I’ve never considered myself to be a professional driver. The one thing I can do ridiculously well in a car is backing it into a parking spot, though I’m not sure why I have that skill. I can’t pull headfirst into a parking spot without backing out and rearranging five times to get the car straight. Freeways don’t scare me, and I’m adept at driving on the street, but I still wouldn’t consider myself a stuntwoman-worthy driver; I’m just average. This gave me an initial concern about moving to Japan and learning to do everything ‘backwards’, but my fears weren’t warranted – at least not yet.
I’ve never been in an accident. I’ve only had one ticket in my life (I did a U-turn at a familiar street not realizing that there was in fact a sign somewhere that said ‘NO U-TURN’). I most certainly have never hit anything with any car I’ve ever owned or driven. That being said, even a perfect driver can be a danger to themselves or others when they move to a country and have to start driving on the other side of the road.
It was strange at first. I had to constantly remind myself, either verbally or mentally, to stay left, stay left, stay left. If I let my mind wander while driving, I’d start to think, “Why am I driving on the wrong side of the road? I should move over.” Thankfully I’d catch myself before doing so, but the fact that my brain was so hardwired to drive on the right that it would convince me I was in the wrong despite all indication that I wasn’t was strange and a little frightening.
After about two weeks, my nerves began to calm and I didn’t have to convince myself every five minutes that I was indeed driving on the correct side of the road. I still occasionally catch myself wondering why I’m on the wrong side of the road, but it’s more of a stray thought than a pressing concern. Thankfully I adjusted easily to the fact that the windshield wipers and turn signals are also on opposite sides than I’m used to, though I did occasionally turn on the wipers when I wanted to turn.
Coming to Japan, I had no clue what my driving experience would be like. I knew that it would take time for me to adjust, of course, but I didn’t know how other drivers would react to me, or I to them. In the end, I’ve found that the drivers I’ve encountered in Japan are either terribly dangerous, terribly safe, or somewhere in between. I’ve seen vans packed with kids speed around cars like professional race drivers, little old ladies pull over the moment it even looked like another car was trying to pass, and young drivers holding onto the wheel for dear life and trying not to make a mistake.
That being said, Japan has unique driving customs that I wasn’t aware of, but have grown rather fond of. If you’re trying to enter traffic somewhere other than a stoplight and someone allows you in, you flash your hazard lights two or three times when you pull ahead of them to show your thanks. Drivers will bow to you (usually just from the neck or leaning forward in their seats) from inside their cars for numerous reasons as well, which is hard to stop yourself from doing after driving in Japan for more than a few years.
Drivers in Japan seem to have different expectations than those I’ve encountered in America. Nine times out of ten, people will let others merge or pull into traffic without a fuss, and those who are merging or changing lanes will almost always show their thanks in one way or another. Back in America, you could get a friendly wave of the hand for letting someone in, but you never got much more than that.
Though I can’t speak for all drivers currently living in Japan, the majority of those I’ve interacted with on the road seem to just want to get from point A to point B. Some want to get there as quickly as possible, while others are just enjoying the ride. Some will do anything and everything in their power to overtake as many cars as possible and stay ahead of the pack, while others just cruise around. Though this doesn’t exactly differ from other countries, driving in Japan isn’t normally talked about. Even if you had a bad driver who stayed right up on your bumper for the majority of your trip, you just forget about it and move on the moment you reach your destination.
Overall Feelings About Driving In Japan
I’m glad I’ve gotten used to driving in Japan. I’m sure living and working in this country would have been a little harder if I were to walk or bike everywhere – especially considering the places I normally go are quite a far distance away from my home. Sure, public transportation is amazing in Japan, but I prefer just driving around in my car to taking a plane, train, or bike anywhere.
Hopefully I’ll have many more great years on the road ahead of me!