Life in Japan

Driving in Japan

I’ve lived in Japan for several years. However, my first 4 years I spent in trains or on my bicycle. In my 5th year I finally got a Japanese driver’s license and since then I’ve been driving in Japan a lot.


My experience with Driving in Japan

As always this article is completely based on my personal experience, but I’m quite sure that others might have had similar experiences.

When you obtain your Japanese driver’s license you might think that Japanese traffic rules are super strict and that people have to follow them no matter what. At least that’s the impression I got. smilie

Now, being German I’d say our traffic rules are already quite strict and on top of that the police checks very carefully if people follow the rules or not. In Japan … they don’t! smilie

Now, what will happen if nobody checks the rules? Exactly!! smilie

And trust me I speak from daily experience and I really wish I could tell you something else, but JAPANESE PEOPLE ARE LITTLE DEVILS ON THE ROAD!!!
They are completely CRAZY!!!!!!!! (of course not all of them …)

I already noticed that in 2007 when I first came to Japan as a tourist. You had to be VERY careful when crossing the road. It’s quite easy to get hit by a car!
Riding a bicycle is even crazier! I’m not only talking about cars, but other bicycles! I tell you, you won’t need any rollercoasters to get your adrenaline up there!
Once you get used to it, it’s ok, though. smilie

The worst of all is without a doubt driving a car here in Japan!
Not too long ago I was waiting in front of a red traffic light. It had been red for quite a while. Right next to me a car with full speed just passed the red light. It was sooo freaking scary! smilie
There’s no way the driver could have missed the red light. On top of that I was already standing there with my car. WTF??!!

Driving in Japan you’ll see people turn left and right without using turn signals and only stepping on the brakes in the very last second.
People don’t stop when the traffic light turns red, but instead speed up. I had it many times that it turned green and I couldn’t go, because there were still cars running although their traffic light had already turned red ages ago.

When driving in Japan it seems that people are ALWAYS in a hurry or why would they jump out of a side road although cars are coming?
It’s not their turn. They have to wait, but they rush out probably thinking that the others will stop when they see them coming out of nowhere. I had to step on my brakes several times because of that already.

Just like in Germany you’re not allowed to use your cellphone while driving in Japan. Yet I see people who do that every single day.
People who pass by from the opposite direction, having their phones between their shoulder and their ear, a cigarette in the other hand and then not even looking at the street. WTF????!!!!!
I could freak out! smilie driving in japan

Another thing I noticed is that Japanese people always block streets and side roads.
I’m quite sure that they’ve learned in driving school, that you should wait in front of a side street and not blocking the way when waiting at a traffic light. They don’t seem to care that they’re blocking the way for other cars. Not really something dangerous, but very annoying.

The only bad behavior I copied after observing the Japanese is when there’s somebody turning right at an intersection they will just overtake that car from the left to get past the traffic light before it turns red. (Note: In Japan we drive on the left side of the road.)
Officially you’re not allowed to do it, but most cars in Japan (including mine) are so small that you can easily squeeze through.

Speed limit regulations are similar to Germany. As long as you’re “only” 10km/h too fast, the police won’t bother.
And speed limits seem to be the only thing the police sometimes checks.
They need to be MUCH stricter! I can clearly see that Japanese people are not afraid of being caught. When I see a police car somewhere I immediately slow down to the “allowed speed”, but Japanese people never do (unless there’s a speed control). smilie

HOWEVER despite all of this crazy driving in Japan there aren’t that many traffic accidents.
I don’t have numbers, but there are certainly MUCH more in Germany!

I guess one reason is the difference in speed limits.
In Japan you won’t really drive faster than 100km/h. I sometimes go up to 120km/h with my small Kei car when overtaking on the highway, but that’s about it. My car can’t go faster than 140km/h anyways. smilie
Officially you’re allowed to drive 80km/h on most highways I’ve seen and depending on where you are 40-60km/h in and around cities.

In Germany you usually are allowed to drive 50km/h within cities, up to 100km/h outside of cities (it depends where you are) and I’m sure most of you have heard of the German highway, called “Autobahn” which is not only free of charge, but there’s also NO SPEED LIMIT AT ALL! That means you can go as fast as your car can go! smilie
I remember my first driving lesson on the highway and I was already shaking at a speed of 120km/h (I don’t like speed …) and my teacher told me to speed up. My limit was 160km/h and I think I never drove much faster than that, but I’ve been in cars that went over 200km/h and I hated it! smilie

While my personal experience is that there aren’t that many crazy drivers on normal roads in Germany compared to Japan, there are many on the highway.
That combined with the fact that you’re allowed to drink alcohol at the age of 16 in Germany causes a lot of traffic accidents.
Because of the high speed those are much more severe than most traffic accidents in Japan.

Maybe you can tell by now that I don’t like driving that much in general.
I do prefer Japanese highways, because the German “Autobahn” still freaks me out even if I’m just a front passenger. smilie
I’m swearing a lot. Basically every single day here in Japan when I “run into” another crazy driver (and trust me it happens every day!).

I always thought that Italy had the craziest drivers, but I think Japan is the clear winner here! smilie


Stickers for your car when driving in Japan

One last thing I want to mention is something I really like about driving in Japan.
They use stickers to mark if somebody is a beginner or over 75 years old. There’s also a mark for disabled or deaf / hard of hearing people, but I’ve never seen any of those. Here’s a quick overview:

driving in japan shoshinsha mark
Beginner Drivers
(初心運転者標識 shoshin untensha hyoushiki)Other names:
Shoshinsha mark (初心者マーク) or Wakaba mark (若葉マーク)Introduced in 1972.
After obtaining a Japanese driver’s license somebody new to driving in Japan has to put this sticker in the front and back of their car for one year.

driving in japan koreisha mark
Aged Drivers
(高齢運転者標識, kourei untensha hyoushiki)Other names:
Kareha mark (枯れ葉マーク, dried leaf mark) or Ochiba mark (落葉マーク, fallen leaf mark)Introduced in 1997. The new sticker (right graphic) can be used since February 2011. A driver over 70 can use it, a driver over 75 has to use it by law.

driving in japan butterfly mark japanese car stickers
Hard of Hearing
(聴覚障害者標識, choukakushougaisha hyoushiki)Other names:
Butterfly mark (蝶マーク)Introduced in 2008. People who can’t hear well or are deaf have to put this on their car, although there’s no penalty if they don’t.

driving in japan clover mark car stickers
(身体障害者標識, shintaishougaisha hyoushiki)Other names:
Clover mark (クローバーマーク)Introduced in 2001. People who are disabled have to put this on their car, although there’s no penalty if they don’t.

Source: Wikipedia Japan

At first I always confused the colors, but then I came up with the ultimate hint (sorry this is only going to work if you understand German):
Grünschnabel (Beginner) und Orangenhaut (Senior) smilie


Dou you have any experience driving in Japan?
How about the traffic rules and driving in your home country?
Please share your experience! smilie


  • Yes, agree with the part that its very annoying when people don’t follow the rules and break the signals. I think most of the accidents take place just because rules are not followed. This driving situation in Japan is bad yes. In Pune, India, the situation is much worse :notamused: . People stop and fight on roads. When a person is waiting during red signal, the others behind honk the horns so loudly that the person has to move forward. It is often said that ” If you learn to drive in Pune, you can drive anywhere else ” :hum:

    Interesting article ! Thank you :thumbup:

    • Hi Kai!
      Thanks a lot for your first comment here! ^__^
      It seems like driving in Japan would be paradise for you then! *g*

      I don’t like driving in general and the more chaotic it is, the more I dislike it! :(
      I would probably be too afraid to drive in India then!

  • I think your memories of European (German) drivers are a little bit romanticized. All the things you mentioned especially the speeding up when a light turns red, the driving while on the phone, etc. I see it all the time. And the times when there was no speed limit on the Autobahn are long gone. Nowadays there are only short stretches of speedy freedom :) Not that I drive that fast :)

    • It seems that you’re not the only one with that opinion! *g*
      It’s been over 10 years that I’ve driven regularly in Germany. Once I became a university student I rarely drove and rather used the train and after that I moved to Japan.
      However, I had no problem when I drove in Germany last year with a rental car.
      To be fair that was only on the countryside and of course I avoided the Autobahn (I always do … ^-^; ..)

  • Passing through red-lights really scared me too at first! I understand when people are waiting a long time to turn right across traffic, but everyone does it all the time!

    Also it still amazes me how when you do something nice for a Japanese driver, like let them go in front of you, they bow. Bowing while driving is like trying to drive with your eyes closed!

    • Oh yes, the bowing part! Actually I do it, too. It just comes naturally, I guess.
      At night I flash my lights when saying thank you because they can’t see if I bow or not, but I bet a lot of Japanese still bow even at night! :hihi:

  • Well, I drove in Germany, and I think your souvenirs are rosier than the reality. The speed can be a problem, for one thing, for another, people do take chances. They seem to often start before the actual green, and continue driving after it has turned red, if they can. On the roads, they overtake on hills, and you have to be ready to veer to the shoulder if a car appears out of nowhere. I once saw a Mercedes in Stuttgart go the wrong way down a one-way street to take a shortcut.

    As far as talking on a cellphone, Americans do it all the time, or worse, they text while driving! They also block side streets, that to mine all the time. There is also here a real mixture of timid new foreign drivers who are slow and hesitant, and foolish young people or commuters in a hurry who go as fast as they can. That is not a good mix, as the slow group exasperates the other.

    Now while new drivers [learners] get the letter L here, I am opposed to drivers over 75 getting somehow marked. I think it is discriminatory. Are you gaga because you are old? Some are actually better, more experienced drivers. If they are gaga, then they shouldn’t drive, it is simple.

    • I wonder if that’s so, but in all honesty I haven’t driven on a regular basis in Germany in over 10 years now, so yeah … my memories might be slightly off.
      When I went back last year and drove around in a rental car I had no issues at all, though.
      To be fair that was only on the countryside, avoiding the “Autobahn”. ^-^;

      I don’t find that discriminating at all.
      I could say the same about my beginner’s mark, but I don’t feel that way. I might even keep it on my car after that one year is over. I would do the same once I get older.
      It’s a fact that one’s reaction gets slower when you grow older

      The marks just tell others that they should be more careful with you – which I think is a good thing! Not all care, but the few that do count!
      If I could I would keep the beginner’s mark on my car forever! *g*

      • I also think it’s no discrimination at all.
        So many accidents here are from young drivers (even if I tin k it’s better since you can get your license in Germany already with 17 and then have to drive with an experienced driver for 1 year), who are just got their license and overvalue themselfs, just like the older ones. Putting stickers on the car give the other drivers at least a chance to evaluate the driving sklil better and so to be more cautios.
        I would like to have these kind of rule in Germany too! ( Maybe for the beginners even longer than 1 year.) :thumbup:

        • Yes, I like the idea with the stickers, too!
          I don’t think that beginners would mind so much, but probably older people would! However, I think many of them lack driving skills due to age and should use those stickers as well.

          • I think so too.
            Last year were many discussion about old drivers in the tv. And they showed experiments with yong but experienced drivers in an “old woman” suit. That showed that you really really shouldn’t drive anymore at a certain point. :sweatdrop2:

  • Haha sweetie, how many years you didn’t drive in Germany? There’s war on the streets!
    I agree, most Japanese are technical bad drivers, especially in Inaka. But everytime i have to go to Germany and have to drive a rental car, i am really afraid. And as you know, i’m surely no pussy. Germans drive technically good. Maybe better than in the most other countries. But they drive aggressive, fast and basically don’t give a shit about other people on the road. I had so many dangerous situations on the Autobahn, its unbelievable. Everytime i’m back in Japan, i feel like in driver’s heaven. Only one thing is really bad: There are a lot of accidents because of watching tv during driving, play with the navi or mobile phone and of course, no driving experience. In Germany, most people drive every day. In Japan, especially in the big cities, most people drive only at the weekends. Btw, did you ever see a kei-car after an accident? I once had an accident in such cookie box on wheels and i’m glad that i’m still alive. The safety standard in that “things” is like in the 80’s or worse.

    • First of all, thank you of increasing my fear of driving even more!
      Yes, I know that kei-cars aren’t very safe, but I didn’t have a choice. It’s the company’s car. That’s what they gave me.

      I have never driven in a big city in Germany. I’m just too afraid of it, so maybe the people there drive really aggressively?
      I did the same as you when I went back last year and drove around in a rental car, but that was only on the countryside, avoiding the Autobahn. I didn’t have any issues at all.

  • I’m tempted to say it’s because of Kansai, as at least inside Tokyo and in the part of Chiba where we live I barely see people ignoring traffic lights. People on their phone – all the time. Children without fastened seatbelt – sure. Or maybe it’s just because I compare it to Berlin traffic, which is quite dangerous too. I don’t drive, but I feel like it’s still safer to be in traffic in Japan (if you’re not a child). Somehow I feel bicycles are the real danger in Japan…
    But then again Germany freaks me out whenever I go back. Everything’s scary and intimidating. :whyohwhy:

    • Thanks, glad you liked it! :)
      Well, I guess it depends on who you ask. Some people seem to agree with me, others say driving in Japan goes rather smoothly compared to other countries.

  • Very interesting how you managed to be less scared of driving on the left side than on a Autobahn :) I’ve got my driving license like 2 years ago and it wasn’t cheap even tho i did not miss any of the exams. I really like driving, also on the Autobahn. It’s actually alot less stressful than in a big city. In my Universitys city you can get into strange traffic situations, that you have never experienced before! :hum: Japanese traffic would scare me i guess, but there surely countries that are much worse to drive in, like Portugal or Turkey -.-

    • I’ve never driven in a big city, because I’m too afraid of it! Neither in Germany nor in Japan!
      I think the biggest city thus far was Naha (in Okinawa).

      Once you got used to the Japanese traffic it’s not all that bad!
      I wouldn’t want to drive in Fukuoka or Tokyo, though! (^____^”) ….

  • Hi Guys,
    I am from Albania, I drove there 10 years.
    I lived in Kawasaki, Japan for 3 years and drove around Tokyo.
    I lived in South Korea for 8 months and drove almost all over South Korea.
    I live now Austria and still drive here.

    The craziest from my experience:
    1. Albania
    2. Korea
    3. Austria
    4. Japan


    • Hi erjon!

      Thanks a lot for sharing your experience.
      I’m surprised to see Austria on the second place. I wonder if it’s as bad as in Germany (my home country).
      Have you ever driven in Italy? I’m sure it would make it into your top list. *g*

  • Ha ha ha, great blog subject.

    My experience in Japan with cars and traffic was non-scary except for motor cycles and scooters. and I am surprised by how you describe Japanese drivers flaunting the driving laws. I am surprised because my experience of Japanese (Tokyo, Shinjuku) indicated they were very very law abiding, for example; pedestrians refusing to cross the street until the lights turned green. I was a constant jaywalker and was always the only one, I was truly amazed how law abiding and polite Japanese were, however as drivers it seems they turn into “Mr Hyde”!!

    After just returning from 2 months in Nepal I can say their drivers and motorcycle riders are absolutely the worst!! While driving fast is not a big issue as the roads are so bad as to prohibit it, the quality of drivers is truly appalling. Driving on the wrong side of the road (when your side of the road is better) overtaking when not safe, needlessly overtaking, smoking while on the phone and turning around talking to passengers (on buses freaked me out) on windy mountain roads that are unsealed. However in their defense they never got angry or lost their temper, the were always benign in the most traumatic traffic.

    So Nepalese drivers have replaced Balinese drivers as my world’s most dangerous drivers.

    Just discovered this blog today and it is truly wonderful!! Jasmine you have a wonderful way with words and your observations are insightful and not critical. A wonderful writer.


    • Edwardo,
      I totally agree about driving manners in other countries. Italy, for example, can be super crazy!

      I guess it’s because I expect the Japanese to obey the rules strictly, but they don’t. That’s why I’m so shocked.
      It’s surely not as bad as in some other countries, but it would be totally wrong to say that Japanese strictly obey traffic rules. I see it every single day here.

      And, Edwardo, thanks so much for the nice compliment. I’m happy to hear that you like my blog.
      Sorry for the super late reply!
      Hope to see you around more often from now on!! :D

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