Mac, Founder and Lead Guide of Maction Planet Bespoke Japan Travel, introduces off-the-beaten-track Tokyo.
This guide contains important information if you plan to drive in Japan. Read the FAQ. Know before you Go.
Read on for must-know rules of the road plus essential info, tips and advice for drivers in Japan. See the road signs you’ll encounter and learn about the speed limits in Japan. Understand the hazards of driving in Japan.
Add your questions or share any tips for other drivers at the end of the article.
Is it hard to drive in Japan?
There is nothing difficult about driving here. We’ll look later in more detail at Japan driving laws but they aren’t weird.
Can I drive in Japan if I don’t speak Japanese?
My Japanese is horrible and I do okay. An English-language SatNav or Google Maps will help with directions. Later in the article you’ll see the most important Japanese road signs. Unfortunately a couple are written in Japanese. You’ll just have to memorise those.
Is it safe to drive in Japan
Accidents are rare. The roads are generally good and most drivers are safe and sensible. Due to the strict drink-driving laws in Japan you are very unlikely to meet a drunk driver. In fact based on number of fatalities per 100,000 vehicles you’ll be enjoying your road trip in one of the top-10 safest countries in the world.
What’s the driving age in Japan?
The legal driving age is 18 in Japan.
What side of the road does Japan drive on?
The good news (for Brits like me at least) is that the driving side in Japan is on the left. If you are over here from the States or Europe you will be driving on the ‘wrong’ side. This usually isn’t a problem in busy traffic. The hard part is remembering it when you turn into an empty road. All rental cars in Japan are right-hand drive.
Can I drive in Japan with US, UK, Singapore (etc etc) licence?
Yes you can. You will need to bring an international driving licence, also called IDP (International Driving Permit). You can get these easily and cheaply in your home country. IDPs are valid for one year. You will need to bring your home country licence too.
Japanese driving rules
The rules of the road in Japan are probably similar to your country. I don’t need to repeat them all here. You are required by law to wear a seatbelt (so are your passengers). You allowed to use a phone only if it’s hands-free. That being said I see loads of people using a phone while driving. Shockingly you see drivers watching TV too! You must always carry your licence when you are driving. You need to carry a red triangular thingy if you drive on an expressway. You are required to use a child safety seat for any child under the age of six. Keep to the left and overtake on the right. Don’t drink and drive.
If you are turning right you don’t have priority. You have to give way to vehicles turning left. Wait until the oncoming vehicle has gone straight or turned left before you turn right.
Anything scary about driving in Japan?
For me at least, one thing. It’s how traffic lights handle cars and pedestrians. In the UK at least when the traffic lights are green for cars they will be red for pedestrians. Here traffic lights are often green for both cars and pedestrians. If your traffic light is green and you are turning left or right, pedestrians may also have a green light. This allows them to cross the road that you are turning into. It’s very important to note that here in Japan pedestrians always have right of way. You may have this system in your country but I’ve never seen it before. Luckily I haven’t wiped anybody out yet. I’ve come scarily close a couple of times. Any time you are turning keep a careful eye out for people crossing the road. They will expect you to stop. They have right of way. Be especially careful of cyclists zooming across.
What are the road signs in Japan?
Cyclists vs Cars in Japan
A good thing for drivers is that cyclists usually ride on the pavement in Japan. This keeps them out of your way. However you need to take care any time you turn off the road and and cross the pavement (you may call it ‘sidewalk’). For example if you are going into a car park, gas station or convenience store. Make sure a cyclist isn’t speeding along the pavement as you cross. Want to know a scary thing? If your car hits a cyclist it’s assumed to be your fault. You have been warned.
What are the speed limits in Japan?
If there’s a speed limit sign then (obviously) that’s the limit. If there’s no speed limit sign you can go up to 60 km/h on ordinary roads. If there’s no speed limit sign you can go up to 100 km/h on an ‘expressway’ (you might call it ‘motorway’ or ‘highway’). You can’t go lower than the minimum speed. Minimum speed sign has the speed written with a line under it. You usually only see minimum speed signs on expressways.
This sounds great but the problem is that there are speed limit signs everywhere. Around town you are usually stuck at 40 km/h and in side streets just 30 km/h. Personally I find that to be painfully slow. However I guess it’s one of the reasons Japan is such a safe driving country. Most other drivers obviously find it irritatingly slow too. When I stick to the speed limits (which I always do, not wanting to get busted) everyone overtakes or stacks up behind me. The Japanese police do bust people for speeding but there is said to be a 10% tolerance. You don’t need to be too paranoid about going a couple of kilometres per hour over the limit.
What are the drink driving limits in Japan?
Effectively there are none. Drinking and driving in Japan is completely, absolutely 100% forbidden. Don’t think you can have one or two drinks and get away with it. The police here are extremely strict about this issue. There are massive fines (and a big load of hassle) if you get caught. You are also risking up to 5 years in prison. The passengers in your car can be prosecuted. The barman that served you can be prosecuted. Officially the limit is BrAC 0.15 mg/L (equivalent to 0.03%) but the police can fine you just for the smell of alcohol on your breath. Go over the limit and you’re really screwed. Just get with it. There is no drinking and driving in Japan.
Are Japanese polite drivers?
Of course they are. It’s a pretty polite society all round. To thank a driver make a bow (just a small one like a nod of the head). To thank a driver behind flash your hazard-lights. The Japanese driver will almost always let somebody join the queue in front of them. If you stop in a queue leave space in front so a driver can join from the side. Let’s be nice and polite like the Japanese.
What does flashing headlights mean in Japan?
A quick flash of the headlights means ‘go ahead’ or ‘you first’. I lived in Indonesia where a flash of the headlights means ‘get the hell out my way’. Don’t get confused like I still do.
Train crossings in Japan
You will notice a lot of level-crossings at train tracks. I don’t even need to mention that if you see red lights wildly flashing and warning bells jingling it means you can’t cross. Do be aware however that even when there are no trains coming and the barriers are up you are required by law stop. You need to come to a complete stop and visually check for trains before proceeding. The Japanese police are a bit anal about this. You can sometimes see them hanging around at level-crossings trying to catch people out. You have been warned.
Are there toll roads in Japan?
Yes and they’re too expensive (in my opinion). They will get you there fast because almost all toll roads are expressways. Take a look in the road signs section above. The green signs indicate you are moving onto an expressway. Remember you can go up to 100km/h on an expressway. Most drivers go faster. If you are time-rich you can set your SatNav (or Google Maps) to avoid them. This will send you onto the prettier but slower routes rather than the faster but blander expressways.
ETC (Electronic Toll Collection)
On most toll roads there will be two kinds of booth to drive through. One will be marked ‘ETC’ for people with an electronic card in their car. Many rental cars will have ETC card included. Another booth will be for people paying cash. If you don’t have an electronic card avoid the purple booth marked as ‘ETC’.
It’s not just red for Stop or and green for Go. It’s common to see a traffic light that is red but with a green arrow to the left and the green arrow to the right. This means that only cars going straight ahead need to stop. Now I put this down on paper, it seems pretty obvious. However it’s caught me out many times. I realise my mistake from a gentle beep from the car behind. By the way, if you ever in discussion with a Japanese person (hopefully it won’t be a cop) about traffic lights don’t be surprised at the colours. In Japanese traffic lights are red (aka), yellow (kiro) and blue (ao)!
Navigating in Japan
If you rent a car you it might have an English-language SatNav. But then again it might not. For example when you rent a car from Toyota they specifically mention, “cars and car type with English GPS navigation are limited.” Usually with rental car companies you can’t book in advance a specific car. This means an English SatNav probably won’t be guaranteed. Our tip to get around this is ‘NaviCon’ app for android or iPhone. This is an English-language (free) app which allows you to link your Google Maps to most SatNav models in Japan.
How to use NaviCon with Google Maps
After several requests from our clients here are NaviCon instructions:
- Download Google Maps (if you don’t have it already).
- Download NaviCon from Google Play Store (Android) or App Store (iPhone).
- Select ‘settings’ from NaviCon menu and tick ‘direct forwarding’.
- Pair your phone with the rental car Sat Nav via Bluetooth (the shop staff can help you with this).
- Enter your destination into Google Maps.
- Click on the destination and select ‘share place’.
- Select NaviCon.
- Accept the destination on the Sat Nav (ask the shop staff how to accept the destination).
That’s it. You can now send destinations directly from your Google Maps in English to your English or Japanese car navigation system.
There’s another easy way to find your route in Japan. You can enter the phone number of your destination into your SatNav. This allows you to use your in-car navigation system even if you can’t speak Japanese. You’ll need to know the landline number of your destination (not a mobile or cellphone number).
Renting a car in Japan
Renting a car can be a good alternative to travelling by train. We help arrange a rental car for lots of our guests. There are a lot of advantages of renting a car. You can see a lot of places in a limited time. You have more freedom. You aren’t restricted to timetables. Less planning is required for a journey. Kyushu may be a better place to rent a car than other parts of Japan. The travel distances are shorter. The roads are less crazy. The traffic jams are less. Also it’s a more rural island. This means train coverage can be less extensive. There are though disadvantages of renting a car for your holiday. Some people might find self-driving less relaxing than travelling by train. Navigating may be a headache. Parking fees and the costs of tolls can soon add up. If you plan a trip with Kyushu Journeys we’ll help advise based on your route whether it’s better to self-drive or travel by train.
Renting a motorbike in Japan
You can rent a motorbike up to 50 cc engine size (let’s call it a scooter) with a normal driving licence and IDP from your home country. Anything bigger and you are required to have a motorcycle licence. A scooter is a nice idea if you plan to stay mostly in rural areas. It’s cost-effective too because scooter rental is much cheaper than cars. Hint: if you rent a scooter it’s usually cheaper to buy a helmet than pay daily helmet rental fee. Another hint: Better avoid the rainy season (June-July).
Car parking in Japan
Parking in Japan can be a problem. In fact you need to prove you have somewhere to park before you can buy a car here. In the cities you can’t just park anywhere. You need to find a paid parking space (it’s not such a problem in rural areas). This means parking in Japanese cities can be expensive. You can pay ¥100 for 20-30 minutes although there are cheaper places if you hunt around. For parking overnight there is usually a fixed maximum rate (not per hour) around ¥800-¥1000. You can use ParkSmart app for Android or iPhone or your SatNav to help you find parking places. Coin parking meters are common on city streets. You pay on arrival. Note many have a fixed maximum time (often one hour). This means you will have to move your car to another meter if you want to stay longer. Parking at meters is free in the evening but you aren’t allowed to stay overnight – your car may be towed away. Small self-service car parks are also common in cities. You park you car and a bar will rise under your car to stop you driving away without paying. For this reason make sure you park carefully in the parking space. You pay when you return. Note the number of your parking spot before going to the payment machine. The instructions will probably be in Japanese so you might have to ask another driver how it works. Don’t worry, Japanese people are usually super-helpful. You will also find many underground or multi-storey car parks in Japanese cities. These are easy to use even if you don’t read Japanese. You collect a ticket from the machine at the entrance barrier. When you leave insert your ticket in the machine at the exit barrier and pay the amount shown. Many shops or restaurants in malls or departments stores will give you a parking coupon (“chusha-ken”) if you shop / eat there. You insert this coupon before your cash at the exit barrier. Most supermarket parking is free – they make their money from the horribly expensive prices they charge instead.
Hazards of driving in Japan
Watch out for these dangers if you drive in Japan
Pedestrians or cyclists crossing the road when you are turning right or left
Even though your traffic light is green so is theirs
Pedestrians in the road
Watch out on the many narrow streets with no pavements (you may call them ‘sidewalks’)
Drunk pedestrians and cyclists
Be alert especially on Friday and Saturday nights
It seems unfair because us drivers need to be cold stone sober, but that’s how it is
Cyclists without lights
Almost all of them
Tailgating (don’t do it)
After a recent high-profile fatal accident police are going hard on this in 2018
Drivers ‘undertaking’ (overtaking on the left)
It’s not allowed but it’s very common
Don’t get busted for speeding
Japan has traffic police and speed cameras just like your country
Don’t get busted (like I did) for not stopping at a junction
Check the ‘Stop’ sign in the road sign section above
Remember it, because it’s written in Japanese
I got a polite cop, 2 points and ¥7000 fine
Don’t drink or drive, at all, ever
The police look out for this more than anything
Hopefully the takeaway point you got from this article is that driving in Japan isn’t too problematical. Most automobile drivers obey the rules, the roads are pretty safe, and you are unlikely to encounter a drunken driver causing havoc. I’ve read online some people complaining about the standard of Japanese drivers. Personally speaking I don’t see a problem. This may be because I spent 15 years diving in Indonesia and anything is better than that.
Happy driving …
We hope you found this Japan driving guide useful. If we missed anything add your question below. If we got something wrong, correct us. If you have any tips, share them.