Especially if you come from a vast country like Canada or the US, road conditions in Japan — a smallish, heavily urbanized nation — will be quite different. If you are moving to a city and do not plan on taking too many trips, it is probably better to opt out of driving completely. Public transportation is very good in Japanese cities, whereas it is virtually non-existent in rural areas. Therefore, if you want or need to travel outside major cities on a regular basis, the use of your own car is a necessity.
It is said that the style of driving in Japan is both chaotic and very polite. This is not always true, and it is best to find out how you fit into local traffic by simply staying on the defensive and using extreme caution. Japanese roads are also rather narrow. It may be often the case that one almost has to drive in the ditch to avoid a head-on collision with an oncoming car.
There are over 1.2 million kilometers of roads in Japan, about 8,000 of which are expressways. As Japan is technologically very advanced, most national roads and expressways have electronic speed limit and notice signs. They keep you up to date on traffic congestion and accidents, two of the daily side effects of driving in Japan.
Japan has an excellent network of national expressways which crisscross the islands. Since the expressways were largely built on debt, they are now toll roads. This helps to regain construction costs little by little through contributions from motorists.
Most expressways measure toll by the distance a vehicle has travelled. A toll booth upon entering the expressway gives you a ticket which you pay upon exiting. Japan also introduced an Electronic Toll Collection card system to avoid long lines at toll stations. The toll due is also dependant on the type of vehicle, for example, a truck or a passenger car.
Apart from the national expressways, Japan has urban expressways, which are intra-city expressways that can be found in most large urban areas. Because of the lack of space in Japanese cities, these expressways are often constructed as viaducts above other roads. The largest urban expressway networks can be found in the Tokyo and Osaka areas.
All expressway systems, whether national or urban, have been privatized due to the debt amassed while they were built. They are governed by different companies. All urban expressways operate on a flat rate toll system; unlike on national expressways, distance is irrelevant. However, driving in Japan nearly always comes at a price.
In addition to the expressway system, Japan has a nationwide system of national highways. These are up to the same standards as the modern expressways; yet do not require the payment of tolls. They are administered by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and other government agencies and are numbered by prefecture.
The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) provides a traffic rules booklet which offers information on what specifically is different about driving in Japan. You can download a digital version of “Rules of the Road” in four different languages including English from the JAF website. If you do not have a good grasp of what to expect when driving in Japan, buying the booklet is highly recommended.
The JAF also provides roadside assistance to its members. Generally speaking, it aims to improve the quality of the environment, roads, and the overall experience of driving in Japan. Joining the JAF could prove to be a good idea for motorized expats.
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