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Four Road Laws in Japan You’ve Probably Broken

Don’t do the crime if you can't do the time, or pay the fine.

By 6 min read

Ever ridden your bicycle while holding an umbrella to shield yourself from Japan’s pelting rain during typhoon season? Well, congratulations on breaking the law, because that’s actually illegal.

Japan has several rules of the road that may seem counterintuitive to foreigners and plenty of police officers around to enforce them. You’re likely to be stopped for questioning by the local koban (neighborhood police station) because the police just have nothing else going on.

Your best friend or your worst enemy.

While most of us probably consider ourselves as law-abiding citizens, when it comes to getting to where we’re going, we tend to throw caution to the wind and overlook the rules. Especially when we didn’t know they were rules in the first place.

1. Police are cracking down on using cellphones while driving

In December 2019, the laws to prevent cell phone use while driving became stricter than ever. Motorists caught handling their phones to chat, send emails, or even look at directions while driving risk paying an ¥18,000 fine.

Moreover, the Road Traffic Law states that cell phone use that causes “danger in traffic” will be regarded as a criminal offense, which could lead to a ¥300,000 fine or even a prison sentence.

This is also just a really dumb thing to do.

To possess a driver’s license in Japan, you opt into a point system. Unfortunately, this isn’t Mario Kart, and having a high score means big trouble. It only takes six points to have your license suspended anywhere from one to six months.

Guess how many points using your phone will earn you under the revised Road Traffic Law? Six. It’s one and done.

The new revisions come after outcry over Japan’s mounting vehicular accidents and fatalities caused by smartphones. The Asahi Shimbun reported in December 2019 that there were 2,790 accidents and 42 fatalities linked to drivers distracted by smartphones in 2018. By the end of 2019, there were more than 2,237 mobile-related accidents and 30 deaths.

Overall, police identified some 840,000 cases of illegal mobile device use among drivers last year.

2. Riding your bicycle on the sidewalk is illegal

This might come as a shock to you, and probably most Japanese people considering the number of people doing it regularly, but sidewalks are for pedestrians. According to the Road Traffic Law, you can only ride your bicycle on the sidewalk if you’re under 13, over 70, or disabled.

“Stop in the name of the law!”

Otherwise, unless there is a sign that indicates it’s allowed, or it’s a safety issue, you’re supposed to keep to the road—specifically the left-hand side of the road if you don’t want to risk another fine. If you must ride on the sidewalk, keep your speed limit under 10 km/h, and always yield to pedestrians.

Honestly though, keeping off the sidewalk is rarely enforced unless you’re riding like a maniac. You’re more likely to be stopped for giving your buddy a lift (riding double). That can land you a ¥20,000 fine.

Are you using your smartphone while cycling? That’s a ¥50,000 fine. Are you holding an umbrella? That will be ¥50,000, please.

Bicycle fines actually get intense if you’re not careful.

Are you using your smartphone while cycling? That’s a ¥50,000 fine. Are you holding an umbrella? That will be ¥50,000, please. Are you riding at night without a light? Maybe a ¥50,000 fine will help you remember next time. The latest Kanye just drops, and you’re listening with your headphones? Now, I ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger, but that will be a ¥50,000 fine.

While the police may let you off with a warning, getting caught violating the Road Traffic Law twice in a two-year period means mandatory traffic school at your own expense.

3. Riding a bicycle while drunk is illegal

You can’t step on a weekend train without seeing people KO’d from one too many drinks. Thankfully, most people have the common sense to either make it to the last train or wait until morning. Or maybe you live close by and came out on your bicycle. Driving a car after a few beers is a demonstrably stupid act, but a bicycle? Surely it’s not a big deal, right?

Well, that depends on if you think five years in prison and a ¥1 million fine is no big deal.

It’s better to chill out for a bit than risk being stopped by the police.

Sounds harsh, but bicycles are classified as a light vehicle in Japan, and the police have to take traffic accidents seriously. The National Police Agency says that of the 5,776 children killed or seriously injured in traffic accidents 34 percent of them involved a bicycle.

Keep in mind that Japanese prisons don’t separate prisoners based on the severity of their crimes. Good luck coming up with a better story to tell the gangsters you will be sharing a cell with.

The law doesn’t discriminate, grandma.

Japan has two types of insurance—Compulsory Automobile Liability Insurance (CALI) and Voluntary Automobile Insurance.

CALI is mandatory and covers the third-party in an accident. If you’re deemed responsible, CALI doesn’t cover injuries to yourself, your car, or property damage.

If you own a car or bike, it is better to get insurance, not only liability insurance but also the right optional insurance.

Voluntary Automobile Insurance includes everything covered in CALI, but also various optional coverages. Compensation or injury that exceeds the policy limits of CALI, property damage, self-injury, coverage for yourself, vehicle damage, theft, hit and runs, and more are all optional coverages.

If you own a car or bike, it is better to get insurance, not only liability insurance but also the right optional insurance.

4. Jaywalking is extremely frowned upon

The sense of guilt over jaywalking feels different in Japan. We’ve all been there. It’s 2 a.m. The road is completely void of vehicles, but the light at the crosswalk is still red. You begin to take a step, but a little old Japanese lady strolls up next to you. You decide to wait it out with her, instilled with samurai spirit and camaraderie. Truly you have set an example for foreigners throughout Japan.

Then a salaryman strides past you both.

Just because everyone does it doesn’t make it legal.

In Japan, 赤信号皆で渡れば怖くない (akashingo minna de watareba kowakunai) is a joke that roughly translates to “if everyone crosses at the red light, then there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

It would be great if everyone stuck to the rules, but realistically, you see foreigners and Japanese alike breaking this law. There have been so many accident-related deaths involving elderly people jaywalking across busy streets that the police have put up signs to discourage them.

Whether or not the police stop you for doing so is likely all up to chance. You will probably just receive a scolding, which is embarrassing enough on its own. But if the police do decide to come down hard on you, you’re looking at a ¥50,000 fine and up to three months in prison. Yikes!

If the police do decide to come down hard on you, you’re looking at a ¥50,000 fine and up to three months in prison. Yikes!

And you probably shouldn’t stare at your phone while walking either. Although there isn’t a law in place (yet), Japan has been trying to shame us into putting our cellphones away for years. Not only are you a risk to yourself and others—especially near busy roads and train stations—but if you find yourself in an accident you could be legally and monetarily responsible.

Japan is one of the safest places in the world, but accidents do happen. For more practical information about how you can stay safe in Japan, visit The General Insurance Association of Japan.

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