One of my sempai (seniors) gave me some advice about driving in Japan soon after I arrived:

‘When you speed, try not to go more than 20 over the limit.’

This cracked me up. This sempai was American, and I’ve never been to the US so I can’t comment on what he was comparing to Japan, but this advice and its implicit assumptions were pretty new to me. There are quite a few differences between driving in Japan and Australia. I’ll look at a few of them in this post.

Speed limits

As the above advice suggests, it’s expected that you will speed in Japan. The guideline from my aforementioned sempai has stood me in pretty good stead so far, and I haven’t heard of anyone getting a fine for anything less than 20 km/h over the limit. Of course, it’s probably a proportional thing – nobody goes 20 ks over in a 30 zone. But nobody drives at the limit, either. In fact, because of the expectation that everyone will speed, if you drive at the speed limit, you will become an annoyance to other drivers and a traffic hazard. Apparently when police come to company training events to talk about road safety, they advise that 10 ks over the limit is OK. So the other day, I overtook a police car. I was driving at 60, in a 50 zone. The police car did not change its behaviour.

DSC_0155Oh yes – and for ordinary roads in Japan, the maximum speed limit you will find is 50 km/h. So practically speaking, this means you can go at 70. There are highways where there is a limit of 80 or 100 km/h, but they usually have considerable tolls.

To an Australian, this speeding and the unrealistic speed limits are incredible. Australia is not tolerant of speeding, and it’s a prominent topic in road safety campaigns. I’m sure most Australians would know the various lines of the Transport Accident Commission, known as the TAC. The most recent one I remember was ‘Wipe off 5.’ There are a lot of hidden cameras in Australia, especially in my home state Victoria, and I know people who have had fines for going 2km/h over the limit. Fines are significant and you get demerit points on your licence, after a certain number of which you lose your licence.

Australian speed limits are generally 50km/h in residential areas, 30 or 40 km/h in

The Great Ocean Road, in Victoria, has a speed limit of 80km/h, which many people think is too high.

The Great Ocean Road in Victoria has a speed limit of 80km/h: high for a dangerous winding road.

school zones, and on multi-lane roads, 60 to 80 depending on the road.

Highways/freeways/expressways are usually 100 or 110km/h, and there used to be a few areas with no limit in some outbacky kinds of places, but I don’t know if it’s still the case now.

Drink driving

Conversely to the issue of speeding, there is a zero tolerance approach to drink driving in Japan. I recently renewed my Japanese licence, which was a refreshingly easy process but takes a while because you have to sit through a one-hour lecture and video. To be fair, I didn’t understand all of the lecture, which was about road tolls in Japan, but the video was easy to understand. It was basically a drama about a guy who has a beer and then because of an emergency for his friend’s job, goes to drive his friend somewhere, and on the way there he hits a guy and his child who are crossing the road. The impact kills the dad and permanently disables the child, thereby irreversibly changing the lives of the mum and kid and ruining his own life: he loses his job (a given if you are a company employee caught drink driving), is sent to prison, his family gets kicked out of their company housing and his wife divorces him because her lifestyle is unsustainable without him and with the stigma of what has happened.

In the lecture and the video, I don’t remember speed being mentioned.

The BAC (blood alcohol concentration/content) legal limit in Japan varies according to who you ask, but the general guideline is 0, though Wiki reckons it’s actually 0.03. In Australia it’s 0.05 for most people on a full licence, with some exceptions for some vehicles in some states. For people on a probationary licence it’s 0.0. In Australia, this usually means that a single standard drink (which contains 10ml of pure alcohol, so is about 100ml of wine or 285ml of beer) is within the limit, and for some people, 2 standard drinks is still within the limit. Seeing people drink a glass of beer and wine and then drive left my Japanese friends in Australia gobsmacked the first time they saw it.

The different culture around this doesn’t mean that Australia doesn’t care about drink driving. The TAC phrase is ‘If you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot,’ and they had some good ads about it. In fact, TAC ads are always well done. They are shocking, awfully real, and you remember them when you get into the situations depicted. Here’s one about distractions, which, well, exactly. The phrase: Distractions lead to disaster.

I can’t recall ever seeing a TV ad or hearing about a campaign for road safety in Japan, and I also haven’t been breath tested, although I have heard of it happening. Publicity about road safety seems mostly limited to road signs and writing on the road in some places: I’ve seen seatbelt signs, ‘reduce speed’ signs (often in school areas), and ‘don’t drink and drive’ signs. To be fair, I’ve only lived in Japan a few years, don’t watch/listen to as much news as in Australia, and I can’t read everything, so there may be more publicity than I’m aware of. I also don’t know where Japan is in terms of road safety. But the TV ad presence is definitely different.


Roadwork barriers in Japan are usually cuter than these bowing characters.

Roadwork barriers in Japan are usually cuter than these bowing characters.

You know how famous the Japanese are for being polite? Well, on the road in Japan, you say thank you to people for letting you in by turning on your hazard lights for a couple of blinks. In Australia we wave, and some Japanese people do that too. But the use of hazard lights for ‘thank you’ is unknown in Australia.

Are drivers more aggro in Japan, with the terrible traffic and funny speed limits? Or in Australia, with our lack of being famous for manners? It really depends on the area within the country. Can’t make any general comments. There are good drivers and bad drivers in both countries.

One thing that surprised me about Japan was that almost nobody stops (or slows) at pedestrian crossings. As a pedestrian, I have waited a long time to cross at zebra crossings. In Australia, if someone sees a pedestrian standing waiting at the side of a crossing, they stop and wait until the person is all the way across the road. Similarly, when there’s a pedestrian crossing at an intersection in Australia, pedestrians have right of way and turning cars won’t go until the pedestrians are well clear of the lane. In Japan, though, if people are crossing, cars go first, as long as they’re not going to hit the pedestrians. Turning at lights generally is also different in Japan, in that of cars turning right (i.e. across the lane of oncoming traffic), the first one or two usually take off fast and turn as soon as the lights (normal lights, not arrows) turn green – before the oncoming traffic has got going. We don’t do that in Australia, we just wait.

Other points

In Japan, the green light is called ‘blue.’ You weirdos. Green apples are also known as blue apples.

In Japan, people always stop at level crossings and look both ways along the train line. In Australia, we trust the traffic lights and boom gates, and just drive straight over.

A benign-looking gaijin trap in Akita Prefecture

A benign-looking gaijin trap in Akita Prefecture

There are deep uncovered gutters in Japan, known among some expats as ‘gaijin traps.’ According to sources, several hundred people such as cyclists die every year by falling into them.

Not all cars in Japan are small. In fact, bigger cars seem to be increasingly popular, which I don’t understand given some of the tiny little street corners they have difficulty manoeuvring around. But there are small, lightweight vehicles known as kei cars, which have yellow numberplates and are generally cheap to run and easy to get around whatever streets you come across in Japan. As you might be able to tell, I’m a fan.

In Australia, we say that we drive on the left hand side of the road. In Japan, they say that they drive on the right hand side of the car. So when Japanese people ask me about which side we drive on in Australia, we sometimes both get a bit confused. It happens like this:

JP: In Australia, which side is it, right or left? Which side is the handoru-

Me: Oh, it’s the same, we drive on the left! Oh-

JP: Oh, like America? On the left?

Me: Ah, I mean like Japan – we drive on the left hand side of the road.

JP: Oh!? The same as Japan? So the handoru is right side?

In Japan, roadwork barriers have cute characters on them, usually rabbits, frogs or giraffes or something. I don’t know what happened to the photo of the rabbit ones, but I saw some grateful road worker ones today.

As always, thanks for reading, hope I haven’t been too racist/offensive, and let us know in the comments of similar or contrasting opinions and experiences!


One thought on “Driving

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