Due to the recent trend of Japan trip among overseas travelers, many of them use rent-a-car as one of transport.
Especially in the places off the beaten path such as in Okinawa, Hokkaido, Tohoku, and Chugoku & Shikoku regions, public transportations don’t cover all destinations where you want to visit, or even so, you have to wait for the next transit for a long.
Therefore renting a car is the one option to make your itinerary efficient.
On the other hand, as the number of international tourists using rental cars has been increasing, in fact, so does the number of car accidents by tourists.
The most cause of the accidents by overseas tourists are misunderstanding the “STOP” sign, driving on the wrong side roads, entering the wrong side on a one-way street, and miss-parking in the tiny parking space.
Not only in Japan but also there are different traffic rules in each county once you drive in a different country.
On this site, I pick up the important rules and regulations that overseas visitors likely misunderstand in case driving cars in Japan.
- The Zero-Tolerance Policy In Japan
- Driving A Car On Japanese Road
- Wear A Seat Belt
- Requirements To Drive A Car In Japan
- Japanese “Stop” Signs
- Watch Out Pedestrians And Cyclists
- About Signal Lights
The Zero-Tolerance Policy In Japan
As the severity of its punishments for drunk driving, there is a zero-tolerance policy. If you drive a car in Japan, you are not allowed to have any amount of alcohol in Japan when you are planning to drive a car after.
Driving under any amount of alcohol is strictly prohibited.
If you break the policy, you will be fined up to 500,000yen ( about $4,700 ) or be sentenced to imprisonment for up 3 years.
Even someone who provides a vehicle to the person drunk driving and someone riding with the drunk driver can be punished in the same fashion as the driver himself.
Driving A Car On Japanese Road
Drive On The Left Side
In Japan, You MUST DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE of the road.
Also, Japanese cars have steering wheels on the right side, a turning signal ( indication ) lever is on the right side.
The Two-Way Narrow Road
There are many narrow roads without center lines but it’s still both ways if there is no “one-way” sign.
When encountering that kind of narrow road, you need to slow down to prepare for oncoming traffic.
If there are narrow roads or obstacles (such as construction supplies and vehicles), determine if there is enough spacing to pass over both cars (pedestrians and bikes also.) If you feel uneasy even a little, take measures such as slowing down and making a stop so as not to lead to an accident.
Always be ready to be gentle to other drivers-give them a way.
In the Japanese principle, which of the own vehicle and the oncoming vehicle has priority?
First, when there is an obstacle such as construction supplies and vehicles, drivers on the side with the obstacle should give way to the oncoming traffic.
However, the driver of the oncoming vehicle will not always follow the principle.
Despite Japanese drivers are generally polite and gentle, but some local drivers are likely not to hesitate to proceed.
Always check the situation around you.
Second, some roads have shoulders before the road getting narrow to wait for oncoming vehicles. When approaching the shoulder and you find the oncoming traffic, give way to another driver. Otherwise, you may need a backup, which is not fun.
Additionally, in the case of a narrow mountain road or a road facing a cliff, the car on the uphill side has the right-of-way.
In the case of a road along with a cliff, the car that does not face the cliff has a right-of-way.
My Mom’s Tip
My Mom’s tip to drive the no-centerline road in a residential area in the countryside that
“Drive a car close to the center of the road because local drivers ( especially elder ) often stop their car beyond the stop line on the side road, or badly they don’t pay attention to other cars and tend to proceed.“
The Priority Rules
At an intersection with traffic lights that don’t have an arrow signal, vehicles proceeding straight and vehicles making a left have priority.
What you should do at an intersection without-lights?
- If one is on a *priority road has the right of way.
- On roads between different widths, vehicles on the wider road have the right of way.
- If one is on a road with a stop sign, and the oncoming lane doesn’t have a stop sign, the one without the stop sign has the right of way.
- On the intersection without a traffic signal or a stop sign, and hard to find out which side has priority, the car coming from your left has the right of way.
No “4-Way Stop”
There is no “4-way stop” policy at an intersection without lights in Japan, so a car proceeds straight always has a right-of-way.
The priority does not depend on the order of approach at the intersection.
You may turn if you have ENOUGH time to complete making a turn, but you better wait for the oncoming traffic if you are not sure, because the Japanese drives will not expect your turn and they may delay making speed down.
*The priority road is generally the road has a centerline or a median strip,
wider road, or have a sign that says “the priority”.
Wear A Seat Belt
THE LAW. Japanese seat belt law requires drivers and passengers to wear a seat belt.
Passengers on the back seat are required wearing seat belts on.
Children under the age of 6 must be restrained in a child safety seat in the vehicle.
You can rent a child safety seat at rent-a-companies with an extra fee in Japan.
Wearing A Seat-Belt Exemptions
- If you feel sick when wearing a seat-belt due to injury or disability
- If you feel sick when wearing a seat-belt because you are pregnant
- If the seat is too high or too low, or if you are obese and cannot fasten
- If your baby needs to breastfeed or change diapers in the car
- When urgently transporting a sick infant to a hospital
- When backing the car, the driver maybe allowed to remove the seat belt
Requirements To Drive A Car In Japan
The Japanese law requires you must be over 18 years old to drive a vehicle in Japan.
Please carefully check your requirements to drive in Japan in your countries before you leave.
According to the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Japan,
“Americans cannot drive in Japan with only a U.S. driver’s license. Persons found driving in Japan without a legal license are subject to fines, arrest, and possible deportation.”
Do not forget to bring and keep your local driver’s license and passport all the time you drive in Japan.
Japanese “Stop” Signs
A major car accident by overseas drivers is caused by the misunderstanding of the “Stop” sign in Japan.
- Look like the Yield sign
- The old type of stop signs are written in only Japanese
The old “Stop” (止まれ) sign is written in Japanese only, some drivers ignored the sign because they couldn’t read.
In Hokkaido, a Taiwanese tourist caused a collision accident at an intersection with a truck because he couldn’t read the “止まれ” (stop) sign. There were a total of seven passengers in the car, and his wife had a seriously injured, and other family members had injured too. -Yomiuri News, 12/24/2019
To avoid confusion, the new “Stop” sign written in English has been replaced since 2017 throughout Japan, but you still might see the old sign.
Read the post to learn more details.
Watch Out Pedestrians And Cyclists
Many pedestrians and cyclists are anywhere in Japan. There are lots of dangers more than expected, so drive carefully when you pass pedestrians and cyclists.
Surprisingly or not, 6-12 years old school students walk to their school themselves. Children tend to be distracted when they are distracted by one thing such as chatting, pondering, and rushing. When they’re playing around, they may suddenly jump out of the sidewalk.
Generally, they make a line in a small group but sometimes they have to walk on the streets without sidewalks especially in the countryside.
Pass them slowing down and taking enough space.
Most accidents involved with school kids are occurred in intersections, (even traffic lights are there,) and when a car making a turn.
You always consider as if they may jump out at intersections, and check blind spots when making a turn.
Many Junior-high and high school students go to school by bicycle but often wearing earbuds. Sometimes, they tend to block a road with lining horizontally during chatting with their friends. You should be attending their making a turn without looking back.
Not only students but also you need to pay attention to older cyclists. In my experience, they are likely to lack attention to vehicles.
Most pedestrians and cyclists have good manners and follow rules, but unfortunately not all.
In Japanese law, a driver will be sentenced more serious penalty than a non-driver although he/she doesn’t have 100% fault.
About Signal Lights
Prepare To stop On Yellow Light
Japanese drivers are GENERALLY polite and not aggressive at yellow lights, they slow down and stop. For them, the yellow light does not mean “Speed up! Make that lights!!”
Even though you think you can make through during yellow light blinking, the car in front will slow and stop.
Pay attention to the car in front, prepare to stop at the yellow light.
No “Turn On Red” Policy In Japan
To Americans and Canadians, it is ILLEGAL to do a “turn on red” policy in Japan.
You are not allowed to make a left on red lights even the oncoming traffic is clear.
Must Stop Before Railroad Crossing
You must stop before entering the railroad crossing although the gate is opened and trains are not coming.
A police officer often lurk to check whether drivers stop or not around the railroad crossing.
Watch Out The Vehicle Reverse Parking
Most Japanese drivers commonly do reverse park in a parking area.
If you don’t know Japanese parking habits, you have a chance to bump each other.
Especially in the countrysides, local older people often don’t look back before parking, you should be careful in parking places.
You should always remember the Japanese parking habit and pay attention to the vehicle’s direction in front of you-how they park.
Talking On A Cell Phone
You are not allowed to hold a cell phone to talk, text, and operate applications while you drive a car.
Talking via a speaker mode, a Bluetooth speaker, and earbuds (not a headset), are not officially breaking a law, but some cities punish them with their own ordinances.
So you better not talk on a cell phone while driving in Japan, and pull over a car if needed to touch a cell phone.
When you drive a car, it does not matter where you are,
you must know traffic rules and drive safely.
Here is the site to learn about the driving rule in Japan.
Do you really need to drive a car during traveling around Japan?
It is not worth driving a car in metropolitan cities such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, and so other cities have subway networks.
Moreover, there are a lot of bothering to drive a vehicle in such big cities.
- Traffic is very busy and complicated lanes
- Local drivers tend to be aggressive and rude.
- Hard to find a parking lot (Always full)
- The price of parking downtown is high
- Lots of one-way streets
- Lots of narrow streets
- Too many pedestrians and cyclists
Also, the cost of a rental car does not cheap so does gas.
Public Transportation in Japan
Public transportations, buses, subways, and trains, are developed in such big cities.
I like using subways and trains because they are fast, cheap, on time, and cover all over the cities.
Once you get a prepaid transportation card,
it’s very easy to travel around.
Japan Rail Pass
Use a bullet train, “Shin kan sen“.
The Japan Rail Pass, an all-you-can-ride ticket pass, gives you unlimited access to all Japan Rail National trains (JR lines) includes Shin kan sen, local trains, JR bus services, ferry services, and airport transfers.
Experiences of Japanese high technology transportation will be good memories of your Japan trip.