Driving in Japan

A road sign along the B-Shunto Expressway on the way past Tokyo towards the Narita Airport.

Before moving to Japan, one of the things I was the most nervous about was driving. Not just driving in a foreign country, but driving in a country with Kanji marking signs I didn’t understand (yet), and driving on the wrong side left side of the road.


Green denotes countries where drivers drive on the right, and orange colored countries denote cars that drive on the left. http://www.worldstandards.eu/cars/list-of-left-driving-countries/

The majority of the world drives on the right side of the road. Just reference this site List of Left and Right Side Driving Countries. Japan along with the countries of India, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, South-eastern parts of Africa, Britian, Ghana, Suriname, and Guyana all drive on the left side of the road.

A normal double lane street in Japan. This is Highway 16, in Yokosuka, Japan driving towards Zushi city. Notice that you drive on the left side of the road here.


While driving in Japan be prepared:

  1. Since you are driving on the left side of the road, the steering wheel is accordingly on the right side of your vehicle.
  2. Zero alcohol consumption by driver allowed. The maximum alcohol limit is 0.0.
  3. You must be at least 18 years old to drive in Japan.
  4. Japan’s road signs follow international standards.
  5. Most of Japan’s written roadsigns are in Japanese and English, especially in highly populated areas.
  6. The streets are more narrow and seem more crowded in Japan. But you are traveling much slower than in the U.S. Toll roads you are often traveling 80 km per hour, main highways you are traveling 40-50 km per hour, and smaller side streets you are traveling about 30 km per hour.
  7. Toll roads are often easier to drive on, but will cost you about 100 yen per exit, or more. Longer tolls trips average about 10,000 per toll. For example, traveling to Narita Airport which is about two hours away will cost about 40,000 yen ($40).
  8. Most drivers in Japan are very considerate. Yet, don’t be alarmed when you hear an occasional honk.
  9. If your light turns green, do not automatically start driving. In Japan, it is more congested and their are far more pedestrians than I was use to driving around. Check the cross walks, they are often green in the crosswalks you are turning perpendicular across.
  10. 10. You are driving with many motorcyclists and mopeds. The rules for motorcycles and mopeds in Japan are similar to the rules for motorcyclists and mopeds in the state of California, meaning they are everywhere. They can travel on the left, right, and between car lanes. Be cautious, even in rainy weather it is very common for mopeds and motorcyclists to don their rain gear, and still be as stealthy as ever.

To drive in Japan, you must have a driver license from either:

1. An international driver’s license obtained outside of Japan. An international driving permit is only valid for one year driving in Japan, then you must go home for 3 months before returning to Japan, or you must then get a Japanese drivers license.

2. Other countries such as Belgium, France, Switzerland, Taiwan, Germany, Moracco, Slovenia have a different agreement with Japan, and instead offer an official translation of their countries driver’s license to use while in Japan. Again this translation license is only valid for one year.

3. A special base approved military translation license. If you are an approved military sponsor or family member of the age of 18+ then you can apply for a special base translation license that allows you drive on and off base in Japan. Your base license will expire once you are no longer sponsored to lived in Japan.

When driving in Japan you should note that you should:

  1. Make sure that you have yen in your car for tolls or unexpected traveling on tolls. Most Japanese cars have a small change holder for your coins (in yen) to pay for toll costs. You are able to sign up for ETC access to have cheaper and easier access to driving on Japanese Toll Roads. 
  2. Good Samaritan Laws do not apply in Japan. If you help someone here and you do something wrong you can be held liable financially and legally. You can not expect others to stop and help you in the event of a medical emergency due to this law.
  3. Driving in large cities, such as Tokyo can be confusing, and difficult with pedestrian traffic. Taking trains in congested cities is usually the best.
  4. Parking in congested cities can be very expensive, and parking availability can be very limited.

At first driving on the left side of the road threw me. I was terrified of the motorcycles, and the mopeds in the middle of February. We got the keys to our Japanese rental house, and my sons school was a 20 minute drive away from our home. It was cold in February, making trains a hard commute. Then, my husband had to travel for work to San Diego for a week. I had to figure out driving in Japan (honestly, it was us figuring it out since my kids were so patient with me about the process). In the months that followed I got over the fears of driving in Japan, and successfully made a driving trip to visit my sister at the Narita Airport. While I haven’t gotten over all of my hesitations of driving here in Japan, and I’m still scanning crosswalks cautiously, and avoiding do not drive down these single roads during certain times: but that is a different blog post I’m certain that will follow called how to pay for your Japanese driving ticket/ road citation.


Many roadsigns in Japan are in japanese and english.

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