As with any country, it is a good idea to become familiar with the rules of the road before you begin driving. You can obtain English language books to help you learn driving rules. A good one is “Rules of the Road” by JAF (1,430 yen). Here are some important things to know:
- Drive on the left!
- Keep left if driving slowly; faster cars will overtake you on the right. According to the law, the right lane on an expressway should only be used for passing and should remain open at all other times. People have been pulled over for driving too long on the right. This may or may not result in a ticket.
- When making a right turn onto a multiple-lane road, turn into the far left lane. This is counter intuitive but it’s the law. It’s because the right lanes are only supposed to be used as passing lanes.
- No left turns on red! This is different from the US and Canada, which allow right turns even if the light is red.
- Pedestrians have right of way, always. Be sure to check for pedestrians before pulling out from a driveway or making a right turn. Watch out for bikes, which are ridden on the sidewalk.
- Always turn on your headlights in tunnels.
- Always stop before crossing train tracks.
- Seatbelts are required for the driver and front passenger. You can get pulled over and ticketed if you are seen without a seatbelt. They are not required for the backseat and many people don’t use them.
- Drivers of scooters and motorcycles are required to wear helmets.
- Scooters drive on the left side of the road, between the sidewalk and cars. It can be a pretty tight spot, especially when turning.
- Don’t use your cell phone while driving. You can get ticketed and fined for this, whether it’s hands-free or not.
- And last but most important: Don’t drive drunk. That deserves another mention: DON’T DRIVE DRUNK. Japan has a zero-tolerance attitude towards drunk driving, and consequences are very strict. Your license will be taken away, you will be fined up to 500,000 yen, and you may be fired and face jail time or deportation. Unlike in some countries where you can have one drink and still be fine, if even the slightest amount of alcohol is found on your breath, you will be charged. You can also be charged if you knowingly let someone else drive after drinking, or bicycle while drunk. Sometimes police will set up checkpoints, where they will check everyone who come by. They can stop anyone, even if you are not driving suspiciously. If you plan on drinking, take a taxi or daiko. Daikos are like taxi services, but they come with two people, one of whom drives your car home for you.
Road Etiquette, Habits, and Suggestions
Japan has some specific road etiquette rules that might differ from what you’re used to. Drivers might also not follow some rules that you’re used to. Here are some things to keep in mind.
- If you feel unsure about driving at first, you can get a “new driver” magnet to put on your car. This will let people know that you might drive erratically. (You can see an example below.)
People rarely honk here. If you hear a single, quick honk, it’s most likely a “thank you” rather than a “get out of my way!”
- Flashing hazard lights can mean “thank you” or “sorry.” For example, if you let someone in on a busy road they may flash their lights in thanks, or if you cut someone off, you can flash them to say sorry.
- Flashing lights from someone coming the opposite direction means that they are letting you turn right in front of them.
- If someone is tailgating you, pull over when you get a chance to let them pass.
- Yellow lights are short. If you see a pedestrian cross light begin to flash, it might not be a bad idea to slow down, because the light will turn yellow very soon. On the other hand, many drivers use it as a cue to speed up. Many people run red lights, so be careful.
- There are a lot of blind curves. Use the mirrors on the side of the road. They help you to see if someone is coming.
- On a narrow road (or especially a narrow tunnel), people will often stop to let someone else pass from the other direction. Give them a nod in thanks.
- There are also a lot of narrow roads, which is a bigger problem because of the tendency to have deep, uncovered gutters on the sides of the roads. You do not want to drive (or bicycle or jog) into one of these. Chances are your car will be fine, but flat tires and even broken axles have been known to happen. To make matters worse, they are often hard to see because of vegetation, and when they are covered, the covers can sometimes break. These are colloquially known as gaijin traps.
- Speed limits seem slow, but it is a good idea to obey them. Speeding can have serious, expensive consequences. Speed limits are typically 40 in towns, 50 on bigger roads, and 80 on expressways. Most people speed between 10 and 20 km/hr over the limit, but I would err on the side of caution. As teachers, we represent our cities and schools, and it looks very bad to be caught in a traffic violation.
- In case of an accident, call the police, your insurance company, and your supervisor. (Or if your Japanese is not as good, call your supervisor and have them call the police and your insurance.) AIU is an insurance company that has good English support. It is also a good idea to make a relationship with a mechanic, and call him/her in case of an accident as well. You might get a better deal on repairs if you know the mechanic already.
A few points to keep in mind:
- A thick white line across the road is a stop line – but not in all cases. You may be used to seeing them only in places you have to stop, but they are more common here. You only have to stop if there is a red light, stop sign or とまれ is written on the road.
- Blinking yellow stop lights mean “yield.” Blinking red should be treated as a stop sign. You may see these at night.
- Some intersections have stop lights in only one direction. These are usually always green for the main street, with buttons for pedestrians to stop traffic if they need to cross. If you are on the cross street, treat it as a stop sign.
- Green road signs indicate expressways. You will have to pay for their use, but you can generally get to your destination significantly faster than taking ordinary roads. They are always bilingual.
- The Wakaba, or Shoshinsha, mark is used to indicate new drivers. It is required to display it on your car for one year after getting a new license. This usually doesn’t apply if you transfer a foreign license. The Koreisha mark is displayed on the cars of drivers over 70. This one is not mandatory. They look like this:
Here are some of the more common road signs:
Ask about signs that are unclear
This is a sign found by an ALT on their way to work. What does it mean?
If your immediate thought was somehow “no left turn access for motorised vehicles between 7.00am-8.30am” then you would avoid the ￥7000 fine that an ALT had to pay for not understanding it and then not obeying it.
If your immediate thought was “what!?” then take a photo of any signs that you don’t understand, show your tantousha and ask them what they mean.