Understanding Road Signs in Japan

Let’s learn the road signs in Japan

Do you want to drive around Japan? If so, I highly recommend investing some time into learning as many road signs as possible before driving here. Many road signs in Japan follow international standards but if you are unfamiliar with Japanese, especially written Japanese, you may encounter some issues with understanding road signs. Some local road signs may well be in Japanese only. So today, let me introduce basic Japanese road signs for your safety.

Basic information about road signs in Japan

© Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism

There are more than 170 types of road signs in Japan. They are mainly classified into four colors: red, yellow, blue, and green. In addition, these signs can be roughly divided into four types: regulatory signs, warning signs, instruction signs, and guide signs. The most important signs are called “Principal Signs (本標識 Hon-Hyoshiki)” and you need to know about those signs first.

1. Regulatory signs (規制標識, kisei-hyoushiki)

Road signs that are mainly used in red (red with blue or red with white) are called regulatory signs (規制標識, kisei-hyoushiki). They are signs that indicate something is “prohibited” including “No parking,” ”No waiting,” “No entry,” “Road closed,” ”No parking or waiting” and “Speed limit” indicating “Maximum or Minimum speed”, etc. The “Stop” and “Slow down” sign is a red, downward-pointing triangle, with the white text. Prohibition signs are round with white backgrounds, red borders, and blue pictograms. 

2. Warning signs (警戒標識, keikai-hyoushiki)

The signs that mainly use black on a yellow background are called warning signs (警戒標識, keikai-hyoushiki.) They tell you about danger and what to watch out for while driving. They indicate that there are events to watch out for in the future, for example, “Stoplight ahead,” “Train crossing ahead,” “Lane Decrease,” “Slipping road,” “Heavy crosswinds in area warning,” etc. These are yellow diamond-shaped signs. Since they are shown with a very simple pattern like  “animal crossing” and “School ahead,” you can understand what kind of danger there is from the pictures.

…and you may find a variety of living things on the road signs all over the nation. I would say they are a part of the joy of travel. Here are some samples that you will see only in Okinawa.

3. Instruction Signs (指示標識, shiji-hyoushiki)

Mandatory instruction signs (指示標識, shiji-hyoushiki) have blue backgrounds and white pictograms, for example, “Turns,” “Certain vehicle only,” “Parking allowed,” “One-way traffic,” etc. They mean “Please follow the signs” or “You can do it.” Instruction signs show points and devices on the road that drivers should pay attention to like “Stop line,” “Priority/Exclusive lane,” ”School Area,” etc.  

4. Guide/Information Signs (案内標識, annai-hyoushiki )

Mainly, guide signs (案内標識, annai-hyoushiki ) indicate directions or the name of the road or area at intersections or junctions. You will also find the number of the roads, distance to the cities and areas, etc. The color is white on a blue background or vice versa. Though direction signs have dark blue backgrounds on national highways, guide signs for expressways have dark green backgrounds with white text. 

Now you may feel there are many traffic signs written in Japanese only and some of the regulatory signs are difficult to understand. On the other hand, warning signs are easy to grasp, aren’t they?

Other Basic Rules for Drivers in Japan

Needless to say, you need a Japanese or International drivers license when you drive in Japan. It has some other mandatory rules, and we all have to follow them when we drive a car.

1. Use a seatbelt and child seats

When you drive a vehicle, you must fasten your seatbelt. All passengers in the vehicle must also wear seatbelts. When you drive with a child who is younger than six years old, you must place the child securely in a child seat.

2. Respect the capacity of the vehicle

You must not exceed the allowed number of passengers or load. 

3. Avoid using mobile phones or car navigation systems

While driving a vehicle, you must not use a cell phone or be distracted by the car navigation system.

4. Do not drive under the influence of alcohol

You must not drive under the influence of alcohol.

5. Keep to the Left

Drivers and cyclists must keep to the left, while pedestrians should keep to the right side of the road. Drivers must yield to pedestrians. These implicit rules became formal in 1872 when the railroad was introduced with technical assistance from the UK. There are some stories about why cars are on the left side in Japan. The horse was used as the vehicle a long time ago. When riding a horse, you should ride to the left side because the sword does not get in the way when horses passed each other, so it is better to ride on the left side. Therefore, horses were supposed to be on the left side, and it is said that they were replaced by cars.

For Your Information

Some Japanese road signs and rules are hard to understand even as a Japanese driver. If you are interested in more information, such as a driver’s license, the site by Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) below will be helpful.

Now, I hope you can enjoy your car trip in Japan safely. Enjoy!!

2 Comments on “Understanding Road Signs in Japan”

  1. Hello, Yuka san,
    I’m Akiko, a member of Hapa buddies.
    Thank you for your interesting article.
    The information is very useful for drivers from overseas.
    I didn’t notice the Okinawa version signs when I visited there.
    I wish all Japanese signs had English explanations like those!

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