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The Rules of the Road

So you think you can drive in Japan? You probably can if you have sufficient medical insurance cover. But beware!

The Japanese may drive on the left, and if you’re British, you may think this is an advantage, but there are differences far more subtle which could spin you out yet.

Driving in the city probably won’t cause to many problems other than extreme boredom. But rural areas hold dangers behind every corner…

1. The Highway Code

You may remember a part of the HC that gravely intones, “Your actions on the road should not make any other road user change speed or direction.”

Well. Forget that.

2. Road width

Many rural roads, and most urban non-main roads are only wide enough for one car.

Despite this, you should have no fear of taking blind bends as quickly as mechanically possible. If another road user is unwise enough to be coming the other way, one of you is obliged to plough into the wall (urban) / rice field (rural).

3. Traffic Lights

Whilst most Japanese won’t argue that black is white, they will insist that green is blue.

You must humour this peculiar notion, despite the fact it is blatantly untrue. (Japanese GO is as green as anyone else’s.)

So with that in mind:

  • 3.1 Blue means “Go!”
  • 3.2 Amber means “Go!”
  • 3.3 Red means “Two or three more cars can GO!”

Said traffic lights are unencumbered by cameras, so can in fact be ignored at your leisure.

4. Braking distance

Whilst drivers will appear to believe that Japanese cars can, at 80km/h in the rain, stop within 8 inches, you must not believe this – it is false!

And any attempts by you to create braking distance between you and the car in front will be greeted by drivers in other lanes as an invitation to move over. But fear not. Though you’re only left with an inch between your front bumper and his rear, you’re probably driving a Japanese car*, which of course has those famed Magic BrakesTM.

*If you’re one of the 23 fools in Japan not driving a Japanese car, now is the time to repent and say goodbye.

5. Indicators

As a foreigner, you probably use your indicators far too much.

You probably flick them on before you turn. You probably use them when you change lane. Your quaint foreign ways don’t hold here.

Indicators are for illustrating manoeuvres that you are currently engaged in. They should on no account be used to display your intent. That is what brake lights and guessing are for. (Though at this point you may also wish to refer to para. 4)

5a. As a sub-note, on turning in general, be aware that when you have the green light to turn left or right, so will the pedestrians crossing the road you wish to turn into. This can require so much waiting that it’s probably best to forget turning at all, and go somewhere else instead.

5b. Further to this, international drivers will also be pleased to know that Japan has now signed up to the international convention on hazard lights, which states:

drivers shall be permitted to park their car anywhere (e.g. in front of a hospital entrance, on a bridge, on a corner) provided that their hazard lights are on, in such emergency situations as ‘the phone rang’, ‘just checking the map’, and ‘too lazy to park further away and walk’.

6. Further rules for bicycle riders

6.1 The single most important rule for cyclists is that on most roads, by law, you have the right of way.

This means that when you fly out of a side road in front of a juggernaut, and get horribly mashed up under its 16 wheels, the truck driver will be at fault. You will be dead, but you will be RIGHT!

6.2 Where there is one, bicycles must be ridden on the pavement, not on the road. Make every effort not to hit pedestrians, particularly at high speed, but also bear in mind that when you inevitably do, it was their fault, not yours.

6.3 Law 6.1 regarding Rights of Way, combined with para. 4 on Magic BrakesTM, means that you have time, whilst riding your bike to:

  • receive and send email on your mobile
  • read a book
  • hold an umbrella and read a book
  • hold an umbrella and make a phone call*

*Riders who have a third hand may wish to apply make-up!

7. Further rules for elderly citizens

7.1 As a pedestrian:

As a senior citizen you are entitled to cross the road wherever you deem fit. (Refer to para. 4 on ‘Magic BrakesTM‘)

7.2 As a driver:

1. Male senior citizens are required to wear a baseball cap to fullfil Japan’s agreement to the international Old Man in Hat treaty.

2. You must display your senior status with a single winking indicator for your entire journey. (This should then of course be switched off when you turn, in accordance with para. 5)

This guide to driving in Japan makes no claims to completeness, but should arm you sufficiently should you attempt to dip your toe into the acid bath of Japanese roads. You may not stay out of trouble, in fact you almost certainly won’t, but it should at least keep your blood pressure and hospital bills down.

On a related note, one final simple plea to cross-cultural cooperation – Japan is an incredibly polite society, so you should reciprocate this politeness by carrying a first aid kit in your car to patch up all the cyclists who collide with your bonnet.

One Comment leave one →
  1. remora permalink
    May 16, 2008 7:09 pm

    well, according to this chap its perfectly acceptable to chug-a-lug a few cans of brew and then take off down the expressway in yer motor..

    KUMAMOTO — A farmer arrested for drinking beer while driving on an expressway complained during questioning that he was taken into custody even though he did not cause an accident, investigators said…

    (Mainichi Japan) May 15, 2008

    he was quite miffed about being pulled over and told to blow in the bag..(what inconveneince!)

    that was a good post Jon

    oh, by the way, any news on the rumour that Michael Owen might be headed for Japan?


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