Cue the hit song Bicycle by Queen… Ready?  “I wanna ride my bicycle….. I wanna ride my bike…. (I know you’re singing it in your head right now).

Yes, they are everywhere in Japan – those wonderful self-propelled Steel Horses. There are over 72 million of them here (figures from 2013). It’s a very simple concept, really. Two wheels connected by a steel frame, and propelled by pedals, while steered with handlebars attached to the front wheel. The basic bike has been around since 1817, and the modern version is undoubtedly one of, if not THE best form of transportation in the city – especially in a country with crowded trains that make even the NY Rush Hour seem like a relaxing time. With so many Steel Horses on the road, however, there are bound to be some rules and regulations to ensure everyone’s safety.

bicycle laws

Unfortunately, not many people actually know all the bike laws in Japan – and why would you?  Even Police Officers seem to not follow (or, perhaps know) the convoluted Bike Laws here.  With the bike-friendlier season just around the corner, and to save you time, we’ve rummaged through all the laws, and have compiled this comprehensive list for you, so you can ride to your heart’s content.

Basic rules of the Road (Important)

  • Cyclists have to 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.

Other Bicycle Laws (Kinda Important)

  • 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 (yeah, tell that to all the Obasan and Salarymen, who will not only carry an umbrella, but also talk on the phone at the same time).
  • All bikes are required to have a bell and a headlamp (if riding at night).  I really wish more people would use their bells instead of those horrible, horrible squeaking brakes.
  • It is illegal to ride tandem bicycles (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 (lots of High-School aged kids might want to take note)
  • 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. (This is actually really, really, really, meccha, meccha, honto-ni doeria important, as you will actually go to jail for being caught with an unregistered bicycle; no matter if it’s yours or someone else who lend it to you).

Due to a rise in bicycle-related accidents in recent years, a revised and updated traffic law went into effect in May this year (2015).
Under the new law, any cyclist who is caught riding through a Red Light or violating other traffic regulations more than two times in a period of three years, will be obliged to take a safety course before being allowed back on their Steel Horses. The course lasts for three hours, and costs the participants 5,700 yen. Anyone who does not attend the course after receiving the order is subject to a fine of up to 50,000 yen.

The rules outlined above exist, but are hardly ever enforced, and in fact, there is evidently  some confusion even among traffic police (aka bike police) as to the complexities of bicycle traffic rules.

  • 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 almost completely ignored.  That doesn’t mean you should start blasting “Ridin’ Dirty” while flying down the sidewalk on your Mamachari, but the chances of being picked up for that are rather slim.
  • Laws forbidding riding with a passenger are rarely, if ever enforced.
  • Neither is the law requiring children to wear helmets enforced, which actually bothers me a lot, because for the love of all things holy, PLEASE protect at least your kids…

There you have it, folks, the comprehensive list of how to Properly ride your bike in Japan.  Whether you’re cruising down the sidewalk on your Mamachari, or racing down the streets on your road bike, please stay safe and know these laws.  In the end, it all boils down to common sense, really: Don’t drive like an idiot, and pay attention to the people and vehicles around you.  See, not that difficult, right?  Now get off your butt, grab your bike and enjoy the Autumn Season, which brings perfect cycling weather!

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