residential roads – a cherubic but intense cartoon boy with helmet hair and huge protruding black eyes, his body taut and ready to rush through traffic. Known as tobidashi-boya, literally “runaway boy”, the whimsical cartoon signs have become the go-to line of defense for cities and APTs looking to protect pint-sized pedestrians on the streets. residential.

“Running Boy” was born in 1973, when the number of road deaths in Japan reached an all-time high. The welfare office in Higashi-Omi, a town of about 100,000 people outside of Kyoto, asked a local sign maker for low-cost ideas, and in a short time, wooden signs. Running Boy plywood sprouted along school roads, recalls Yoichi Masami, director of the city’s welfare office.

“Running Boy has been around for so long,” he told CBS News, “parents in areas without Running Boy are thinking, ‘we could be an accident waiting to happen!'”

Schoolchildren walk past a tobidashi-boya, literally “runaway boy”, or Running Boy sign in Japan, warning drivers to exercise caution.

CBS News

Tribute versions of Running Boy soon followed, in plastic, handmade, and Running Girl versions, on the streets of the country. But few localities can match the density of the signs that line the rights-of-way around Higashi-Omi’s thoroughfares.

The Social Welfare Office now distributes dozens each year, some to replace decaying panels, which sell for as little as $40 apiece. Versions of the Running Boy signs, localized and sometimes in images of elderly people, dot roads across the country.

Running Boy has transcended its status as a road safety icon to inspire a multitude of merchandise. Local noodle shops, dentist offices, and other owners offer custom versions of Running Boy.

Over the decades, with the near-universal use of seat belts, airbags, and sturdier vehicles, not to mention the installation of sidewalks, intersections, and traffic lights, Japan’s once dangerous thoroughfares have become among the safest in the advanced world, measured by the number of passengers. death.

According to the National Police Agency, all road deaths have fallen from 16,765 in 1970 to a record high of 2,636 last year. This year, this figure is expected to drop further. Even so, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities remain stubbornly high, accounting for around half of all road fatalities.

A woman works in a shop in Higashi-Omi, Japan, making the ubiquitous Running Boy signs that dot the roads of the city and the country.

CBS News

For all of Running Boy’s enduring popularity, there’s no evidence that attractive signs work: A 2017 Ministry of Lands, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism report on residential traffic safety didn’t even mention Running Boy signs.

In the 2019 field survey on the current conditions of ‘Tobidashi-Boya’ as a road safety culture in
Shiga Prefecture,” Keiichi Ogawa, a professor at Ritsumeikan University, praised the signs, saying the process of ordering and installing the signs helped raise awareness about road safety in itself.

But Hisashi Kubota, a professor in the department of infrastructure engineering at Saitama University, north of Tokyo, told CBS News that “putting up security warning signs honestly isn’t that effective,” adding that drivers quickly acclimate to signs and turn them off. “But people think there is no alternative. That’s why we still have so many pedestrian accidents.”

In the United States – where similar child-shaped warning signs, available online, have spread widely in residential neighborhoods – traffic engineers have long argued that they are ineffective and that changing infrastructure , such as narrowing roads at intersections, building roundabouts and cycle lanes, and installing speed bumps, are the best ways to curb aggressive driving.

Japan’s streets are already cramped, many barely wide enough for a car to fit through – remnants of a time when the main mode of transport was two-legged – but the country has begun to adopt changes in “traffic-calming” infrastructure to entice drivers to slow down .

Instead of fundraising for the Running Boys, Kubota argued, communities should pool their resources and act fast on traffic-calming measures such as rising bollards and speed bumps. Low-cost vertical rubber barriers have been proven to reliably reduce driving speeds to around 20 mph, significantly reducing the risk of death in the event of a collision with a pedestrian.

“The only surefire way to slow down drivers,” Kubota said, “is with physical infrastructure.”

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