Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Why are the Japanese Such Bad Drivers?

When I still lived in Japan, every single time I went anywhere in my car I fumed with rage at the morons cutting me off, braking inexplicably hard in front of me, or truck drivers trying to crush me to death on the expressway. This anger came to a head when an old man caused 800,000yen damage to my car and almost ended my life.

It's no secret that the Asian driver stereotype is a negative one. Anger aside, let's find out if there's a real reason for this.

Well, as far as Asia goes, traffic accidents are rampant. More than half of the world's accidents occur in Asia, which has only 16% of the world's cars. But that includes places like China, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines. The last of which I now live in, and can tell you that crossing the street is a gamble with unfavourable odds, driving more so. However, there are some external factors which can be used to explain away a portion of these statistics (road condition, safety standards etc). And anyway, let's focus on Japan.

If we take a look at the statistics, per 100,000 people in Japan about 4 die in traffic accidents per year. That's about the same as the UK and much less than the USA (12.3 people). It's not exactly Togo, where 14% of vehicles crash every year!

Bear in mind that there are always going to be various explanations for these numbers. For example, the legal age of driving a car is 18 in Japan, while it's 16 in America. Does that make a difference? Probably.

So I guess Japanese drivers aren't so bad... except those is Kagawa prefecture, which sees 16 deaths per 100k. So... get the train...

You might, if you're determined, be thinking "of course there are less deaths per 100k, their public transport system is exemplary". Well, very true. But if we look at deaths per 100k vehicles we get a pretty similar picture. Just under 7. Same as England and less than half of the US. So.... nope.

But maybe this isn't really an answer to our question. Maybe Japanese people are just better at not dying. Or  have faster reactions. Or something. Nevertheless it's impressive, especially when kei cars are so flimsy. Not to mention mini-cars.

The fact is that there is no definitive data indicating that the Japanese are any worse at driving than anyone else. That anger that I felt in Japan, and that many others I knew there did, is probably quite simply explained away. Most, possible all in some places, of the drivers you encounter in Japan are Japanese. The good ones, the normal ones and the bad ones too. It's more than likely it's as simple as that - you see so many bad Japanese drivers that you think it is the Japanese-ness that makes them that way. Well, it ain't. But you probably knew that already.

  • However, drunk driving is pretty common in Japan, and in fact used to be not taken that seriously by citizens and police alike. Despite recent legislation changes which make for quite a sizable punishment, I've witnessed a lot of it. So watch yourself.
  • Took me a full read through to finally figure out that this awesome article is very, very fake.
  • Elsewhere on this site I quite viciously attacked Japanese drivers after the accident below.
  • Here's a picture of my car after an old man plunged into me for no apparent reason:

After 4 years in central and eastern Japan, Dom now dives for a living in the Philippines, where he continues to write for AccessJ. He is a co-founder of this website, and its webmaster.


  1. I've lived in Kagawa for almost 2 years now and yes, there are some terrible drivers here. Even Kagawa residents told me that their prefecture is number one in traffic accidents, as if it's something to be proud of. I've lived in other prefectures in Japan, but as I mostly rode public transportation, I can't really compare to other parts of Japan. But one thing I've noticed; they have great DRIVING skills, but they are careless. They can go fast on narrow roads, zip around obstacles (other cars parked on the side of the road, usually) without slowing, and quickly back up and park in a stall. But they are careless by driving through long-turned-red traffic signals, pulling out in front of other cars, and doing many other things without thinking if the action is dangerous and/or will affect other traffic. As I call it, "Drivin' Kagawa Style!" But yeah, I guess driving carelessly is being a bad driver.

  2. Haha, I'm glad to know it is a matter of prefectural pride.
    Thanks for the comment, and I'll think carefully about leaving my car at home next time I visit Takamatsu.

  3. the legal age of driving car in japan is 18.
    that of motorcycle is 16.

  4. May I comment that: Because of such low speed limits, you are less likely to die here. Though I wager that the number of collisions is pretty high. I think what we foreigners perceive as poor skills, Japanese perceive as smooth driving - as in how little you get rocked around in your seat. If you look inside many Japanese people's cars (almost all AT), it's like their second living room complete with children climbing all over the seats. It's a clash of cultures and they will never be able to drive safely because of this... says the German man who likes driving. ;)

  5. As a long-time (22-yr) resident of Japan (and a former driving instructor overseas), I must say that the 'average' Japanese driver is usually VERY courteous. However ironic it may sound, the vast majority of Japan's motorists are still totally incompetent to be in charge of a motor-vehicle, by any standard. [Thank goodness for the day when super-computers will be in charge of cars!]
    The next problem is bicycles on side-walks...any ideas, anyone? As a pedestrian, I've only been hit by a car, once, in Saitama, but three times by bicycles in Tokyo on very wide (4m) sidewalks! It's a different problem, but may be related to the 'motoring' issue.