Driving in Okinawa: Unofficial Rules of the Road

So you may have read about my adventures in learning to drive on the left. In the driver’s ed class to get my Japanese license, I also learned some of the nuts and bolts of driving, like the only place in Okinawa you can turn on red is on Kadena Air Base, or the meaning behind these interesting decals:


The pointy green and yellow “mark” is for new drivers, whereas both the teardrop and clover “marks” below are for senior citizen drivers (and since we’re on Okinawa, known for having the most centenarians per capita, there are a lot of them). The teardrop one has been around for a while; the clover is newer.



Maybe this isn’t the most polite way to remember which is which, but I think of the young drivers as “quick as arrows,” while the senior citizens are “sad (teardrop) we’re old.”

Still, there were some things they didn’t cover about driving in Okinawa, that I had to learn from experience.

I present to you:


no time to explain

Some Unofficial, Unwritten Rules about Driving in Okinawa, Japan (Now Written!)

1. You should let cars in.

It’s considered common courtesy to let a vehicle in ahead of you, whether it’s trying to switch lanes, or you’re stopped at a red light and someone’s trying to turn onto the main street in front of you. It’s also customary to bow and/or put your hand up to say thank you if someone lets you in.

But when cars are trying to merge onto busy highways and expressways, you should get over to the far lane, or just keep driving as you were. Because they don’t really do the moving merge over here. If you slow down for a car to get in, they usually won’t go. Until you are completely and unequivocally stopped. And waving them on. Which could definitely cause problems. Ask me how I know.

Pretty much.

Pretty much.


2. You might not get a green arrow telling you to turn.

At some intersections on island, you might want to turn right, across traffic (since we drive on the left). Of course if there’s oncoming traffic, you can’t go, but then, all of a sudden, that traffic will stop, and you will still have a green light, not an arrow. This means it’s okay to turn. Which was quite confusing to me at first, since I was so used to green arrows. But you get used to it. I still think green arrows are a lot more logical, though.



3. Yellow means Go, and Red, uh, Red means Go, too.

Where I’m from, the days are gone when you could roll through an intersection if it were a stale yellow, turning red. Police are now pretty ticket-happy for traffic violations, and there are lots of red light cameras with their signature “flashes” when they take pictures of violators.

But here on Okinawa? Eh, not so much. Traffic cops are much more hands off. They only seem to get involved when there’s an accident. And I’ve only heard of cameras checking for speeding on the northern part of the expressway (so watch out there–tickets, I heard, were around $300 US). If you’re the first in line at an intersection and get a green light, you should really consider waiting until about 3 (some people count 5!) cars have gone through the red light. Because it’s going to happen. And you don’t want to be in the intersection when it does.

cars stahp


4. Mirrors on the streets are your friends.



Oh, good. I’ve been wanting to check if there was spinach in my teeth. . .

No, they’re not part of some neighborhood watch program to prevent theft (like their American cousins in convenience and liquor stores). And they’re not some public service to pedestrians worried about “road hair.”

That mirror would come in so handy right now.

Or in this case, “typhoon hair.” Seriously, what is going on here? Did she pass out at a party and get super glued to a pillow?

Considering how terribly narrow the streets are, they’re actually quite necessary in helping cars not crash into each other at intersections–they let you see oncoming traffic without moving too far into the teensy weensy road and getting in the way.

 5. Tiny streets and parking spots call for even tinier cars. It’s no wonder that the most popular vehicles on island include this:

A toaster on wheels.

A toaster on wheels.

and this:

mini cooper

A go kart with a roof.


This isn’t as common, but it’s small and goofy looking, nonetheless:


That truck bed of this “Deck Van GX” is just big enough to fit my backpack, a lawn chair (standing up vertically), and a package of toilet paper. But not the big pack of double rolls–just the 12 pack of regular.

And these are typical work trucks you see everywhere. One model of this truck is even called a Suzuki “Carry.”


Nice Tonka, man.

But a Celica is considered “big.” Because it’s long. It also likes to scrape up against stuff in tight corners, if you’re not paying attention. And let’s not even talk about the fact that it’s so low to the ground, that you have to squat and twist your butt toward the seat to climb in.

They should have named it the Ultimate Thighmaster.

They should have named it the Ultimate Thighmaster.


Don’t get me wrong, you do see people driving these monstrosities, mostly families who need that much space:

And boy, do I feel sorry for them.

This is a Delica. Rhymes with Celica. It eats Celicas for breakfast.

5. Contrary to everything you’ve been taught, scooters and mopeds (same diff) are considered cool on island.


And chicks dig that wire bicycle basket on the front, too. It’s just so, practical.

  And watch out–they sneak between lanes and their drivers can be pretty reckless sometimes. I saw one pop a wheelie, nearly vertical, for a good 5 seconds or so a few months back. It was really cool! Dangerous, but cool.

6. Entrance and Exit kanji–don’t drive like a total noob!

You’ve successfully made it to a parking garage, but now it’s time to leave, and none of the signs are in English? It would help to know the difference between the entrance and exit, wouldn’t it?

Well, this is the kanji for Enter (in Japanese, pronounced iriguchi): 入口


It’s the same even going to the Great Wall of China.

Or what I think of as a wish bone and a square.

And this is the kanji for Exit (pronounced deguchi): 出口

Taiwan_Freeway_Exit_SignOr, double pitchforks and the hole to hell. You best skedaddle outta there!

7. Your vehicle–a fine place to display your decorating skills

Maybe it’s because Japanese houses are rather small, that the decor seems to spill over into the car. I’m still finding it hard to explain this:


What Muppet had to die in the name of dashboard fashion?


I think I’m allergic to your car. My eyes are getting itchy just looking at it.


I can maybe get behind the idea of protecting your dashboard, but why the shag carpet? Wouldn’t that just attract more dust?

And I’m not sure if some people just LOVE stuffed animals, or if they’re running a mobile daycare business:


And are they glued in place? ‘Cuz otherwise wouldn’t they slide and fall when you turn?

This, on the other hand, is totes kawaii, and if my vehicle allowed for such things, I’d get one too:


I’m not really sure how much more positive we can get here, unless the smiley face was spewing out rainbows while singing “Walking on Sunshine.”

And if you’re feeling really fancy:

No, you don't understand. I WANT it to be easy to find my license plate at night.

No, you don’t understand. I WANT it to be easy to hunt down my car at night.

You can get some special illuminated plates (light bulbs not included), or. . .

8. Curtains–they’re not just for RV’s and sketchy kidnapper vans.

If you think it's a sexy black lace curtain in the window of that utility truck, then yeah.

Only the sexiest of black curtains will do for MY utility truck.

The Okinawans like to put curtains in their vehicles. I’m not sure if it’s to block the sun, or for, um, “privacy,” but I think it does have to do, in part, with the fact that many (construction worker types especially) have 2 hour lunch breaks, and it’s perfectly acceptable to go to your car and take a nap. Nice!

If you think it's a sexy black lace curtain in a utility truck, then yeah.

With the curtain, it honestly looks like a ghost is driving, just like in this prank.

It’s good for disguising your true identity while driving, something I know Dr. Claw and superheroes would appreciate.

And to be honest, having some curtains in your car can come in handy when, say, you need to change into clothes after a day at the beach. But I wonder–do you install the curtains yourself, or do they come with the vehicle, like the puke orange ones in this van most certainly did?


"I'm kind of a big deal in Japan."

“I’m kind of a big deal.”

9. Highway names–could be a little more creative, and, um, different.

Once you start driving in Okinawa, you might make an attempt to learn the names of highways and streets, you know, to better give and understand directions. Pretty useful skill, right? But then you realize that there is more than one Route 58 (3 of them, I believe), and more than one Route 85, and the list goes on. With so many (infinite!) numbers that exist, can you imagine the confusion/frustration? And then, many other streets don’t really have names, and the Japanese addressing system is the exact opposite of the Western system.  And in Oki, most roads curve around the hills of the island, so forget any kind of grid system.Thank goodness for smart phones with GPS, is all I have to say.

photo 4

Ahh–there we are.

10. The expressway: it’s easier than it looks.

Some basic tips for newbies: you get in the toll lane with the minus sign, not the ETC lanes (ETC stands for Electronic Toll Collection System), unless you have a ETC device in your car, which you have to sign up for.


You take your ticket, and head either north toward Nago or south toward Naha. When you get off, you hand the toll person your ticket and pay in yen (or card).

If you still find it all a bit unnerving, there’s a good write up on Okinawa Hai on using the toll road.


All right, I realize that some of my road rules aren’t rules at all, but are Oki car fashion trends that I find baffling. I can have some fun, can’t I?

What are some of the unwritten rules of the road where you live?

What are some interesting or ridiculous car fashion trends you’ve noticed in your neck of the woods?