The time has come again for commuters to abandon the stress and discomfort of the public transport system in favor of their trusty bicycle. Before you saddle up and join them, it is important to know the “rules of the road,” or the laws governing riding a bicycle on the streets of Japan.
1. Ignoring traffic signals (red light, orange light, etc)
2. Ignoring traffic signs (driving the wrong way up a one way street, or in other “no riding” zones.)
3. Riding in pedestrian only areas
4. Riding in the incorrect traffic lane
5. Interfering with pedestrians on side of road / pavements
6. Entry into the railroad crossing when the barrier is down
7. Interference with the flow of priority (right-of-way) vehicles at intersections
8. Interference at intersections with right turning traffic
9. Interference at large artery intersections that causes a breach of safety
10. Ignoring stop signs (where a full stop, by placing your feet on the ground while standing still, is required)
11. Blocking or interfering with pedestrians on sidewalks
12. Operating a bicycle operation without brakes
13. Riding a bicycle after having consumed alcohol
14. Reckless bicycling
If you have spent much time here already, that last sentence may have come as a surprise, as it looks for all the world like cycling in Japan is a lawless endeavor, with riders beholden to no law but their own. However, there are many rules and regulations pertaining to cyclists, and while many of these laws are frequently ignored and rarely enforced, at this time of year traffic police will be out in numbers, looking to clamp down on infractions.
Before we begin, you can find more information provided by the Japan Traffic Safety Organization in English here, it is a PDF file. This pamphlet goes into more depth than this article.
No riding on pedestrian sidewalks!
For a start, unless otherwise designated, cyclists are not permitted to ride on pedestrian sidewalks unless they are under 13 years of age, over 70, or disabled. If you must ride on the sidewalk, you must ride less than 10km per hour.
If there is a designated bike lane on the sidewalk it is actually illegal to ride on the street. Anyone that has spent more than five minutes on a Japanese street can tell that this law keeping bikes to the street or designated bike lanes is barely enforced, if at all, but it remains a fact that bicycles are classified as light vehicles, the same as motor scooters, and are bound by the law. In practice, however, for sake of convenience, most cyclists prefer to travel on the pavements.
When on the road, stick to the left hand side. You will have seen many cyclists riding into traffic and the wrong way down one-way streets, but due to rise in bicycle related accidents, a revision to the Road Traffic Law came into effect in December of 2013, with cyclists facing up to 30 days in prison or a ¥20,000 fine for cycling against the flow of traffic.
Hands on the handlebars!
Again, despite all evidence to the contrary it is also illegal to cycle while holding an umbrella, using a cell phone or carrying a passenger (although a child in a passenger seat under the age of six is permitted). Like riding on pedestrian sidewalks, you may have seen countless riders – from school children to grandparents – flouting these laws, despite the potential ¥500,000 fine. Despite being illegal, these types of practices are extremely unsafe, and should be avoided.
Turn on the lights!
If riding at night, cyclists must have both a headlamp and a bell. This is an example of a fully enforced law. In no uncertain terms, riding at night without a light (turned on) will get you stopped by the police. A bike lacking a bell may be stopped, but I have heard others say that officers routinely look the other way regarding that infraction, but again, it is the law and the law should be obeyed!
Show me your papers!
Bicycle theft is a particular concern in Japan, and with good reason. It sometimes seems like drunken salary-men will take the first bike they find on their way home, and rates of theft seem a contradiction to the widely held “safe and honest” image of Japan. Even worse, the recovery rates for stolen bikes are quite low, meaning if you lose it you are likely not getting it back. As a result of this cyclists are required to register their bicycles. If store bought, your bike will have been registered by the shop at the time of purchase, but if your bike is second hand (or from Amazon.co.jp) you should take it to a bicycle store or police station where they will register it for a small fee.
As mentioned, stolen bicycles are rarely found, yet police enforce this rule assiduously. It should be noted that the police are anecdotally said to use their right to ask riders to prove registration is used to check foreigners “visa status,” as a way of combating over-stayers. They are not supposed to do this, and it remains an open question whether they actually are stopping foreigners more frequently or not, but if stopped it is best to give them the information they ask for and be polite. Arguing will do little more than make both of you angry, and it is important to note that Japanese police can detain you for up to 2 weeks without charging you with a crime. In short, they can make your life miserable if you mess with them, so don’t.
Don’t drink and ride!
Another law put into practice is the rule that bans cycling under the influence of alcohol. You have possibly seen many a salaryman swerving down the street, fresh from an izakaya, but like driving, riding after consuming even 1 single drink is forbidden, and while most drunk riders will simply be locked up for the night to sober up, you could also face a sentence of up to five years in prison, a ¥1,000,000 fine, and even deportation for riding under the influence.
Cycling is perhaps the best way for getting around Japan, particularly if you live and work in one of its bustling metropolises. If you stick to the laws and keep out of trouble, it is the perfect way to enjoy this beautiful season, for what is better than traversing the streets and parks under the resplendent beauty of the cherry blossom trees?