While seeing red on the highway usually indicates road rage, seeing red on the highways of Japan has a different meaning altogether. Seeing an actual red flash could be indicative of setting off a speed camera, officially known as jido-sokudo-ihan-torishimari-sochi (自動速度違反取締装置). Known by their maker name, Orvis (オービス), speed cameras come in many different varieties. Due to their sneaky placement, especially in the Kansai region, these speed traps are known as mouse traps (ネズミ捕り, nezumi-tori). While their placement may be sneaky, they are not so difficult to spot if you know what you are looking for. The law specifically requires all camera enforced speed zones to have visible warning signs. The size, shape, and colour of the signs may vary, but look for the kanji for speed (速度, sokudo) and control (取締 torishimari).
When driving in Japan, there is usually a bit of leniency when it comes to the speed limit. Most cameras and police cars only take note of people speeding well beyond the indicated limit. Most Japanese websites say that an excess of 20 kilometers per hour is still below the threshold, but it can vary. If you are on local roads, the threshold could be much lower. Of course, it’s always best to mind your speed and heed the posted signs, but sometimes people end up going over the limit. Some bridge areas have digital signs that change depending on the conditions, making a usually 100km limit on the Ise Wangan suddenly a 50km limit. For whatever reason, it’s always good to be aware of the law, what is out there, and what happens if you get caught.
This is the eldest of the speed enforcing camera systems. They usually look like large boxes on poles next to the highway, but the setups can vary. Since it is a simple combination of a radar and a high speed camera, sometimes the camera is further down the road from the actual radar setup. Some of these older machines also use actual physical film, and can run out of film even if their flash goes off. Due to the time it takes to process the pictures, it could take months before you are notified if you are caught on this sort of camera.
Electromagnetic loop coils are difficult to detect. They look like metal joints in the road, but they are actually speed sensors. The coils are used with other camera systems, so even if you don’t notice the coils, you should still be able to spot the camera.
The h-system is an improvement on the radar system. It uses a mix of radar and infrared technology along with a digital system that sends photos directly to the local police. The time it takes to notify offenders is considerably shorter than with the radar system. The h-system cameras are usually mounted above the highway, on the metal scaffolding-like arches that normally display large directional signs. Since the cameras rarely share the arches with signs, the very barren arches are indicative of camera mounts.
When the loop coil system (L) and the h-system (H) are used together, they are known as the lh-system.
While they are far rarer, the police do have mobile options for temporary setups. They can place a few photoelectric sensors and reflectors set up along a single lane. When coupled with a specialised van with a camera in the back, the experience is similar to a permanent camera setup. When the vans aren’t used, an actual police officer may flag you down.
This is not a speed enforcing camera, and it should be mentioned that not all the cameras and setups that you see along the highway are for that purpose. The N-system is a camera that scans license plates for safety purposes. The government is not so straight forward about what information is recorded, how long it is kept, or how the information is used in criminal investigations, but you can read more about the system here.
Please be aware that most speed cameras use significant flashes that don’t last long, at about .5 seconds. The infrared camera types have red lenses in them, and may reflect a red light depending on the lighting and the weather. If you are traveling at night or in low light and look up at the camera, you may see a small red reflection. Some people see this reflection and think they have set off the camera. If you are unsure about the flash, there are plenty of videos of people intentionally triggering cameras available online.
As previously mentioned, radar systems may take a while to process and h-system setups instantly send their photos to the police. This means that if your photo was taken by the radar system, it could take months to get notification, and if your photo was taken by an h-system, it could take just a few days. Either way, you will get a ticket sent to you at your vehicle’s registered address. If you rented a car, the dealership will get the ticket and supply the police with your information.
If you were caught in a different prefecture, you may need to make a call in order to get the case transferred to your prefecture. Otherwise, you go to your local police office with your driver’s license, inspection certificate, and your official seal. Depending on your speed in relation to the limit, where you were driving, and what kind of vehicle you were driving, there are varying fines, classes, and points that you will face. If you have too many points, you could lose your license completely.
For the curious, radar detectors (レーダー探知機, reda tanchiki) are legal in Japan. There is a wide range of products sold at most auto stores like Autobacs. You can get GPS-like devices that not only tell you where speed traps are, but also where the police are.
Perhaps the legality can be explained by how these devices are marketed. They’re not marketed as devices for speeders to use to avoid the law. The detectors are marketed as tools to identify the unsafe speeding areas that warrant cameras or police. The detectors identify police so that you can make way for emergency vehicles if necessary.