Nov 30, 2017
I personally believe that if you are planning to see any part of Japan outside the city that a road trip is the way to go. Why? Japan has well-maintained roads, excellent expressways with even more incredible rest areas, and countless fascinating detours that will provide far more interesting memories than the standard tourist traps along bus or train routes.
I've driven tens of thousands of kilometers in over 37 of 47 prefectures, and I've seen all the different types of drivers out there. On the whole, Japanese drivers are safe, patient, and courteous, but you have to be aware some special types of drivers. Please bear in mind that these are general categories of drivers I have encountered, so by no means is this an indictment of everyone who could potentially see themselves in those buckets. No, this is just some notes of caution of bad habits associated with the bad eggs in those categories so that you can drive safely along your journeys in Japan.
That said, here are the five types of (potentially) dangerous drivers you'll find on Japanese roads:
1) The Sunday Driver
I personally don't recommend driving on Sunday if you can avoid it. First, it tends to be the most heavily trafficked day of the week for leisure activities, which means that if you are on vacation, you'll run into traffic heading to most of your destinations. Second, and more importantly, it is also the only day of the week that many people drive. I know most countries in the world have some term for Sunday drivers, but it is especially apt for Japan. If practice makes perfect, 1 out of 7 days a week can leave unsure hands behind the wheel.
On Sunday, you'll tend to see a lot more erratic behavior on the road. The places I've seen the most danger is with merging onto expressways, changing lanes, and sudden stopping. The best things you can do is to maintain a consistent speed if you are in a lane with a car trying to merge (don't try to be too courteous or too aggressive). Be sure to watch out for poor lane changing habits (no signal, late signal, failure to check blind spot, etc.). Finally, keep a safe distance, especially in cities or towns where folks may suddenly stop to park or turn looking for their destinations.
2) The New Driver
In Japan, you'll encounter vehicles with this sticker on the back:
This indicates a new driver, and it carries with it all of the associated risks. For the most part, new drivers in Japan have limited experience driving save for what they did in their respective driving schools--being solo on the open road may be new to them.
If you see the sticker, be sure to keep a safe distance when following, be patient, and try to avoid aggressive overtaking.
3) The Elderly Driver
In addition to stickers for new drivers, there are also stickers for elderly drivers (suggested to display for drivers over 70; mandatory for drivers over 75):
At the risk of sounding stereotypical, there are a few driving traits common to these stickered drivers: driving at slower speeds; failure to signal properly; rolling stops; and overall lack of concern for whether or not you are going to hit them (in a less negative tone: trust that you will do the right thing in responding to their driving actions). As long as you're aware of those things, just adjust accordingly and there will be no problems!
4) The Taxi Driver
I mentioned that Japanese drivers are safe, patient, and courteous for the most part, but I throw that out of the window for taxi drivers. While not as bad as some of the notoriously dangerous cabbies around the world, there are a few habits that seem to transcend borders. In Japan, here are some of the habits to be aware of:
- Sudden stops to pick up/drop off passengers (maintain safe driving distance)
- Willingness to hold up entire lanes of traffic to pick up/drop off passengers, count money, jot notes, etc. (be ready for lane changes or stay in center or right lanes until you need to turn left.
- Propensity to stop on street corners, blocking your ability to turn (be aware before you commit so you don't get stuck in an intersection)
- Aggressive lane changing. Especially in cities, taxis will force their way into your lane whether you're ready for them or not.
5) The F-1 Wannabes
Similar to Sunday drivers in that these guys only bring out their toys once a week, but when they do, they bring out the fast cars in often reckless fashion. Don't get me wrong, if I was driving a McLaren F1, I would want to open up the throttle too, but it really gets to be dangerous when you are doing it from red light to red light, or trying to weave through traffic on a crowded expressway. If you see one of these cars heading your way, it's best just to get over to the left lane, let them zoom past, and maybe shake a fist at them (or a thumbs up, depending on your inclination).
As I mentioned before, for the most part, drivers in Japan make for safe, pleasant road trips, but I hope this helps you become aware of some of the challenges you might find on the road.!
Oh, and before I sign off, allow me to share with you my favorite type of driver in Japan: Chibatman! [Chiba Prefecture's Batman]
Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.
Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).
this was great! my husband used to be number 5, but now he just complains about our neighbors car being too loud.
Useful post this. I drive a lot in Japan, but it's always the exact same route to the beach and back and I know it like the back of my hand. Still, I come across a few of the drivers you mentioned in your post. I particularly agree with the Sunday Driver bit, and I'd double this on a national holiday when you can almost be sure there will be some kind of accident, probably down to people on the roads who aren't used to driving. On another cautionary note - there seems to be increasing incidents of road rage in Japan which has seen an increase in sales of dashcams across the country as people look to protect their backs. I have to confess, that once I get behind the wheel I get annoyed quickly. One time on the highway someone was driving really close behind, which really annoys me, so I pulled over into the slower lane to let them pass and as they did I stuck my finger up at them. They responded by pulling into the slow lane right in front of me and started playing around with their speed. I overtook them and they followed me for about 3km. I wanted to go into a service area that I knew was coming up soon but I was starting to get worried they might follow me in. I was thinking about what might happen if they confronted me. Anyway, on the approach to the turn off I started indicating and so did they (there were two of them, Japanese) but as a turned off they carried straight on, much to my relief. Anyway, lesson learned - no more sticking my fingers up (even though I think that people really should be told when they are driving dangerously).