Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Driving in Japan

In a nutshell, driving in Japan is exercise in patience for me. Not that I drove that much in Seattle! Anyway, when you've got narrow streets, low speed limits, and lots of scooters, bikes, and pedestrians you’re going to be crawling along. It's not going to be an enjoyable Sunday drive.

When we first arrived we had to take a written test on signs and then a behind the wheel test on base. If you hit anything, you fail automatically. I came dangerously close to clipping the curb a few times. Also, the speed limit on base is 30 or 40 kph…that’s about 19 or 25 mph. CRAZY slow. I was having a hard time staying under the speed limit with my lead foot! The driving instructor admonished us to always test the horn and the lights (who does that?) and set the parking brake (never been a big fan of doing that all the time…plus here the cars have it down by the brakes). Driver’s ed all over again!

First major difference: they drive on the LEFT here. It’s not as difficult to get used to as you might think. However, I’ve heard that most people here ding up the left sides of their cars pretty quick parking in tight spots.
The Cube in Hakone

 Second major difference: you, as the driver are considered a professional. That means if you hit another car, even if they ran a red light, you will still assume some of the fault, perhaps 15%. Maybe there was something you could have done to avoid an accident. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but that’s how it is here.

Third major difference: if you get in an accident or get pulled over, you MUST apologize, EVEN if you feel it’s not your fault. An apology is expected and goes a long way here. This is the opposite of the U.S. where you are not supposed to admit guilt. Also, there is no “I need to talk to my lawyer” or “I won’t sign that—I want to hear my rights”—you don’t have rights, they can throw you in jail for 20 days and not tell anyone where you are(if you’re not SOFA sponsored, i.e. here with the U.S. military). However, you DO have the right to an interpreter. Penalties for drunk driving are EXTREMELY strict. The legal blood alcohol limit here is 0.03. That is ONE drink for almost everyone. The take away is DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE—EVER. Unfortunately there are way too many stupid Americans here that didn’t get the message or think they can get away with it. Even if you use Listerine just before driving and get pulled over you could have a positive test.

Parking is expensive—and you can’t always count on restaurants or shopping centers having free parking. There are lots of parking towers (where a machine parks your car) and parking lots with lifts for 2 or 3 cars per spot. Don’t even think about parking illegally--parking tickets and impound fees are crazy expensive. A parking ticket is about 200,000 yen ($160!). In a country where there’s not a lot of space for people, there is definitely not a lot of space for cars. I used to think there wasn’t any street parking in Japan—HA. Technically there is no street parking, but if you pull over and put your flashers on, you can “park” for a short time just about anywhere. We call it the “cloaking device.”
 This becomes dicey when you have to pass a car “parked” on the side of the road on a curvy street like ours. Not a lot of room for error!

New Driver
If you’re a driver over 75 years old (although that is hardly “old” here in Japan…they have 50,000 people over 100!) you can use a special sticker on your car so people give you space. Same thing for new drivers (legal driving age is 18), although a lot of people on base have them when they start driving. We were told that the Japanese find this hilarious since they have obviously been driving for a while (albeit in the U.S.) and are not 18 year olds!
Hard of Hearing Sticker

If you are hard of hearing, there is a butterfly sticker you’re supposed to put on the front and back of your car. And if you are handicapped, there is a blue four leaf clover sticker for your car.

We, as SOFA-sponsored personal, have special license plates that have a “Y” in front of the number. You can always tell the American cars by looking for the Y plates. Also a lot of people drive crappy and/or old cars since we aren’t held to the same standards as the Japanese when it comes to emissions and such (go figure). Not that I’m complaining because that means older cars are cheap!

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