Driving in Japan: Basic Rules of the Road

Poste date: Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Driving in Japan: Common Questions and Things to Know

One of the things you will soon realize in Japan is that most people, even high-level executives, take public transport - mainly the JR train networks or underground metro, as well as buses. This is because it is the trains are often faster and more convenient. This is especially true if you are planning to attend a drinking event after work, which is quite a common occurrence. Driving does still come in handy, especially during the weekend if you’re going out of town, going somewhere not easily accessible by train, or have some heavy duty shopping to do.

As most of the road signs are in Japanese, and there is some variation in usage and rules, it’s good to be aware of the general differences.

Japan Driving FAQ

Here are some basic facts to keep in mind when on the road in Japan.

Q: What should you do when you come to a Railroad Crossing?

A: Before passing through a railroad crossing, drivers must stop before the crossing (or behind the near side of the stopping line, if any), and look and listen to check to see if a train is coming. Rolling down the vehicle’s window to improve hearing may be necessary.

Q: What Is the Speed Limit?

A: The general speed limit is 60 km/h (37 mph) except on national divided highways (freeways) where the limit is normally 100 km/h (62 mph). Most Urban areas have a speed limit of 40 km/h (25 mph).

Q: What Side of the Road Does Japan Drive On?

A: All cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road. All cars made in japan have their driver's seat and steering wheel on their right side.

Q: What Is the Legal Driving Age?

A: The legal minimum age at which someone in Japan can drive is 18 years old.

Q: Can I Use an International Driving Permit (IDP)?

A: Driving on an international permit in Japan is allowed for up to only one year, even if your permit is valid for longer than that. Once a year has passed, you must return to your home country for at least three consecutive months before being allowed to drive on an IDP again.

Q: Where Can I Park?

A: In addition to standard parking lots, Japan also provides car parks that make innovative use of space such as the elevator parking lot, where you park your car on a turntable that conveys the cars into multi-level towers. Another type has a low barrier that blocks your car’s wheels until you pay the fee required, which causes the barrier to lower for your car to exit the parking space.

Traffic Signs in Japan

If you are coming from a country where the steering wheel is on the left side of the car, please keep in mind that just as the steering wheel is on the other side of the car, the traffic signs will be on the other side of the road. This is however not the case with all traffic signs. Be sure to familiarize yourself with some of the more common traffic signs before you get on the road.

Tomare - Japanese stop sign

Tomare (Stop)

Tomare, meaning “stop” in Japanese, is a common sign you will come across at intersections with no traffic lights. When you see this sign, be sure to stop before the stop line when you reach the intersection. If there is no stop line, stop before reaching the intersection. In both cases, you must yield to vehicles traveling on the crossing road.

No Parking traffic signNo Parking or Stopping traffic sign

No Parking or Stopping/No Parking

Drivers who illegally park and stop their cars are responsible for traffic congestion in neighborhoods, and can also impair road visibility. As this can cause unnecessary traffic, accidents involving pedestrians stepping out from behind parked or stopped vehicles and getting injured in the process is common. Only park or stop your car in legally designated areas.

No U-turn traffic sign

No U-Turn

U-turns are allowed except where a no U-turn sign is placed. Given Japan’s narrow roadways, particularly in high population areas like Tokyo, attempting a U-Turn on a section of a road where it is prohibited could be potentially quite dangerous.

No Overtaking traffic sign

No Overtaking

On certain sections of the road, you can find signs indicating that swerving to overtake from the right side is strictly prohibited to avoid any danger from blind spots.

Bus Only Lane traffic sign

Designated Bus Lane (Buses only)

There are designated bus lanes in Japan, usually within a certain time frame and on certain days of the week.

Basic Rules Driving in Japan

Most universal driving rules apply in Japan. For example, drivers must keep left, while pedestrians are advised to keep to the right side of the road. Drivers must also give way to pedestrians. All passengers must wear seatbelts, and if you have children, note that children below six years of age must use a child seat.

Obtaining a License in Japan

Japan has agreements with more than 20 countries. Austria, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom are a few of the countries that benefit from their agreement with Japan. Remember to check if your country has such an agreement as it will make the process a lot easier.

If you are from one of the countries that has an agreement with Japan regarding licenses for driving, you can get a Japanese drivers license without taking either the driving practical or written tests. Just bring your passport and proof that you have held your license for more than three months in the issuing country. An eye test and physical test are the only tests you will have to pass before getting your license on the same day.

For those transferring their license from another country that is not a part of the agreement with Japan, you have to take the written and practical tests to get your license. The written test consists of true or false questions that cover knowledge for both manual and automatic cars. You can purchase a reference book that costs around 1,000 yen from the Japan Automobile Federation.

The practical driving test course features an S curve, crank course, and a straight speeding zone. Some centers will allow you to book private lessons on the course with an instructor which in turn makes it easier to pass as you are more familiar with the course.

If you are serious about obtaining a drivers license in Japan, check out our in-depth guide to driving in Japan with further details on the licensing process.

Driving in Japan Is Definitely Possible

Getting permission to drive in Japan does not have to be a difficult process. Just be sure to check your options, and whether or not your country is part of the bilateral agreements. Study and get familiar with the traffic signs, especially if you can’t read Japanese, to understand what they say.

Even if you don’t want to buy a car in Japan, there are many rental car facilities that are convenient to use, so no matter the situation there are options to help you get behind the wheel. Our guide on how to rent a car in Japan, covers the process and what you need to know.

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