Driving in Japan: Must-Know Information

Driving in Japan may seem like no big deal, but without appropriate preparation and understanding of the rules and road system, it can be a challenging, even dangerous experience.


Basics for Driving in Japan

As a tourist, you can’t use your domestic driver’s license to drive in Japan. Instead, you’ll need a valid International Driving Permit (IDP) obtained in your home country. If you’re in the USA, you can pick one up at your local AAA office.

IMPORTANT: International licenses issued by the International Automobile Association (IAA) are not valid in Japan.

Only International Driving Permits issued by Geneva Convention member countries are accepted. Driving without the proper license could result in you being arrested.

In addition to your IDP, make sure you also carry your domestic driver’s license and passport with you while driving. The traffic police will most likely ask for your IDP, domestic license, and passport if you’re pulled over.

Japan Drives on the Left

Japan Drives on the Left

Keep in mind that Japan drives on the left side of the road, which is a bit weird at first for us North Americans. Mental preparation is the only thing you can do to get ready for this aspect of driving in Japan.

Rules of the Road

Understanding the rules of the road in Japan is crucial for safe driving. Although most of the rules are similar across the world, Japan has some distinct differences.

Pedestrian is King

First, let’s talk about pedestrian right of way. I know pedestrians have the right of way in the USA also, but not like Japan.

Pedestrians always have the right of way in Japan, and automobiles must yield to pedestrians at all times. This rule is written in the Japanese Road Traffic Act and is strictly enforced.

Pedestrians always have the right of way in Japan

Pedestrians always have the right of way in Japan

Particularly in areas with no signal controlled crosswalks or in places designated for pedestrians, you must reduce your speed or stop to ensure pedestrian safety. If you come to a crosswalk with no signal control for traffic, and people are waiting to cross, you must stop and let them cross.

Pedestrians Waiting at a Crosswalk

Pedestrians Waiting at a Crosswalk

It’s not uncommon for people to step into a no signal control crosswalk without even looking for a car, and they have every right to do so.

If you’re at a traffic light, you need to make sure there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk when turning, or passing through an intersection. Never cross in front, or between pedestrians on a crosswalk at a traffic signal. This is both illegal and dangerous.

This makes right turns a bit trickier than back home. Not only do you need to wait for a clearing of cars to make your turn, you’ll also have to make sure there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk.

One rule in particular that is not very well-known, but is still strictly enforced, is that drivers must stop before crossing over a sidewalk. Vehicles exiting a parking garage, driveway, gas station, or any similar location must come to a complete stop at the sidewalk line before advancing, even if there are no pedestrians visible at the time.

There are very strict consequences for accidents that involve a car and a pedestrian, a cyclist, or a scooter. No matter the situation, if you’re the driver of a car, you’ll be in the wrong and found at fault.

No Turn on Red

It might surprise you, but in Japan, turning on a red light is not allowed. The traffic lights are strictly followed, and failure to do so can result in steep fines.

Just turning left on green can be difficult enough in Japan. Bicycles and scooters often ride near the curb and can pass cars. Before you initiate a left turn, it’s your responsibility to look over your shoulder for bicycles and scooters passing you on the left.

Remember, regardless of the situation, you’ll be found at fault if you hit a pedestrian, bicycle, or scooter. No exceptions.

Stop Signs

Stop signs in Japan are not an octagon like they are in America. They look more like a yield sign, and often only have Japanese characters indicating it’s a stop sign.

Make sure you come to a complete stop before the stop line, and then creep forward. If there’s no stop line, come to a stop before the stop sign. Rolling through a stop sign is illegal and will result in a steep fine.

Driving Over Railroad Crossings

In Japan, you’re required to come to a complete stop before crossing any railroad tracks. Even if there’s a crossbar and a signal, you must come to a full stop and make sure no trains are coming.

Also, make sure the car ahead has cleared the tracks and that you’ll be able to clear the tracks once you start crossing. It’s not like America, where a train comes once every few hours. In Japan, trains come often and they come fast.

Stop Lights are Weird in Japan

The first thing you’ll notice about stop lights in Japan is that they’re sideways. The red light is on the right and the green light is on the left. I think there are places in the US and Canada that have horizontal lights, but in Japan, it’s the norm.

The next thing you’ll notice is the odd way they do traffic lights with green arrows. If you see a red light with a green arrow, it means that traffic can go in the direction of the green arrow, but all other traffic must stop.

Traffic Signal with Four Arrow Signals

Traffic Signal with Four Arrow Signals, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Obviously, everyone should stop if the light only shows a red lamp and nothing else. And of course, if only the green lamp is lit, everyone can go.

Common Road Signs

While driving in Japan,  it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with Japanese road signs. Japan uses international road sign standards, but many signs are only in Japanese.

Here is a shortlist of some common road signs:

Common Japanese Road Signs

Common Japanese Road Signs

Other Challenges of Driving in Japan

Narrow Roads

Some roads in Japan can be extremely narrow. Sometimes it’s surprising that the road is open to two-way traffic. When on a narrow pass, it’s important to drive slowly and carefully.

Narrow Road in Japan

Narrow Road in Japan

Be especially careful on narrow streets with open rain gutters. You don’t want to get your rental car stuck, or even worse, damaged.


Parking in Japan can be quite tricky due to the lack of space, and parking on the streets is often prohibited. Instead, you’ll need to park your car in a driveway or a designated parking area. Public parking lots are available but can be expensive, especially in city centers.

Low Speed Limits

Speed limits in Japan are quite low compared to many Western countries. Most roads have a limit of 30 to 40 km/h, and for highways, it varies between 80 and 100 km/h. Keeping to these limits is essential to avoid fines.

Expressways aren’t Free

Tolls are prevalent on Japanese expressways, and the cost depends on the size of your vehicle’s engine and the distance traveled. You can pay these tolls using cash, credit cards, or an ETC card (Electronic Toll Collection Card).

TIP: Ask your car rental company if they have ETC cards for rent. It’ll save you both time and money when using toll roads.

Car Rentals

Finding a suitable rental car in Japan is not a problem. Many international and local companies offer a range of vehicles to choose from. Remember to reserve your car well in advance, especially during peak tourist seasons, to ensure availability.

International Companies

Japanese Companies

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Final Thoughts

Driving in Japan is a great way to explore more secluded areas and attractions not easily accessible by public transport. But it also requires preparation, understanding of the road rules, and patience to make it safe and enjoyable.

Before you embark on your Japanese road trip, plan your route carefully, including fuel stops and rest areas, as some rural areas might lack these facilities. Also, stay updated with weather conditions, particularly in winter, when some roads may be closed due to heavy snowfall.

All that’s left to do is to enjoy your road trip! Ikimashou (行きましょう).

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