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Chapter 2
The Written and Unwritten
Rules of the Road


  1. The Basics
  2. Tolls and Moving Violations
  3. What Happens When You Get Pulled Over


The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) provides its Rules of the Road in six languages. You can send 1000 yen plus return postage to your local JAF office and get a copy mailed to you (office locations and more information available at http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/index_e.htm)

The Rules of the Road book itself is not very long. It has a variety of illustrations and is translated well. However, the great majority of it is common sense and often such irrelevant common sense (such as 'do not disturb people by revving your engine'), one is discouraged from taking it seriously. However, there are some useful items within not least of which is a full color guide to all road signs, center lines and other street markings, as well as explanations on what a parking ticket looks like and what to do if involved in an accident. If one has not driven in a long time or is a relatively new driver, it is definitely worth looking into.

However, although Japanese driving rules are fairly standard, there are a couple things to watch for:

    Americans and Canadians, note that Absolutely No Turns can be made on a red light in Japan.
    British, Australians and New Zealanders, note that the Give Way to Cars on Your Right rule is the opposite. For example, if you are turning left onto a street and a car across from you is turning right onto the same street, you have the right of way. In other words, the car making the smaller turn goes before the car making the larger turn, even if it is crossing from your right.

Other things to note:

  • Seat belts must be worn in the front seat by law.
  • Pedestrians always have the right of way. (Despite this, Japanese do not jaywalk often.)
  • Give way to emergency vehicles (even if Japanese drivers tend not to.)
  • A recent law makes driving while talking on a mobile phone an offense.
  • Stop at all railroad crossings, regardless if there are warning lights or barriers.
  • Motorcycle riders must wear helmets
  • Children under the age of 6 must be in a child-safety seat
  • Beginning drivers must attach a Learner's sticker and drivers over 75 must attach a Senior Driver's sticker

Lines You will see white lines, yellow lines, dashed, solid, and a mixture. The lines do not indicate traffic flow so assume every road goes in two directions (no matter how narrow it is) unless you are on the expressway. Basically, the rule is that, if the line is dashed, you may pass, overtaking the car in front of you. If the line is a solid white, you may pass but exercise caution. Never cross a solid yellow line at all unless there is an additional white line on your side. This is especially true if it is a thick yellow line. Also, as a general rule, there is no passing allowed in a tunnel.

Traffic Signs Traffic signs are not written in romaji at all, though many are self-explanatory. See Rules of the Road or your JET Diary for a complete list. Some ones to watch for are:





If you see a lit sign full of kanji, it is almost always warning of a construction zone ahead. Despite the intimidating number of kanji, it is almost never something to worry about.

Construction Zones
Construction is common, especially construction that reverts traffic to one lane. These zones are either monitored by live workers or by small lights. If a worker waves a red flag at you, you must stop. If a worker waves a white flag, you may proceed. If a worker is waving a sign with two giant kanji, it usually means 'slow' indicating construction ahead. There may be a single light during off-peak times. Simply: stop if it is red and proceed if it is blue or green. (Often, a timer shows how long you have to wait before you can proceed - no more than 2 minutes.)

Beware of wildlife on country roads, especially in spring and autumn.

Getting from one place to another in Japan by car is relatively easy. Almost all signs, even in rural areas, have romaji under the kanji as well as clear arrows, so the language barrier is rarely a problem when navigating. Local roads are narrow and twisty, but well-marked. City roads are more of a challenge since there are more lanes, more cars, sudden forks, and less time to decipher signs; in particular, avoid driving in the Tokyo-Yokohama area or the Osaka-Kyoto area unless you have to. Blue signs are the main navigation signs; they will show the main routes. Green signs indicate toll expressways. Almost all local routes have numbers.

A great road atlas in English is available from Shobunsha called Road Atlas Japan. The color maps are topographic. All routes, towns, landmarks, and major tourist attractions are written in English with kanji included for city names. It is available from a variety of bookshops and online including from Amazon Japan. The price is approximately 3000 yen. (ISBN 4-398-20104-1)

Gas / Petrol Stations
Gasoline Stands, as they are called in Japan, are fairly similar to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. The cost is rarely advertised, but hovers just over 100 yen a liter. They are usually full serve, but keep an eye out for the katakana "self" (セルフ) just to be sure. Self-serve gasoline stands often have a fancy Japanese-only push-button screen and want cash ahead of time. If you get stuck, a clerk will probably help.

Good words to know: mantan 満タン (the equivalent of "fill 'er up." Otherwise, you can ask for a specific amount of litres/yen), genkin 現金 (pay by cash), regyura レギュラ (regular unleaded gasoline), and haizara 灰皿 (ashtray; they may offer to empty it)

Being that Japan is still very much a cash society, there is no credit card pay at the pump. Also, snacks and the like are rarely available at a gasoline stand; you have to go to a convenience store. In addition, if you are in the countryside, most gasoline stands will close quite early (7:30 or 8pm) and will be closed on Sundays and holidays, so plan accordingly.

Pedestrians and Cyclists
Pedestrians are supposed to walk on the right side (unless there are sidewalks) while cyclists are supposed to ride along the left side of traffic.

Breakdowns and Accidents If you are involved in an accident, call 110 to report it to the police. If there are injuries, call an ambulance at 119.

If your car breaks down, there are a number of road service providers, however, the standard is the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF). If you are not a member (or are not carrying your card) JAF will assist you, but the service fees start at 5,000 yen and go up from there, depending on where you are and what you need. Flat tires often cannot be fixed on the spot.

The number to call (it should work from mobile phones, pay phones, PHS, etc.) is:

    # 8 1 3 9 (Don't forget to press the pound sign first)

    (Japanese mnemonic: ha-i-san-kyu or "hai, thank you")

Be prepared to tell them your location, model of your car, and the nature of the breakdown (the best you can.) If you call from an expressway emergency phone or the like, they can pinpoint your location easier.

Regional Road Service Call Centers:
North Kanto

See more at http://www.jaf.or.jp/rservice/network/fr/f_index.htm

Japanese Driving Habits
Japanese drivers are generally not aggressive. Although they will pull out directly in front of you and go through red lights, they tend to do so in a leisurely manner. The most aggressive drivers by far are taxi drivers. The Japanese rarely honk (except for thank-you honks) but they do tend to, like drivers all over the world, speed, tail you, and pass you dangerously, though on the other hand, they will also politely stop to let you pull out in front of them, flash their lights to let you know if your lights are on, and will pull as far left as they can (putting on their left turn signal sometimes) to let you pass. Local roads rarely have shoulders, so beware of cars stopped or parked right in the middle of the road. Beware of drivers stepping out directly into traffic as well as pedestrians walking on the road who have no sidewalk to walk on. Like any place, driving in the city is more dangerous and aggressive than driving in the country because of the sheer number of cars, but comparatively, Japanese drivers could be worse.


Toll Roads
If you take the expressways instead of the local roads, be prepared to pay. The good news is that, because of the astronomical price, the expressways are well kept-up, fast, and not clogged with traffic, unless you are near a major city.

Toll expressways are almost always double-lane divided highways with no signals or stops. You get a ticket from an automated machine when you enter and pay the toll person after you exit. The signage is clear, the exits are well-marked, the service areas are plentiful, and everything is easy to get to. But it is almost as expensive as the shinkansen. It is only an economical savings if you have a group of at least three in the car splitting the cost. Sometimes, especially when crossing bridges from island to island (from Honshu to Shikoku or Kyushu for example), you have no choice but to take the expressway and pay the high bridge toll. Otherwise, there are usually alternative local roads one can take.


Motorcycles and Light Vehicles cost about 20 yen per kilometer
Small and Regular-sized Vehicles cost about 25 yen per kilometer
Which means:
Approximately 2,000 yen per hour of driving! (That's more than our salary!)

To be precise:

Tokyo - Kyoto11,000 yen
Osaka - Nagoya5,000 yen
Hiroshima - Fukuoka7,000 yen
Sendai - Aomori7,500 yen
Kagoshima - Nagasaki8,000 yen
Sapporo - Oshamanbe5,000 yen
Kyoda - Naha1,200 yen

Local roads are free, but slower and often traffic-clogged. The average speed limit on a local road is 50kph compared to 70 or 80kph on the expressways. This will feel very slow as Japan has some of the lowest speed limits in the world. Actual drivers tend to go 65-75kph and 100kph respectively. That being said, it is not recommended to go over 70kph on local roads you do not know. The already narrow roads have a way of being curvy and sneaky, with cars stopping in the middle without warning and the occasional obaasan walking on the side because there are no sidewalks. You are more likely to be pulled over on expressways, but many drivers speed anyway.

Moving Violations
On your license you have 15 points to start, however if you lose more than 6, your license can be suspended for 30 days, so 6 is the number to watch for. If you lose more than 15, the penalty will be applied to your next license.

VIOLATION (for normal-sized cars)POINTS
Driving Under the Influence (of drugs or alcohol)
See more below.
25300,000 - 500,000 yen
(and possible jailtime)
Driving without a License19200,000 - 300,000 yen
(and possible jailtime)
Driving on an Expired Temporary License12200,000 - 300,000 yen
Driving without shaken or Insurance680,000 - 100,000 yen
Going 50kph over the limit1280,000 - 100,000 yen
Going 40 - 50kph over the limit660,000 - 80,000 yen
Going 30 - 40kph over the limit6 (less
on expway)
25,000 - 35,000 yen
Going 25 - 30kph over the limit318,000 - 25,000 yen
Going 15 - 25kph over the limit1 or 212,000 - 15,000 yen
Disregarding a Traffic Signal27,000 - 9,000 yen
Not Wearing a Seatbelt12,500 - 10,000 yen
Not Carrying Your License03,000 yen

See http://rules.rjq.jp for full Japanese list

(If alcohol is involved with the violation, the punishment goes up exponentially. Also, if it is a repeat offense, you will lose more points.)

Parking Violations
To park on the street, one's car must be parked 3.5 meters from the other side of the street. If you do the measuring, you'll realize this is impossible on most Japanese streets, even in residential areas. As a result, street parking is basically illegal and you must find a parking lot, usually a pay lot or a commercial lot, to park in. Note that many supermarkets and office buildings have gated parking. If you are parked until after-hours, your car may be trapped inside until the next morning. If you are parked illegally, you may get ticketed or towed. You will have to go to the police station to pay the ticket and get the sticker removed from your car (it is illegal to try to remove it yourself). This is not a quick process, it may take an hour or more, especially for foreigners and especially if your car was towed.

VIOLATION (for normal-sized cars)POINTS
Leaving your car for a long-period in a no-stopping or parking zone318,000 yen
Leaving your car for a long period in a no-parking zone215,000 yen
Parking in a no-stopping or parking zone212,000 yen
Parking in a no-parking zone110,000 yen

from http://www.keishicho.metro.tokyo.jp/kotu/chusya/chusya.htm

Alcohol Violations
The moral of this section is: don't even think about drinking and driving in Japan. Not even one drink. Especially because you are a teacher (a role model) and because you are a foreigner, the repercussions of being caught driving under any influence are extremely harsh. Expect to be dismissed from the program if you are caught attempting to drive with even a small amount of alcohol in your system (or knowingly let someone else drive when they have drunk.) Watch your co-workers at enkais; for the most part, they will not risk it either.

Drunk Driving35500,000 yenlicense cancelled for 2 yearsincarcerated up to 3 years
DUI(alcohol concentration per one liter of air - not blood) above .25mg13300,000 yenlicense suspended for 90 days incarcerated up to 1 year
.15mg to .25mg6300,000 yenlicense suspended for 30 days

How much is .15mg?

NOT VERY MUCH! Less than one drink. Although there are a lot of variables to take into consideration to determine your breath alcohol content, if you have had more than a sip for a toast (or a spoonful of medicine), do not chance it!

Note that most other countries' limits are between .2mg or .4mg per liter of air and Japan's was .25 until recently. Note that this system of measurement does not use the same units as the U.S, U.K. or other countries.

    0.00 mg/l of breath - This is the only safe level.
    0.10 mg/l of breath - The limit for drivers in some countries.
    0.24 mg/l of breath - The limit for many countries.
    0.38 mg/l of breath - The limit for most countries.
    0.48 mg/l of breath - The limit for drivers in almost every country is no higher than this.
    1.50 mg/l of breath - At this level most people will lose consciousness.
    2.00 mg/l of breath - At this level most people will become comatose and may die.

from http://www.intox.com

I wasn't the one driving, my friend was. I was just in the back seat. I can't get into any trouble, right?

Wrong. If you are in the car OR were even with that person at the time of the drinking even though you were not in the car, you can still be held accountable for your friend's drinking and driving. Hence you face similar penalties.


Although you may not see it a lot and it is generally not as common as in other countries, Japanese and foreigners alike do get pulled over, despite the lack of shoulders on many roads. Drivers are commonly pulled over on the expressways despite the high cost of driving on them in the first place. Police patrol around the clock, especially near cities. Usually, the vehicle will be a big, obvious black and white car with a large signboard and sirens flashing, though there have been known to be unmarked cop cars. Be suspicious of unmarked cars, as you would in any country (don't pull over in an empty, unlit place, etc.)

(Note that the police vehicles are not the same as the large, yellow "Highway Patrol" vehicles with sirens. The yellow vehicles are not there to pull you over, they are simply checking for broken down cars, dead animals on the road, etc. They will be going exactly, or lower, than the speed limit and will sometimes pull aside to let you pass. It is polite to slow down when passing, however. Watch what the drivers around you are doing, just to be safe.)

Once you have pulled off to the left, the officer will proceed with the normal drill of asking for your license, etc. The officer may then tell you to join them in their narrow police vehicle (while your passenger(s) wait). This does not mean you are in extra trouble, however, do be prepared for a long lecture (in Japanese of course). In Japan, being shameful and apologizing is considered as a sign of sincere remorse when caught doing something wrong (from Jr. High students up to old men, for small and large offenses.) You may get lectured for up to an hour, whether you understand it or not, on things that may or may not have any relation to what you did. The more shameful you look, the shorter the lecture will probably be.

You will be asked to fill out a form in Japanese, including where you work (it is up to you what to tell them) and your phone number.

If you get a ticket (you probably will), then you have one week to pay it. It can be paid at the post office. Going 100kph on the highway (the normal speed limit in most countries) can cost you 30,000 yen. Go much faster and you start to risk license suspension. Driving the speed limit is, of course, the safest option, but staying under 25kph over the limit is a way to avoid serious consequences.

Sometimes you will see cameras spanning the road. ("Orbis" cameras) They are apparently traffic cameras only and do not record speed violations, however, this could certainly change. It is safer to slow down if you see one. Watch what the drivers around you do. The drivers around you may also have radar detectors (which many drivers shell out the 100,000 yen for to avoid the high fees and consequences of a ticket), so if many cars seem to suddenly be slowing, follow suit.


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