About Cycling and Biking in Japan

Biking (or cycling) is probably one of the better ways to get around in Japan, that is, unless you live in the middle of nowhere (but even then a meandering ride past rice and tea fields is quite nice). If you've spent any time riding a bike in Japan, you may have noticed that there doesn't always seem to be "set rules" in place, or you regularly fear for your life when navigating amongst and alongside cars and large crowds of people. Erica of Expatria Baby is here to explain what the rules are, and of course, what you might actually experience in reality...

I recently acquired a shiny, new, cherry-red bicycle equipped with a rad child seat and a nifty little red pepper bell. This makes me all sorts of happy because cycling is the way to get around urban Japan -- so much more convenient and WAY less annoying than public transit; faster (and more fun) than walking; and come on, people, a red pepper bike bell! What’s not to love?

Well, one thing, actually. Traffic laws. I am completely bewildered by what is and isn’t allowed on two wheels. Not to mention I’m somewhat intimidated by the packs of wild bikes that populate Japan’s sidewalks: bikes ostensibly piloted by rabid honey badgers with opposable texting thumbs. Are they breaking the law? Or am I, mild-mannered street rider, in the wrong? Is it customary to ride three-cycle-deep with an umbrella while listening to an MP3 player and texting on my phone?

(I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to do that. Though, observation tells me I could be wrong.)

The only solution to this maddening conundrum was, obviously, to research and write a post for Surviving in Japan on Japanese bicycle laws. So, without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned:
Cycling laws do exist in Japan, but are typically loosely enforced. Basically, there are two sets of rules. I will outline the basics of Official Bike Laws as they exist in Japanese jurisprudence and then follow with actual bicycling practice -- the Laws of (Bike) Nature, if you will.

Official Bike Laws

With a few notable exceptions, cyclists are required to follow the same traffic rules as drivers.

Basic rules of the Road
  • Cyclists ride on the left hand side of the road.
  • Riding dangerously, failing to stop at a stop light, or riding with broken brakes carries a maximum penalty of a ¥500,000 fine and/or three months in prison.
  • Biking under the influence of alcohol is forbidden and carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a ¥1,000,000 fine.
  • Cycling on sidewalks is forbidden, except where indicated by shared sidewalk signs.

An overview of traffic law as well as a guide to Japanese traffic signs can be found here (pdf). Alternately, there is a very thorough guide to the rules of the road that can be purchased through the Japanese Automobile Foundation.

Other Bicycle Laws
  • Riding while carrying an umbrella, listening to an iPod, or talking on the phone are prohibited; violators can face a fine of up to ¥500,000 
  • All bikes are required to have a bell and a headlamp (if riding at night) 
  • It is illegal to ride tandem bicycle (except in Nagano) [Read more about the tandem riding rule]
  • Also illegal (and in line with the previous): riding with a passenger (with the exception of a child below the age of six). Double riders could face a ¥500,000 fine 
  • A cyclist may carry one child under the age of six in a designated child seat 
  • Children under the age of 13 years must wear a bike helmet 
  • Bicycles must be registered in the owner’s name at the prefectural police department

The Laws of (Bike) Nature

The rules outlined above exist, but are hardly ever enforced, and in fact, there is evidentially some confusion even among traffic cops as to the complexities of bicycle traffic rules. Here’s how the Laws of (Bike) Nature stack up to the Official Bike Laws:
  • Most cyclists ride on the sidewalks and almost never on the road. In fact, traffic police will occasionally direct road-riding cyclists onto the sidewalk regardless of the fact that this is actually illegal. 
  • Cyclists usually are not in any danger of being cited for dangerous “driving” unless they seriously injure a pedestrian (there have recently been settlements upwards of ¥1,000,000 in bicycle-pedestrian collision cases). Also, courts typically rule in favor of the weakest party, regardless of who is actually at fault. So be careful out there.
  • Although riding while under the influence of alcohol carries a stiff penalty, it is more likely that an intoxicated cyclist will be thrown in the drunk tank and given a stern talking-to than being fined or jailed.
  • Riding without a bell will be ignored, while riding at night without a front lamp is strictly enforced.
  • The prohibition on riding while using phones/umbrellas/MP3 players is largely ignored.
  • Laws forbidding riding with a passenger are rarely enforced.
  • Nor is the law requiring children to wear helmets enforced (although for the love of all things holy, PLEASE protect your kid’s noggin).

Also, I can tell you from personal experience that you’ll want to register your bike with the prefectural police. Last year, in what was perhaps the most spectacular role reversal of all time, my mother (who was visiting Japan) was brought home to my apartment in the back of a police cruiser, suspected of bike thievery. She was riding a loaner that had not been properly registered. Never mind that the bike was a total rust bucket, it was scooped up by the police, impounded and then returned to its previous owner.

I have since learned that there is an annual bike safety crackdown that takes place some time around the beginning of each school year. Traffic cops are out in full force, paying particular attention to lampless bikes and sketchy gaijin grandmother bicycle thieves.

So, what’s the take away? Basically, do what you want. As long as you have an operational headlamp, a properly registered bike and you don’t run people over, odds are you’ll be fine.

However, know that if you’re riding on the sidewalk, I’ll be shaking my fist in indignation and giving you a god-awful stink eye because you're breaking the law!

Oh, and if you are interested, a useful list of bicycle related vocabulary and phrases can be found here. http://www.japancycling.org/v2/info/lang/japaneses.shtml (Note: Most of the words/translations at this link are accurate, but there are a few that are missing sounds, such as grease, which should be グリース, not グリス, or things like needle, which can just be 針 [はり].)


Erica is a mother, blogger, freelancer and nomad currently based in Kyushu. As a Canadian married to a Swiss, with a daughter who was born in Japan and two Chinese cats, she believes firmly that the key to familial success is ensuring that every family member is born in a different country. You can find Erica at her interwebular home, Expatria Baby or on Twitter at @Expatria_Baby.

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