Tokyo: Road, Signs, Rules

Key Points:
--Be responsible for your own safety.  Be extra careful until you get accustomed to the quirks of Japanese drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.  

--Even if you don't follow the traffic rules 100% of the time, always try to respect them when in front of the police.

-- And please don't ride in a way that scares pedestrians.  Especially watch out for the old, the young, and pets.


Just as in any country of the world with the exception of Somalia and Lummerland perhaps, Japan has traffic rules which must be obeyed by cyclists. And just like everywhere else, there are rules which should be followed, or perhaps not, the grey zone. Each year about 1.000 bicycle riders die in traffic accidents, accounting for about 20% of all road fatalities. And although most of them are over the age of 65, you want to avoid careless mistakes.

In addition there are some traffic signs which are special for Japan and which one should know. But first we take a look at the road system.


Blue and green, these are the colors you should be able to distinguish, when looking at road signs. Green means toll roads and highways and they are generally off limit for cyclists There are some rare exceptions where one can use toll roads with a bike against the payment of a small charge. Blue road signs indicate either national roads, when they are shaped like an upside down Onigiri (Japanese rice ball)  
or prefectural roads, when they are hexagons.
Both roads come in all kind of sizes and shapes and are not really different from each other. The small road over the Matsuhime pass for example is a national road, perhaps because it was of bigger importance 100 years ago. All national and prefectural roads are numbered and referred to as N411 (national road 411) and P20 (prefectural road 20). U2 must have been thinking about Tokyo when they wrote the song “Where the streets have no names”, as city streets generally have indeed no name. Then surprisingly, almost every slope has one.


All of these roads can be used by bikes. Occasionally restrictions exist to use tunnels, underpasses of flyovers, but in these cases additional traffic signs will indicate this. Special traffic signs like “Bicycle Road” and “Joint Pedestrian and Bicycle Walkway”  indicate more specific usage.

As per latest modification of the Japanese traffic law in June 2008, all bicycles should drive on the left side of the street and not on the sidewalks which is not allowed. The law also notes some exceptions to this rule, one of them being “where the road and traffic do not allow for safe passage on the road”. 

Reality is, that before and after the change of law bicycles are everywhere, on the sidewalks, on the left side of the road and even in opposite traffic direction on the right side of the road. And there is hardly any action taken against this by the police.  

How to make legally correct right turns is still a mystery. Sometimes, one get’s stopped when riding on the right turn lane with the car traffic, most of the times not. Some people will tell you that you need to cross the road as if you were a pedestrian.

Our advice is, to stay on the roads wherever possible as there are simply too much people and “surprises” on the sidewalks. (You may find that the greatest danger in riding (or walking) in Japan is not cars or trucks but people on mama-chari bicycles, who are texting on cellphones, holding umbrellas and balancing cigarettes, unable to squeeze their brakes if their life depended on it (it sometimes does), or just zooming around a blind corner at way too fast a speed.  These types tend to ride on the sidewalk and on small side streets, so you can avoid them if you just ride on the road.)

In the mountains there are many forest roads, some of them with asphalt surface, supported by tunnels and elaborate bridges. These roads are called “Rindo” (Japanese for "forest road") and again there is no system of numbering. In some cases they are fenced off by gates so that cars cannot pass by, but it is nevertheless possible to pass them by bike.  Forest roads are the most pleasant roads to ride in Japan as they lead through unspoiled nature in the mountains, are completely tranquil and silent and one has the chance to spot the local wildlife.  Some of they are really STEEP -- climbing challenges.  The flipside is that many of these roads are not under regular repair and maintenance so the surface might become poor and that sometimes landslides and flying debris can make them impassable or dangerous in places.  As there is also limited mobile phone coverage in some remote locations, and they are closed to traffic, there is a certain risk involved when riding them if you get stuck in a storm, or get stuck when you have a major mechanical problem or are injured in a crash.


There is no major difference between international and Japanese traffic signs but there are a few things one should know: Most (but not all) of the smaller one-way roads in Japan are actually only one-way for cars and motorbikes and can be legally ridden by bicycles in the "wrong direction". This is indicated by a small sign reading “自転車を除く” (except bicycles) below the round red sign with the white rectangle in the middle indicating forbidden entry in a one-way street.

Another interesting deviation from international standards is that the beginner car drivers have to put a green/yellow mark on the backside of their car for the first year of driving. In addition, all drivers over the age of 75 have to put a yellow/orange sticker on the back of their car. It is a good idea to be particular careful when riding behind these cars.  Of course, taxis cruising for passengers or dropping them off can pull over suddenly and stop, and trucks and buses can be dangerous because of their size relative to the narrow Japanese roads.

One thing every rider should know about are the different kinds of road surfaces and separating lines between lanes. In this book we have introduced only roads that are either on Asphalt or concrete roads, dirt roads are not suitable for road bikes we believe. If a road is very steep up or down, there is a tendency that the surface is prepared in a special way. Concrete roads have donut shapes pattern “imprinted”, usually at a slope of more than 10%. Also frequent are small longitudinal cutouts in the case of asphalt roads which are especially dangerous on rainy days.

Metal separators -- will bring down a cylist.

In order to limit the speed before curves, many roads are equipped with speed bumps, frequent, small risings of the road that let one grip the handle with all might so that does not fall from the bike. These speed bumps spoil some of the nicer fast downhill roads in the mountains.
A huge gap in a metal grate -- very rare, but deadly.  These are most likely on a forest road.

On stretches of the road where cars should not overtake other cars by running on the opposite lane, small metal separators are embedded in the surface. Sometimes there are also poles separating the lanes. If a car drive over a separator the driver will feel a bump, but if a bicycle tries to ride over it the rider will kiss the asphalt. These things are nasty and particular often one can find them in Saitama prefecture.

Some steep forest roads are not passable when they are wet during and for the day or two after a rain storm -- your wheel will slip on the surface, especially if the road is shaded, mossy, leaf covered.  Also, you need to use care when climbing sections with metal drainage grates -- try to get up to speed and pick a line so you can just roll over the grate with the minimum of force applied.


To put in one sentence, nothing that comes should be unexpected, plus some exotic variations.  Riders are not allowed to ride a bicycle under the influence of alcohol (up to 1 million Yen fine), which means “zero” alcohol and might be the most severe part of the law. On the exotic side you are also not allowed to use a cell phone while riding or even an open umbrella, but there are no fines stipulated. Two persons over the age of 6 on one bike is still forbidden (up to 20,000 Yen fine) , which also makes the use of tandems illegal (with the exception of Nagano prefecture!). And surprisingly it is also not allowed to ride side by side (up to 20.000 Yen fine). Wearing of a helmet is optional over the age of 13.

Bicycles should have a front lamp, a reflector and a bell (up to 50,000 Yen fine), one should not run stop signs and traffic lights and so on and so forth. Most other traffic violations are carrying fines between 20-.and 50,000 Yen.

However, the reality is that most of these things are happening out of the streets on a daily basis and that the police shut both eyes. In our opinion this is a very Japanese approach to the matter: There are many rules and regulations which are fuzzy and grey and are generally not enforced in daily life. However, if an accident happens, these rules will be applied to the fullest extent so that everybody involved will most likely have done something “wrong” and will wait most humbly for the judgment of the police (or their insurer, or for negotiation with the other party's insurer).

Please also note that traffic violations on the bike now might also have an influence on your Japanese (car) driving license. Japan has adopted a point system, in which points are allocated to traffic violations depending on the severeness of the violation. A certain number of points will automatically evoke temporary suspension of the license, followed by revocation if more points are amassed.  Points will be reset to zero, provided that no points are received within a two year period.  

Also, if you get points on your license, then the renewal process is made more painful, as you must go to a far away location and sit through several extra hours of video about characters whose lives were ruined when they made a bad decision -- driving home after having a beer or two (or three) with dinner, not seeing a pedestrian, and ending up with a criminal conviction, lost job, lost house, divorce, living alone in a shed somewhere.  This kind of story has one major benefit -- drivers tend to be very worried about getting in an accident, and so they are reasonably careful for the most part.


Registration of a bicycle is compulsory under Japanese law and can be done at the local bicycle dealer or at the police station. However, it will be hard to register your bike if you have not bought it newly at the shop, for example in case of imports. It is also impossible to register your bike if you do not possess an alien registration card (meaning that you are staying in Japan for less than three month effectively on a tourist visa). Again, in reality there are hardly cases when police take action against owners of non registered bikes.

If you buy a used registered bike however it is better to change registration or take care that you have some proof of purchase or receive the registration slip from the former owner in case you are stopped by the police. We have heard some cases where the police accompanied riders back home in a patrol car and asked them to proof their claims to the bike.  (A shipping invoice is good.  Also, if your road bike is not registered, keep the serial number written somewhere, in case you need help from the police to locate it).


As everywhere in the world, policemen don’t like if their authority, present or instructions are ignored. As there is quite a high presence of police within the urban parts of Tokyo, one should be carefully not to do stupid things in front of them. Many major crossings and other places with high traffic population featuring police boxes (so called “Koban”) where one or two officers on duty carefully watch what is going on in their jurisdiction. In contrast to this, there are few patrol cars, in particular in the rural areas.

In the beginning of April, which marks the start of the fiscal year in Japan, the nation enjoys traditionally a 10 days long traffic safety week campaign. Police is working overtime, there are much more alcohol checkpoints and traffic rules are enforced more rigidly than in the remaining 51 weeks of the year. So this is the time of the year where the most care should be taken.

If you do get in an accident, best to call (or have someone else call) the police right away.  You will need a police report to support a claim against the other party's insurance.  You may think you and your bicycle are okay ... and only realize hours later that your fork or bottom bracket is cracked, or you have a serious neck ache or even a broken rib.  The police are very good at defusing these situations.  Of course, if another party was injured or their property damaged materially, never leave the scene before the police arrive or you may get yourself in serious trouble.


One last word to car drivers in Japan. Normally they are friendly and much less aggressive than in the US or Europe, and in general the traffic is much slower. But they are also less experienced and many Sunday drivers are out on the weekend. Because of the narrowness of many of the roads, traffic is used to have less space between vehicles, especially compared to driving in much of North America, so you may find yourself being passed much closer than usual. Rarely, however, is this a sign of aggression. Some drivers will also give you a light honk when the pass—in the vast majority of cases, this is intended as a friendly warning to let you know they are there, so be patient with these drivers.


Road Sign Dual Use of Sidewalks    Road Sign Not allowed for bicycles    Road Sign One Way Street Except bicycles

NZE critic on new Japan cycle laws    Japan Info Swap : New Laws for Cyclists

IRTAD Data Sets    Asahi Cycling News Aug 2009    Japan Times 2007 Cycling on Sidewalks

Japan Times Comment June 2008

Bicycles are everywhere in Japan. In particular, any public space in front of railway stations is overcrowded with parked bicycles, most of them in the “mama chari” style. So leaving a road bike somewhere is not a problem, right?


Well, not exactly. Japan has low crime rates, a strong police presence on the streets and is generally regarded as a very safe place in the countryside as well as in the cities. Tokyo is also much safer than any given European or US city and one does not need to worry to ride during the night or to avoid “bad” neighborhoods.

But that doesn’t mean that parked bikes are not occasionally stolen or damaged in Tokyo as well. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police statistic reports that about 60,000 bicycles are stolen a year. That sounds like a lot, but one has to consider that Tokyo Metro has more than 12 million inhabitants. One stolen bike per 200 inhabitants sounds much less. And remember that in the Setagaya ward (one of 23 Tokyo wards), 72.000 illegal parked bicycles are removed every year.
More than half of the stolen bikes were not locked: So just like everywhere else, if you are riding in the city, never leave your bike alone; buy a decent lock and chain you bicycle to a guardrail or lamppost.

If you are out in the countryside you do not need to chain your bike if you go shopping for example in a convenience store. But also here it is better if you lock your bike. If you do not have a lock with you it is easier to take the risk and leave the bike unattended for two or three hours than in the US and Europe. You can also remove the front wheel, loose the front and rear skeeters of the wheels or “lock” the bike with the strap of your helmet in order to put up at least some superficial barriers to theft.

In case your bike is stolen, you can report the theft at the closest police station. If your bike is registered you might also have a slightly better chance that it will be recovered. But with a registered bike you also face an additional risk: If your bike was recovered because it was illegally parked, you will be required to pay the removal fee if you have not reported the theft to the police at least one day before.

The theft report at the police station might be a hassle, as it needs to be done in Japanese, will require a visit to the site and involves many questions which might seem irrelevant to the average foreigner. Also you might need to name a Japanese representative (from family, friends or work) in case you are not permanent resident of Japan.


As you can see from the statistics above, the risk is not so much that your bike is stolen; the real risk is that your bike is parked in the wrong place and will be removed by the local authorities. In fact there is a huge grey zone: while you see many bikes parked randomly in front of the train stations, you also will notice a good amount of signs that specifically prohibits parking of bikes there.

Japan is full of retired people that didn’t like to stop working in the first place and cannot live from their small pension in the second. You will therefore see many old men, equipped with some official accessories like a vest, a cap or an armlet that will check public spaces for illegal parked bikes and motorcycles.

What quite often happens is, that first a warning seal will be attached to the illegal parked bicycling, noting the date and time when it was applied. If the bicycle is still there after a day or two (but sometimes even after a week) it will be removed by the local ward authorities. If you can, also look out for “bike removal dates” which are displayed sometimes at prominent locations – a small dump truck will arrive at the scene and all bikes with warning seals will be loaded on the truck and – if you are lucky – kept and the ward depot for a week or two before they are disposed or recycled.

We would therefore warn you to park your bike overnight in front of a station; it is not worth the risk. The alternative would be to park the bike in the vicinity of the station or in a small side street, but even this can be dangerous. Better, but more expensive is the use of a public bicycle spot which are surprisingly frequently available. However in many cases they are exclusively for usage of daily commuters who have paid a monthly fee and it is not possible to park there on a one-time basis. And even if you can park one-time, the guardhouse might not be manned so you cannot but the ticket which you must attach to your bike to show that you have paid. We would nevertheless recommend to park even then there: In the worst case your bike will be quarantined to a different location and locked with a second lock so that you can recover it against payment of a fee.

Never ever use private property for bicycle parking. No private space in apartment blocks, the parking place of a game arcade or pachinko parlor or in front of supermarkets, restaurants and bars where you believe that one more bicycle will not be too much conspicuous. You will be surprised how many people are watching and small irregularities will be noticed immediately, especially if conducted by an anyway conspicuous foreigner.

If you would like to park your bike in the city for only some hours, avoid the above locations, use some common sense and your bike should be safe. Try to park where other bikes (without warning seals) are already parked, chain your bike and if possible also the wheels to some guardrail or lampposts and try to avoid very busy roads.


Blog Theft 2006    LA Times Theft 2008    No Theft Bike    Tokyo Metro Police Statistics    TCC Bicycle Insurance    自転車駐車場工業会

See also this very basic manual about cycling in Japan from the "Cycling Embassy of Japan".  There are versions in Japanese and English -- even and English speaker might find the Japanese version helpful for translations of some phrases.