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Driving in Japan

2010 March 11

or, Why James Bond Launched His Speedboat Car Off a Ramp in That One Movie

Having signed on for another year here, I’m preparing to take the test to obtain a Japanese driver’s license. The test consists of (from what I hear) a confusing ten-question paper test in English, a long interview about your license test in your home country, and then – for those of us from right-hand driving countries – a course driving test.

All of this sounds scary and challenging, but it also sounds nothing like the actual driving I’ve been doing here for the past year.


Staying to the left was definitely not the hard part of learning to drive here. Most roads, even highways, have one lane each way, so as long as there’s other traffic around you’re fine. In more rural or older areas, roads aren’t big enough for lanes, and you can drive wherever you want. The hard part is meeting another car on one of these roads, but one of you pulls over as far as possible and lets the other through. Japanese speed limits are usually low – even most highways are only 50 km/hr, about 45 mph – so it’s not too bad to slow down and pull over. Easy.

Turning is a different story. Japan is aware of the turning arrow on the traffic light but seems skeptical of its use. Only a few major intersections around Hamada have them, and usually only for one of the two intersecting roads. Elsewhere, you may or may not have a turning lane, but you definitely don’t have a special signal. Instead, when you want to make a turn across traffic, you pull out into the middle of the intersection and wait. This scared me when my bosses were first taking me for driving practice, so at the Shimane JET orientation in Matsue, I asked a police officer giving us a traffic safety lecture. “Am I doing this right? Isn’t this dangerous?” “No, that’s right,” he told me. “There’s a few seconds’ delay before the next light turns green, so you can finish turning during the red light.”

WHAT. WHAT. When I’m pulled out into the intersection, two or three cars pull up behind me, so that’s three vehicles trying to get through in three seconds. Never mind that drivers here regard the yellow light as a “hurry up and get through!” signal and often run red lights anyway. The turn lane really only has one or two seconds to get through before obstructing traffic.

This seems so dangerous to me, but it’s apparently the law, and I’ve learned to handle it. Another thing I’ve learned to handle that probably isn’t legal, or at least shouldn’t be, is cars stopped at arbitrary points along the road.

For a country that is a leading producer of cars and a pioneer of automobile technology, you’d think they’d have parking down to a T. But no, they only have pay-to-park lots down. Those can be quite nice in big cities, especially the ones where you pull onto a platform that, once you’re safely out, hoists your car into a high-rise that looks like one of those Hot Wheels storage boxes on the inside. Those are special and fun. The most common kind of lot in a smaller city like mine is the “monthly rental” lot, where you pick a space and arrange a monthly fee. Instead of having their own parking lots, most restaurants and small businesses rent two or three spaces from a nearby lot. Many employers won’t even let their staff use their parking lot and make them rent a nearby space if they have to drive to work.

The lack of designated parking has led the Japanese to a lax attitude about temporary parking. If you’re running into a store to drop something off or to have a quick chat with someone, there’s nowhere to pull in, so you just pull over and put on your hazard lights. Fine, except that, as I mentioned, Japanese roads tend to be one-lane and narrow. And I’m beginning to think that Japanese drivers have a sixth sense for finding the worst possible spots to pull over. You’re supposed to simply pull around these cars, but oncoming traffic is almost always an issue. Sometimes even the traffic behind you is an issue, especially when there’s a yellow light (a.k.a. “go faster!” signal) around.

I’ve encountered cars pulled over just at the exit of a tunnel on a tight curve. I’ve encountered cars pulled over in the left-turn lane. I’ve encountered cars pulled over on a barely-wide-enough two-lane road during rush hour. I’ve encountered cars parked in the pull-over space on tiny mountain roads. I’ve encountered cars pulled over and parked in the exit of a parking lot. (!!!)

My wishlist for the improvement of Japanese driving includes the following:
– more turn arrows on traffic signals
– slightly less gunning through yellow lights (I’m terrified how many people follow me through an intersection even when it turns red on me)
– higher speed limits on highways
– more shoulders/sidewalks for scooters (lots of people ride them, but on roads with speed limits higher than their max speed, you have to treat them like pulled-over cars) and crazy hunched-up old lady pedestrians/scooter riders
– TEACH PEOPLE TO PULL OVER IN SAFE PLACES INSTEAD OF ENDANGERING OTHER DRIVERS

On the other hand, things I like about driving in Japan:
– mirrors around tricky corners on narrow mountain roads
– smaller vehicles easier to maneuver and park
– one-lane roads mean less passing maneuvering (until someone decides to make a right turn…)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010 April 22 9:17 am

    Thanks for so many good laughs. You certainly have my respect and admiration for what you are doing. I am wondering if the Japanese drivers are big into the Driving Lights and Fog Lights like the Europeans? They use them continuously, although they drive a lot faster than 50! The whole yellow / red light doesn’t sound too much different than Anytown, USA. The rule here in Michigan is to slowly count to 10 after you get the green light, just to let the intersection clear! Hang in there and enjoy your adventure. Thanks for the article!

    • 2010 May 3 1:38 am

      Thanks for the comment and the compliments! 🙂 You would be right about the fog lights. I was so confused when I first had to drive my work vehicle at night, as it wasn’t immediately obvious how to set the stick to regular ol’ headlights. And I know that the yellow light is generally abused, but Japanese people seem to be extra-vicious about it somehow. I was in a cab once where the driver was gunning for the yellow, but it turned red before he could get to the line. He turned back to me with an apologetic expression and said “It caught me.”

  2. Jennifer permalink
    2010 July 1 10:23 am

    Hey Mara! I was looking for tips on the Japanese driving test in Shimane and something called “Mara in Japan” came up. I figured it was you 🙂

    Nice blog, and agreed on the yellow light running.

    Whenever I drive through a yellow light, I make a habit of looking back to see how many cars squeeze through behind me. The current record is 3.

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