I take public transit to Tofugu World Headquarters every day, and in the couple of years I've been commuting, I've seen people commit every faux pas in the book, and generally do some stupid, stupid things.
I've watched people step in front of moving vehicles, spit on other people, and generally disregard all rules of common sense and human decency. It's enough to make me silently, and passive-aggressively, judge them.
It's because of those experience that I was little more sensitive than normal to pedestrian behavior when we visited Japan earlier this year. While you might not be able to get around a country like the US without a car, you definitely won't be able to go far in Japan without walking a few miles.
Because walking is so important, I think it's pretty important to try and be a good pedestrian when strolling around Japan. After all, you don't want to look like a stupid foreigner, do you?
Watch Your Speed
One of the most interesting factoids I learned recently is that a city's size and the speed at which its people walk are correlated. The bigger a city, the faster the people walk; the smaller a city, the slower they walk.
It might seem like an obvious and not very useful factoid (and you're probably right), but it put things in a new light for me. If you're visiting Japan, you'll probably be stopping by some incredibly populous cities, which means you might have to hustle a little bit in order to keep up with the crowd.
You don't want to be the slowpoke who blocks the entire sidewalk. C'mon!
On the flip side, if you're used to a more fast-paced, urban lifestyle, then you might need to pump the brakes a bit if you're visiting rural Japan. Slow it down a bit. Take your time and smile. Be friendly!
Be Careful of Regional Differences
Obviously, there are some pretty big differences between walking in a major city like Tokyo or Osaka and taking a stroll out in the sticks, but there are other, regional differences are a bit more subtle than that.
The Kansai and Kanto regions of Japan (which contain Osaka and Tokyo, respectively) have been cultural rivals for literally hundreds of years, and they play out their rivalry in some incredibly strange ways.
For instance: in the two different regions, you stand on different sides when you ride the escalator. If you're in Osaka, you stand on the right and pass on the left; in Tokyo, it's the opposite.
Even though it's one of the most bizarre, asinine ways two places can distinguish themselves (I mean, really guys?!), it can be confusing, especially if you travel from one region to the other. Just remember where you are and watch what other people are doing.
Look & Listen for the Signs
OK, this is pretty obvious. Your mom probably told you to do these things when you were a kid, but it bears repeating when you're in a different country. Etiquette is different, signage is different and, of course, the language is different.
Fortunately even if you don't speak Japanese, major Japanese cities have signs and signals in spades. Between that and the accomodations for handicapped people, you can more or less guess what's going on.
Don't Worry Too Much
When all else fails, just take a second to watch the people around you and see what they're doing. It's not rocket science, and there's no real consequences if you screw up. Unless you're deliberately being inconsiderate or reckless then no harm, no foul.
The worst that can happen is that I'm a few steps behind, silently judging you.