Knowing the law before you go to Japan is critical to staying clear of a justice system that doesn’t have a great reputation with the international community. Not so much because of the laws on the books, but because of how detainment and investigations are carried out.
For example, legally, anyone can be held in a Japanese jail for 23 days before charges are even filed. More on that at the end of this article.
With a little awareness to the laws below, you can save yourself a world of trouble and confusion with the Japanese justice system.
And just like anywhere else in the world, ignorance of the law is no defense.
Important: This article is not legal advice and I’m not a lawyer. This article is intended as a general guide only. If you have specific legal questions, it’s best to find someone who is qualified to give legal advice.
Always Carry Your Passport
According to Japanese law, you need to be able to prove you’re allowed to be in the country and if you’re just visiting Japan, only your passport can do this.
Though I’ve never been stopped in Okinawa or mainland Japan, and though I’ve never heard of other foreigners being stopped, it’s still wise to carry it with you.
Because Japan is so safe, you don’t need to be so concerned about getting robbed of your passport. Just use common sense, like not leaving it sitting out on a table and take normal steps to avoid losing it.
If you have a visa other than a visitor’s visa, you’ll likely be issued a residence card. This replaces your need to carry around your passport and proves you’re legal to be in Japan.
Bringing Medication into Japan
It doesn’t matter if it’s an over-the-counter medication back home and it doesn’t matter if you have a prescription from your doctor, if it’s illegal in Japan and the medication is in your possession, you’re likely to get detained and/or arrested.
According to the Japanese Narcotics Control Department, the following are prohibited:
- Opium powder
- Ephedrine (more than 10%)
- Methylephedrine (more than 10%)
- Phenylacetic acid (more than 10%)
- Norephedrine (phenylpropanolamine) (more than 50%)
Some common medications (over-the-counter and prescriptions) I have read to be illegal in Japan:
According to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare and NCD, it’s illegal to bring in narcotics and psychotropics into Japan. If they are prescribed back home, then you need special written permission (called “Yakkan Shoumei”) from the MHLW before leaving home.
Also, according to the NCD, even if the medication is allowed, if it comes in injection form, you need a “Yakken-Shoumei.”
I’ve also read the same to be true for inhalers on some websites, though I have not seen that on MHLW’s or NCD’s websites.
According to the U.S. embassy, even if your medication is not prohibited in Japan, it’s recommended to still bring a copy of the prescription from your doctor with an explanation of what it’s for.
Because laws can change, and more importantly because this stuff is a little confusing, I highly recommend making a list of any medications (prescribed or over-the-counter) that you’ll need to bring to Japan, and send an email to the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare to confirm you’re allowed to bring it.
I would also recommend carrying a physical copy of that email, in case there is any trouble.
According to MHLW, you should allow for a minimum of 2 weeks to receive the Yakkan Shoumei. The U.S. embassy says it may take several weeks. Best to plan ahead.
Here are some important links:
- Information for those who are bringing medicines for personal use into Japan | MHLW
- Import / Export Narcotics or other controlled substances by carrying
- Ingredients Name | MHLW
- Q&A and Yakkan Shoumei | MHLW
- Travel Smart – Travel Safe | US Embassy
DUI = .03 BAC & DWI = .08 BAC
Though Japan is very accepting of drinking, when it comes to drinking and driving the country has very little tolerance. You should be very careful.
Drivers with a blood alcohol concentration of .03 or above are guilty of driving under the influence (DUI).
Drivers with a BAC of .08 or more are guilty of driving while intoxicated (DWI).
The most important thing for foreigners to be aware of is driving the morning after a night of drinking. Many foreigners believe they’re good to drive when they wake up the next morning, however, because their’s still alcohol in their system and the legal limit is so low, they get a DUI.
Most foreigners here in Okinawa get a DUI, not because they’re being reckless, but because of the morning after scenario.
You should also be aware that if you’re a passenger in a car of someone who’s under the influence, you could be prosecuted, as well. This is also true for someone who serves or encourages a driver to drink.
A DUI could land you in prison for up to 3 years and a fine of up to $5,000. A DWI could land you in prison for up to 5 years and a fine of up to $10,000.
If you injure someone you can be in prison for up to 15 years with hard labor, and if you kill someone, it’s up to 20 years with hard labor.
If you provide alcohol to someone or encourage a driver to drink alcohol, the sentence is 2 years in jail or a fine up to $3,000 if the driver gets a DUI.
There is no excuse for drinking and driving anywhere in the world. This is especially true in Japan where public transportation and taxis are so easy to come by.
In Japan, foreigners are often surprised when they learn of the convenient taxi service called “daiko.”
A daiko is a taxi service that shows up to your location with 2 drivers: 1 who drives the taxi and the other who drives your car. The drivers shuttle you and your car home. You go to bed, and they both get in the taxi to go pick up their next drunk customer.
No excuses. Don’t drink and drive (even hungover).
Public Drinking and Intoxication are Legal
Though driving under the influence is illegal, pretty much anywhere outside of a car’s driver’s seat is perfectly fine in Japan.
That’s right, you can drink in the park, on the sidewalk, and on the beach. For many foreigners, this is a nice surprise.
According to every resource I’ve turned over, drinking in a moving car is perfectly fine, just as long as the driver is not drinking or under the influence. I haven’t confirmed this though.
Personally, I feel more comfortable playing it safe and avoid drinking in the car altogether. The benefit of drinking in a car doesn’t outweigh the risk of getting bad information. Not for me.
It should also be noted that just because it’s legal to be drinking in public, it doesn’t mean it’s always socially acceptable.
In general, it’s not acceptable to walk while eating and drinking, even though you’ll likely never get a stranger telling you to stop.
And drinking on public transportation is sometimes frowned upon. In general, the longer the trip, the more acceptable it is to eat and drink.
It should be noted though, public intoxication and disorderly conduct are not the same things. Just because you’re intoxicated doesn’t give you a free pass to disrupt and mistreat others; you’re going to get in trouble (rightfully so).
In short, go ahead, be drunk in public, as long as you’re responsible and not loud about it.
No Smoking in Outdoor Public Places
Cigarettes can be bought throughout Japan however, laws are becoming more strict regarding where you can smoke.
In general, it’s illegal to smoke outdoors in many cities with exception to designated areas.
Smoking areas are marked with a large sign with a picture of a cigarette. You can also tell if smoking is allowed as there will be a standing mental ashtray.
Smoking is strictly prohibited on public transportation of any kind, as well as stations, though major stations will have designated smoking areas.
Smoking in restaurants and bars is up to the owner of the establishment and generally their pretty easy to find.
For hotels, many establishments still have rooms designated just for smoking, though it’s becoming more common to find hotels that don’t have any smoking rooms, and only allow smoking in designated areas.
Knives are Restricted
Getting consistent numbers on a legal knife size wasn’t easy. I’ve looked at a number of different resources, and most don’t line up.
So, if you absolutely need to carry a knife while in Japan, I highly recommend being extremely cautious and make sure you know the law for certain.
From what I’ve gathered, it’s illegal to carry a blade longer than 6 cm (2.4 inches) without justifiable reason. It’s also illegal to carry scissors or foldable knives with blades longer than 8 cm (3.1 inches).
Guns are Heavily Restricted
In 2017, there were just 22 shooting crimes in Japan. 3 people were killed and 5 injured. And these low numbers have a lot to do with the extremely strict gun laws.
The only guns permitted in Japan are rifles, shotguns, and air guns. No handguns are allowed for civilians.
In order to possess a permitted gun, you need to go through extensive skills tests and shooting classes.
In order to get a rifle, a person must prove they are a professional hunter and have intent to get rid of invasive animals.
Punishment: possession of a gun will bring you a sentence of a minimum of 3 years in jail.
Possession of ammunition (or cartridges), you’re looking at a maximum of 5 years in jail or fines of up to $10,000.
Drugs are Illegal
The only drugs allowed in Japan are:
Everything else is strictly prohibited and comes with heavy penalties if caught.
Punishment: for stimulants, your sentence can be 1 to 20 years in jail. If the amount of stimulants you’re carrying is enough to be considered intent to sell, your sentence will be a minimum of 3 years.
For cannabis, it’s less than 7 years in jail. With the intent to sell, it’s less than 10 years.
For cocaine, it’s 1 to 10 years in jail. With the intent to sell, it’s 1 to 20 years.
Drones are Restricted
Given the popularity of drones and Japan’s high population density, it makes sense why drones are heavily regulated here.
According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, you must obtain special permission to fly:
- In airspace around airports
- At elevations over 490 feet (150 meters)
- Within 98 feet (30 meters) of people, structures, or vehicles
- At event sites
- Above densely inhabited districts
- During non-daytime hours
- Without a visual line of sight of your drone
- Transport hazardous materials
- Dropping object from a drone
to get special permission from MLIT, you must submit an application and receive approval. You can do that here.
Also, according to MLIT, the following always applies:
- Prohibited to operate a drone while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Must conduct pre-flight actions
- Fly in a way that prevents collision with hazards
- Prohibited to fly in a careless or reckless manner
DJI has a great map that makes it clear where you can and can’t fly in Japan.
Penalties: up to a month in jail or $500 fine
Special notes for SOFA status personnel: to fly your drone in Japan, you must register it with base law enforcement.
For anyone and everyone flying a drone in Japan, if you’re caught violating the laws, you could be held liable for paying a $5,000 fine.
Common Legal Ages
- Drinking: 20 y.o.
- Smoking: 20 y.o.
- Gambling: 20 y.o.
- Driving: 18 y.o.
- Voting: 18 y.o.
- Marriage: 20 y.o. (18 y.o. for men and 16 y.o. for women with parent consent)
Curfews for Minors
Each prefecture in Japan has a curfew for minors. Regardless of a minor being accompanied by an adult or parent, minors are expected to be in their residence by a certain time.
Most prefectures have a curfew of around 10 pm or 11 pm.
Though curfews aren’t heavily enforced by police, most establishments will require minors to be out at the expected time.
Car Accidents in Japan
In Japan, a car accident is not just one person’s fault, everyone involves shares the blame. Even if you’re rear-ended at a stoplight, you’ll share a portion of the fault.
The only time an accident is just one person’s fault is when a car is fully parked.
Required Action in Car Accidents
Regardless of the severity of the accident, and regardless if anyone is hurt or not, Japanese law requires drivers to:
- Stop and remain at the scene
- Assist any injured person and call emergency services 119
- Even if there are no injuries, it’s still required that you call the police immediately
- You must remain at the scene until the police arrive
Even if no one is hurt and even if both drivers agree to leave a scene, if you do leave the scene of an accident without notifying or getting approval from the police, you could be charged with a hit and run.
Witnesses to Car Accidents
Anyone who is a witness to a car accident is required to:
- Remain at the scene until their identity has been given to the police
- Give any assistance needed as directed by the police
No Cell Phones While Driving
In 2019, Japan increased its punishments for using cell phones while driving. If you’re caught just peeking at your cell phone while driving, you’re likely to be fined $180.
Even more important than a fine is possible jail time if you cause (or could have caused) an accident that could have caused injury or death.
All the sources I’ve read addressing this important piece of the law are very vague and subjective in their choice of words. It appears that even if you don’t cause an accident, but the accident COULD HAVE been bad, you might be serving some time in jail
Just don’t touch your cell phone. There’s too much to risk.
Even though you may see graffiti in some spots, you should avoid it. In Okinawa, the Sunabe Seawall is covered in graffiti leading many people to believe it’s allowed.
Don’t do it.
How to Stay Out of Trouble
First, is, of course, being aware of the above laws. Next is keeping your mindset in check, while in Japan.
As a foreigner, we can easily succumb to the thought, “I’ll just play the ‘I’m a dumb foreigner’ card and get off the hook.”
Slipping into this mindset is especially easy in Japan, mostly because people here are non-confrontational.
For Westerners, it’s not that difficult to slip into the belief that we’ll never be confronted in Japan. No matter what we do.
We can start to feel invincible here. This is very dangerous.
Though “playing the dumb card” will work if confronted for breaking minor social rules, the mindset is an extremely risky strategy when breaking Japanese law. Especially given Japan’s harsh punishments.
What Happens if You Get Arrested in Japan
Japanese police have the right to hold you for 48 hours before they present your case to prosecutors. Then prosecutors have 24 hours to decide whether to seek court permission to detain you longer in order to investigate further.
Prosecutors can request to detain you for 10 days while they investigate. And if that isn’t enough, prosecutors can then request another 10-day extension.
When you total it all up, you can be detained for 23 days before even being charged with a crime.
If you’re prosecuted, you’ll likely be held in jail until the end of the trial. And if you’re prosecuted, you have a more than 99% chance of being convicted.
Why is the conviction rate so high? Because prosecutors in Japan are extremely concerned with losing a case and ruining their reputation.
To maintain their reputation, prosecutors only pursue cases where it’s an almost guaranteed win. As a result, around 60% of cases are dropped and never brought to court.
It’s likely you will be interrogated by police after you’re arrested. In Japan, you have the right to remain silent, however, I have read that interrogations in Japan are relentless, making it difficult to remain quiet.
Also, remaining silent may make the police more suspicious and more likely the detain you longer.
You will be provided an interpreter during interrogations, but a defense lawyer will not be allowed in during this time.
You have no choice of whether to be interrogated or not. However, you do not have to answer any questions.
Japan is notorious for what’s called “hostage justice.”
Through tough interrogations, being held in isolation for long periods, threats of long punishments without a confession, or promises of no jail time by signing a written statement, many people are pressured into confessing to crimes they did not commit.
What to Do if You Get Arrested?
Once again, I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. The below is just a summary of the research I’ve done on this subject.
Contact the Embassy
It’s highly recommended to contact your embassy. Though they can’t bail you out, they will make sure you have proper care, to every extent possible.
Written statements are serious business, so you should be extra cautious before signing it.
You need to make sure you understand fully what you’re signing. Anything you sign is evidence and will be used against you.
Also, be very cautious of someone translating the statement for you. The police may offer you an interpreter, however, it’s important to remember the translator works for them, not you.
You should not sign a thing solely based on a promise by police. They are not the judge or prosecutor, and therefore have no control over your sentencing.
Victim Compensation / Settlement
It’s very common for the accused to compensate victims. According to Nakamura International Criminal Defense, if you make a settlement before being formally charged, and the victim withdrawals his/her complains, you will no longer be charged.
Once you are formally charged, however, even if the victim withdrawals the complaint, the trial will continue.
Even though the trial will continue, the courts are likely to consider the compensation, which will likely impact your sentencing, in your favor.
Most foreigners come and leave Japan without any legal trouble. So, enjoy Japan, there’s no reason to be paranoid about the law or its justice system. Just be aware of your actions.