Dumbfounding. Humorous. Aggravating. Sometimes a head-scratcher. Other times just downright scary.

Bike riders in Japan. They are everywhere. And most seem oblivious to the laws of the road, many of which were established in the past year and don’t seem to be enforced consistently by Japanese police.

If you’ve been in Japan for even a short time and drive or walk off base, I’m sure you’ve already encountered some crazy bike riders.

High school students decked out in school or sports uniforms, riding side by side … against the traffic, and completely oblivious to oncoming trucks and cars. Drunkards pedaling their way homeward with their cellphone to their ear, likely making excuses for their tardiness. And, in pouring rain or snow, bicyclists riding along while holding an umbrella in one hand are commonplace.

I always marvel at the young mothers riding bikes with a child in the back seat and another in the front of the bike. And sometimes some of these mothers have a third child strapped to their front or back and are riding on the sidewalk, weaving in and out around pedestrians. It’s amazing how they do it, but I always wonder how safe it is and why people continue to break the law.

Maybe it’s because, except for some quick bike safety classes in elementary and middle school, there is no official opportunity for us to learn the basic traffic rules for riding a bike. According to a 2015 survey of Nagoya City, 50 percent of the 2,000 citizens (age 20 or older) surveyed was neither aware nor followed the rule to ride on the left side of road.

This may be a reason for the increase of biking accidents throughout the years. And until recently, police officers have arrested bikers only after an accident has occurred.

If you do get in an accident out in town, it can be quite costly, for the both bike rider and the victim. In 2013, a bike accident in Kobe City actually surprised me for the amount of compensation awarded to the victim. The case involved an 11-year-old biker who was speeding down a hill while chatting with his friend. He plowed into a 67-year-old woman who fell unconscious. She remained in a coma for months. As a result, a court ordered the biker’s mother to pay 95 million yen ($864,000) in damages to the victim’s family.

To cope with the increasing number of bike accidents, road traffic laws were revised in June 2015. With the revision of the laws, police officers have stepped up its effort to enforce them. Although, by my observation, it varies from town to town.

Since bikes are legally classified as a light vehicle, bikers basically need to follow the same traffic rules as those driving a car. For instance, bikers 14 or older are required to ride on the left side of the street with automobiles. If you violate this rule or fail to stop at a stop light or stop sign, or are caught riding a bike with broken brakes, you could be fined up to 50,000 yen ($450) or get thrown in jail for three months.

We all know that you should never drive a vehicle after drinking. But don’t think for a minute that it’s fine to ride your bike instead. Biking under the influence of alcohol can get you five years in prison and a one million yen ($9,000) fine.

Everyone who’s been on a U.S. base knows that they must wear a helmet while riding a bike. For Japanese, if you are 13 years old or younger, the law says you are required to wear a helmet. But there are very few local children and adults wearing one off base, including those mothers carrying two or three children with them. That also a fine, if enforced.

According to the revised road traffic laws, if you are caught doing any of the 14 illegal actions (see box) twice or more within a three-year period, you are required to take a bike safety class. The class would run you 5,700 yen ($52). If don’t attend the class, you would be required to pay a 50,000 yen ($455) fine.

So, don’t take a chance while riding your bike off base, even if the locals do. Follow the traffic laws and keep an eye out for pedestrians, cars and other bicyclists.

Rules to follow when riding your bike in Japan


Here are 14 illegal actions by bike riders that Japanese police are looking for:

  1. Ignoring traffic signals

  2. Riding in prohibited areas

  3. Riding unsafely on footpaths/riding on undesignated pedestrian roads

  4. Riding in the wrong lane

  5. Obstructing pedestrians

  6. Crossing through active railroad crossings

  7. Ignoring intersection safety

  8. Obstructing an intersection

  9. Riding unsafely in roundabouts

  10. Not obeying stop signs

  11. Not stopping at crosswalks

  12. Riding a bike with poor brakes

  13. Riding under the influence

  14. Not riding safely

Source: Government of Japan


Five rules for cyclists biking off base

1. In principle, cyclists should ride on the street and use sidewalks only in exceptional cases.

  • Bicycles are classified as vehicles, so as a general rule, cyclists should use the street.

  • Cyclists should use designated bicycle paths when they are available.

  • Cyclists should use the lanes marked for bicycles on sidewalks or roads when they are available.

  • Children under 13, adults 70 and over, and people with physical disabilities are permitted to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk.

  • When the street is too narrow, cyclists can ride on sidewalks.

2. Cyclists should ride on the left side of the street.

  • Only the left side of the street should be used by cyclists.

  • Cyclists must not obstruct pedestrians if riding inside the lines marking pedestrian paths.

3. Cyclists must reduce speed on sidewalks and give pedestrians the right of way.

  • When passing pedestrians on sidewalks, cyclists should reduce speed enough to enable a sudden stop.

  • Cyclists should stop riding if there is a risk of obstructing passing pedestrians on sidewalks.

  • Cyclists should refrain from unnecessary ringing bicycle bells at pedestrians on sidewalks.

  • Pedestrians are given priority on sidewalks, so cyclists are expected to dismount their bicycle if necessary.

4. Cyclists must obey safety rules.

  • Riding double is prohibited.

  • Riding side by side is prohibited

  • Cyclists are prohibited from riding under the influence of alcohol.

  • Cyclists must use bicycle lights at night. Cyclists must also use bicycle lights in the daytime when riding through tunnels or during foggy weather.

  • Cyclists must obey traffic lights at intersections and check for safety after coming to a full stop.

  • Cyclists must not use umbrellas or talk on mobile phones when riding.

5. Children must wear a bicycle helmet.

  • Parents and guardians must ensure that children wear bicycle helmet in the following cases:

(1) A cyclist may carry one child under the age of six in a designated child seat (2) Children under the age of 13 must wear a bike helmet

Source: National Police Agency and Japan Traffic Safety Association

On-base rules

Compiled by Shoji Kudaka, Stripes Okinawa

On base, rules for riding bikes, scooters and skateboards are enforced by safety offices. Here is an example of the policies of the U.S. Marin Corps. Ask your safety office for further information regarding the policies of your own base.

Q1. What are general rules and regulations as to riding bikes, scooters and skateboards on Camp Butler, such as which part or side of a road should riders be on? A1. Per Marine Corps Installations Pacific Order 5560.1, ‘Scooters (non-motorized), Heeleys (shoes with wheels built into the sole), roller skates/blades, and skateboards are not considered legal modes of transportation and are not authorized to be on roadways. These items may only be used on sidewalks when not interfering with pedestrian traffic or in designated areas, such as Marine Corps Community Services skate parks. Every person operating a bicycle upon a roadway shall:

  1. Ride on the left side of the roadway as practicable;

  2. Exercise due care when passing a standing vehicle or one proceeding in the same direction;

  3. Not ride two abreast except on parts of roadways set aside for the exclusive use of bicycles; and

  4. Not wear headphones.

It is important to note that in the unusual circumstance a person does operate a bicycle on the sidewalk they must obey all the pedestrian traffic signals. No person riding upon any bicycle, skateboard, roller skates, toy vehicle, roller blades and Heeleys-type shoes worn in the wheeled mode, or other device shall in any way attach the same or themselves to any vehicle upon a roadway.

Knee and elbow pads, gloves, and properly fastened helmet approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or Snell Memorial Foundation shall be worn when riding scooters, Heeleys, roller skates/blades, and skateboards. Additionally, riders and operators of any of those vehicles should wear proper reflective gear when it is dark outside. Also important to note that per the 5560.1 chapter 4 paragraph 7: ‘All Motorized stand-up scooters are prohibited for use,’ - this means Segway self-balancing electric vehicles and self-balancing two-wheeled ‘hoverboards’ are not to be operated on base roadways.

Q2. What are the most common violations by the riders of such vehicles on Camp Butler? A2. Some of the most common violations include not wearing Personal Protective Equipment and operating fore-mentioned prohibited vehicles such as Segways and hoverboards. Just recently, the Marine Corps Base Butler Installation Safety Office was informed of an individual riding a hoverboard in one of the gyms not wearing PPE, and when told to dismount, this individual said it was approved by a local facility manager. This is not true: not only is the operation of hoverboards not allowed but even if they were they still would have to wear their PPE.

Q3. Are there many violations by the riders of such vehicles on Camp Butler? A3. There are a number of violations that occur in the operation of alternative vehicles such as bicycles, scooters and skateboards on base due to their lower rate of use compared to cars and motorcycles, and Marine Corps Staff- and Non-Commissioned Officers have had the opportunity to correct the vast majority of violators before the Provost Marshall Office needs to be involved and specific data gathered. The Marine Corps Base Butler Installation Safety Office regularly receives calls asking where the restrictions are specifically stated; the information can be found in Marine Corps Installations Pacific Order 5560.1, Marine Corps Base Japan Order P11240.1C and Marine Corps Order 5100.19F.

Q4. Can you share some tips for car drivers to avoid accidents involving the riders of such vehicles? A4. The Marine Corps Base Butler Installation Safety Office AAA Instructor Trainers, Motorcycle Rider Coaches, and Occupational Safety and Health Specialists’ strongest advice is to always drive motorized vehicles with constant vigilance and be aware of your surroundings. For the operators of alternative vehicles, always practice common sense and wear proper Personal Protective Equipment to include reflective gear when it is dark. The Installation Safety Office wants to ensure a safe and healthy work and living environment for all personnel on Marine Corps Installations Pacific bases to eliminate or reduce mishaps that affect all active duty components, U.S. and host nation civilian employees, contractors, and family members.

The best stories from the Pacific, in your inbox

Sign up for our weekly newsletter of articles from Japan, Korea, Guam, and Okinawa with travel tips, restaurant reviews, recipes, community and event news, and more.

Sign Up Now