Traffic Conditions, Rules and Safety in Japan

A shot of downtown Tokyo traffic
For those of us from America, we have all heard the stereotype that Asians are poor drivers. This indicates a tendency on the part of Americans to lump all things of the Orient together in one vague stratification. The fact is, many first generation immigrants in America simply don’t drive the way other Americans have grown up driving, or have not driven cars much prior to coming to America. That aside, drivers in Japan are very far from the Asian driver stereotype. It may seem hazardous to be on the roads of Tokyo or another big city at first, but once you get a grip of the rules and manners of the road, driving in Japan can be a very safe and efficient experience.
 
The rules of the road in Japan are largely similar to Western countries, save that they drive on the left hand side. A couple of minor variations in the rules are as follows:
 
  • No right turns on a red light (left in Japan’s case)
  • Cars can cross pedestrian crosswalks while pedestrians are present
  • Some neighborhood streets are only one lane wide, but not one-way.

 

The rules are very straightforward, however we must acknowledge many of the driving manners in Japan before driving safely on the road.
 
  • Pedestrians do not necessarily have the right of way
  • Most people will go through a red light after it has changed, but before the signal on the waiting side has changed. Always make sure it is safe before going
  • People do not hesitate to go if there is space and time. Do not assume someone will wait or yield for you
    • This also applies when walking through crowded train stations and such
  •  Always signal all turns, no exceptions. The streets are narrow and traffic moves quickly. You must do all you can to let people know your intentions.
  • Pedestrians and cyclists can be very aggressive and reckless. You must focus on the road at all times and be ready to stop in case of an emergency.
  • Hesitation is the most dangerous thing on the road in Japan. Drive with conviction, and you will be on the same thinking plane as other drivers. 

Naturally, driving in Tokyo or another big city in Japan can be seemingly hectic. But once you have adapted to the style of driving with precision and conviction, you will find that Japan has significantly less traffic accidents than other heavily industrialized countries.



A Note on Parking:

A very small parking lot in a neighborhood of Tokyo
Parking in Tokyo requires that you park well. Most people will always back into a parking space as opposed to pulling in straight. Space is limited, and parking spaces downtown will cost money, hence parking crooked is unacceptable, and actually just plain unheard of.
Even in residential areas, parking with precision is a must. Aside from the limited space to begin with, if one is lucky enough to have a parking space (or park-able space) at home, they must consider space conservation for themselves as well as passerby and neighbors.

A very tight parking space in a Japanese neighborhood
 

While it is true that many cars have sensors to indicate if you are going to collide with something, most people who have been driving in Tokyo for some time have parking under any conditions dialed out pretty well. After living here, I really don’t ever want to hear another one of my friends complain about how parallel parking is “too hard”
 
 
 
An image showing dimensions of a car in relation to a parking space in Japan
 

Plenty of room right? This picture is actually from a car sensor advertisement. I mean, I have seen parking jobs even tougher than this done with older cars, but I suppose you have to be a cut above to be able to feel out something like this. Always fold in your mirrors!

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