Traffic rules and alcohol regulation in Japan

[Originally posted, with full hyperlinks, at]
If you are one of those many more short-term visitors to Japan nowadays, and even if you are an old hand, watch out for signs setting out various rules that may be unexpected or new. Like these two signs:
The bigger one to the bottom left is one of many signs we see increasingly around Japan in English (and sometimes now Chinese or Korean). The text is small but reads: “In the Beautification Enforcement Areas you will be fined up to 30,000 yen for littering regardless of your nationality or status”. The kind of prohibition and penalty you might expect in Singapore. Not in Japan, where local communities have long taken pride in being tidy – although that has not excluded individuals or dodgy firms from dumping their rubbish in distant communities! But what is meant by the round blue sign up on the right?

It shows an adult walking with a small child, as well as a bicycle. Not so obvious, although more self-explanatory than the picture on the bigger sign. The text in Japanese under this blue sign – not yet in English! – indicates that riding a bicycle is permissible on that footpath. Most countries I know prohibit this, at least for adults, because poorer sight lines from the footpath make it more likely that bicyclists will have accidents. Alice Gordenker suggests that Japan does have more fatalities per capita than major European countries or the US, but points out that:
“Until about 1970, when these signs first started appearing, it wasn’t permitted to ride on sidewalks at all. But the rapid increase in the number of automobiles during the first postwar decades forced bicyclists up onto the sidewalks for sheer safety. Traffic was chaotic, and there were few of the safeguards we take for granted today, like guardrails and pedestrian lights.”
Writing for the Japan Times on 23 January 2007, she also reports that the Japanese police still seemed to favour bicyclists keeping off the roads, which explains why officers haven’t been concerned about them riding on footpaths even without those blue signs allowing for it. That has also been my experience. It also helps explains why some taxi drivers in Kyoto in the early 1990s shouted at me to get off the road I was riding on – even though this is always allowed, in addition to sometimes being permitted to ride on the footpath. Lax police enforcement may also have been related to the blue signs being quite widely spaced, and the footpaths not being as obviously for cyclists as some of them are now (with separate lanes, still usually not respected especially by pedestrians!).
Indeed, following amendments to the Road Traffic Law (No 105 of 1960) in effect from June 2008, bicycling on footpaths has been allowed in two more situations: where road or traffic conditions make it unavoidable, or for children up to 13 or those over 70. But these seem more sensible and comparable to rules abroad. And other amendments are aimed at making bicyclists ride more safely anyway, whether on footpaths or on the road. Parents now have to tell children under 13 to wear bicycle helmets. But this is a “best efforts” duty (doryoku gimu), so the Law provides no sanctions; and bicyclists 13 or over still don’t need to wear helmets in Japan. Volunteer “Regional Traffic Safety Activities Promotion Members” can now also “promote good manners for bicycle riding”. These are the first significant reforms aimed at cyclists since the 1970s, reflecting burgeoning accidents involving bicycles.
Against this backdrop, various existing rules also may be enforced more strictly. For example, to avoid a fine up to 50,000 yen, cyclists must display lights at night. Cyclists often ignored this rule, partly because the front light was typically powered by a pedal-driven dynamo. Now, more and more people use battery-operated lights (like the one in the photo below). Easier on the pedaling, worse for the environment, but safer than no lights.
download2Riding double can be fined up to 20,000 yen, except if a child up to aged 6 and in a proper seat. This exception never extended to a parent carrying two children on the bicycle. But recently the police caved in to public pressure and will allow that as a further exception if parents’ bicycles meet new safety standards.
Using a mobile phone or holding an umbrella on a bicycle may also be more likely subjected to a fine. But violations involving mobile phones are still apparent. And shops in Kyoto still sell handlebar accessories that will hold an umbrella up for you (like the one in the photo above). This is partly due to the Kyoto Prefecture Road Traffic Safety Regulations (kisoku, under the Law), which allows cyclists anyway to ride with umbrellas if the road there is on is not “frequently” used. This makes it difficult to enforce criminal law provisions on abetting (hojo-zai) vis-à-vis suppliers of such products. (Likewise, the police have had difficulty taking on suppliers of covers for car number plates, since there is a – small! – chance that they will used for legal purposes, like protecting the plates from the elements rather than hiding identity from the police.) Nonetheless, now that riding with an umbrella is more widely perceived as a safety issue, supply of such products nowadays may at least to raise the spectre of contractual liability or manufacturers’ product liability.
Drink driving is most likely to attract enforcement action, rather than just a caution. Not many visitors to Japan will be aware that the Road Traffic Law sets a very low tolerance level. Some say it is zero tolerance, which is not quite true. One threshold (for the crime of shukiobi-unten under the Law) is by blood-alcohol rate, which was lowered in 2002 to 0.15 from 0.25 (2.5 grams of alcohol per litre). Yet this does mean that one drink will put most people over the limit, which is stricter than Australia and much stricter than NZ or the UK. Anyway, a second crime is sakeyoi-unten, which involves a more discretionary test: a risk that the person cannot drive properly due to the influence of alcohol.
Even fewer visitors will realise that this second crime also extends to bicycles. This is because they are defined as “light vehicles” (keisharyo) in Article 2(11) of the Road Traffic Law, in turn encompassed within “vehicles (sharyo)” – along with automobiles – under Article 2(8). Bicycles are expressly excluded from the usual penalty provisions regarding the first crime (Article 117-4(3)), but if you have been drinking the police may try to get you under sakeyoi-unten. You may only get a caution, unless you injure someone in a bad accident while significantly under the influence of alcohol. But the fear is enough nowadays to dissuade not only government officials, but also for example a professor I know working in a private university, to not drink at all if later riding a bicycle.
So visitors should be aware that the police are now more concerned about safe riding on bicycles, after years of flouting the rules and lax enforcement (confirmed by a survey back in 2006 ). A stricter attitude may be linked to the growing proportion of elderly Japanese wandering the streets (rather than the small children depicted in the blue sign above, which dates back to the post-War baby boom era). Reflecting broader public opinion, the police are even more concerned about drink driving. Back in the 1990s, police only cracked down periodically and predictably. But some nasty accidents attracted intense media attention, especially when a local government official drunkenly rear-ended a SUV, killing three children in Fukuoka in August 2006.
The Road Traffic Law was amended in 2007 to impose stricter penalties on (a) drunk drivers, but also on those who abet them by providing (b) a vehicle or (c) alcohol despite the risk that they will drive (prohibited since 2002, but with a lesser penalty). One of the most controversial amendments introduced a new category, penalising (d) passengers who ask someone to drive them knowing that person will commit shukiobi- or sakeyoi-unten. So far, however, the penalties for such passengers are lower:
Infringement / Category (a) = [now] (b) (c) (d) liability of passengers
1. sakeyoi-unten Up to 5 years’ [previously 3 years’] imprisonment or a 1m yen [0.5m] fine Up to 3 years’ imprisonment or a 0.5 million yen fine Up to 2 years’ imprisonment or a 0.3 million yen fine
2. shukiobi-unten Up to 3 [1] years’ imprisonment or a 0.5 [0.3] million yen fine Up to 2 years’ imprisonment or a 0.3 million yen fine
It may be hard for police and prosecutors to prove cases in category (d). But in April, for example, proceedings were initiated in Sendai after a recommendation by the Prosecutorial Review Board. And the arrest of a small restaurant owner in Saitama , falling within category (b), sparked renewed debate about such expanded scope for criminal liability.
Additionally in 2007, the Criminal Code added Article 211(2) on “negligent automotive homicide and injury” (gyomujo kashitsu chishi-zai, more specific than Article 208-2). This provision also covers two-wheeled motor vehicles and “light vehicles”. For now, however, such cases will not be subject to the lay assessor or “quasi-jury” system for serious criminal matters that Japan is reintroducing from May next year. The Saiban-in Law applies to cases of “intentionally causing death”, under Article 2(2), so it only extends for example to kiken unten chishi zai (Criminal Code Article 208-2). One expectation for the lay assessor system is that randomly selected lay people and judges will hold more accused to be not guilty. But there are also some concerns that verdicts will be come even tougher for cases that happen to attract widespread public opprobrium by the time they get to trial.
Overall, it remains to be seen whether some clampdown on bicyclists and this latest round of bigger clampdowns on drunk drivers will have any lasting long-term effect. Socio-legal studies examining the impact of stricter drink driving laws in other jurisdictions have often suggested otherwise. In Japan in 2005, there were approximately 140,000 drink-driving arrests, a 60 percent decrease from 1999. But this number indicated that drink-driving was still an everyday fact of life, despite a similar high-profile accident that resulted in 2002 amendments to the Road Traffic Law. Police officers may also still be driven more by a requirement or expectation to meet infringement “quotas”, rather than a thoroughgoing commitment to applying the rules uniformly in order to maximize safety on the roads and footpaths. Similar concerns have been raised, for example, in parts of Australia.
Meanwhile, if you want to enjoy a taste of Japanese beer, sake or shochu, either walk or consider using a scooter, which doesn’t seem to fit within the definition of a light vehicle! So far, I’ve only noticed foldaway bikes in Japan, which seem to have become increasingly popular (at least in Kyoto) since authorities have clamped down (somewhat) on parking near railway stations. But that’s another story.

Author: Luke Nottage

Prof Luke Nottage (BCA, LLB, PhD VUW, LLM LLD Kyoto) is founding co-director of the Australian Network for Japanese Law (ANJeL), Associate Director (Japan) of the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law at the University of Sydney (CAPLUS), and Professor of Comparative and Transnational Business Law at Sydney Law School. He specialises in international dispute resolution, foreign investment law, contract and consumer (product safety) law.