How2: A Brit driving in Japan

Many people are oftern concerned about driving in a foreign country. Luckily for British people (and many others) Japan has made the right decision of driving on the left hand side of the road.


  • We both drive on the left hand side of the road!
  • By virtue of this, you won’t embarrass yourself like your American friends and try and get into the driver’s side, when you’re the passenger.

No the similarities end, and the differences begin – 頑張って下さい!

Roads in Miemachi
Uptown Miemachi


These range from trivial, to down right strange – but who’d want to traverse a country easily? Maybe you should just stick to trains?

Indicator and windscreen wiper

“Shit, left! NO! Windscreen wipers – We’re gonna have to loop back round”

Easy to deal with when everything is going smoothly – a nightmare in a panic.

Everything is automatic

That one friend who got an automatic license – the fool! Unless you’re in Japan, then that’s fun. I think I saw one car with a manual gearbox. The downside is I’m sure my left leg has gotten a lot skinnier in the last 18 months…

Kei car vs regular car (and boxiness)

Japanese Kei car
My little Kei-car, River Phoenix

Not content with ‘cars’ Japan has two classes of car; the super-weak, squarest thing you’ve ever seen Kei-car, and the Toyota style Car-car which we know back home.

The Kei car is cheap, lightweight and cheaper to send for the MOT equivalent. They are pretty low-powered, hideously fuel-inefficient at more than 60kph, and will struggle up hills.

No round-abouts

“Pa-papa-paa paa…”

No magic dogs to see here! Yep, that most British of road-invention is (practically?) non-existent and instead is replaced with…

Red flashing light/Orange flashing light

American style flashing red and orange lights. At this point in time, I believe;

  • Red = You must completely stop for a few seconds
  • Orange = You must slow down and look

And you maybe pull out in order of who arrived when? Though sometimes it feels more like people going straight have right-of-way – proceed with caution.

Crossing train tracks

You must stop, completely, before crossing the tracks.

“But what if I can see for a kilometre each way and there are not trains?”

“You must stop”

Because Japan!

Police traps

One officer hides in a bush, or behind a sign with a speed camera, whilst another waits a 100m up the road to pull you over.

They can also park they’re car back from a junction, behind a hill or bush and watch people not stop at the ridicously far back stop line, from where you can’t see any cars coming, but must stop any…

Manned Petrol stations/No shop attached

Something your grandfather might remember next – manned petrol stations, they’ll even clean your windows and offer you a dashboard cloth. Remember it’s “man tan” for a full tank!

Self-service also does exist, with uncanny parallels to self-service tills in supermarkets in the UK (which certainly don’t exist in the inaka of Japan). They’re touchscreen, offer a number of options, from which I can pick out ‘cash’ or ‘point card’. Weirdly though, to get your change you take the receipt to a machine, and it scans a barcode on your receipt!


A law unto themselves, they cycle where they please – on the pavement, in the road, or most harrowingly, on the road, towards oncoming traffic. I’m pretty sure a cycling proficiency test doesn’t exist here.

Pedestrians crossings

Like some of our European siblings, pedestrians crossing on a green man need still be warying of cars turning left or right onto the road. Equally, just because you have a green traffic light, doesn’t mean you can happy turn onto a road, but have to look out for stupid children, or worse, people wearing all black on a dark autumn night.

Zebra crossings

The pedestrian’s rock to the driver’s scissors. An island of safety for pedestrians in the UK, where they have God-like power to command cars to stop. In Japan, it’s an opportunity to cross a road where there are no lights, but without committing the felony of jaywalking – God I hate jaywalking laws – gives us some credit for being able to safely cross the road!?!

In Conclusion

Driving in Japan is the same, yet very different! What are some differences you have noticed, did I miss anything big? And remember, driving is a serious business, so use some commonsense!

By J.Molkenthin

James Molkenthin is an enthusiastic and energetic British Designer, with a background in Graphics, Website and Product Design.