If you’re living or traveling in Okinawa, driving your own car is the most convenient and most common way to get around the island. It’s normal to be nervous about driving in a foreign country, but because Okinawan drivers’ are laid back and the road conditions are smooth, driving is comfortable and easy here.
Driving in Okinawa is very easy. Locals are polite, forgiving, non-aggressive, and honking is rare. Also, the speed limits are very low: 60 kph (37 mph) and under on main roads and 80 kph (50 mph) on the expressway. Cars drive on the left side of the road, which isn’t that hard to adjust to.
If it’s your first time in Asia, it’s important to know that, in general, showing frustration is not something that is common or accepted, relative to the West.
On top of that, Japan is at the top of the list when it comes to not showing emotions.
Okinawa shares this mainland Japan quality, for the most part. In addition, it has a more laid back, island pace, and attitude.
All of this is a perfect recipe for patient, non-aggressive drivers.
You rarely hear a honk, and when you do, it’s most likely a taxi cab driver or a foreigner.
Even when a red light turns green and the person at the front isn’t paying attention, it’s more common to see the entire line of cars wait silently, than it is to hear even a slight honk.
I don’t want to idealize driving in Okinawa too much, however. Okinawa isn’t free from driving frustrations, but they’re pretty minor.
Below is a video that will give you a small taste of what it’s like to drive here:
What’s Traffic Like?
It’s not learning how to drive on the left side that gets most foreign drivers in Okinawa. It’s the slow traffic.
During rush hour, things can get backed up and your drive time easily doubles.
Traffic is usually at its worst starting around 7 AM, then clears up around 8:30 AM. Then it hits again around 4 to 4:30 PM.
With all that being said, no matter how backed up traffic gets, and no matter how frustrated you may get inside your own car, the general vibe outside your car doesn’t change. Okinawan drivers remain calm, cool, and collected.
For Westerners, this remaining calm by locals when the situation is more than frustrating, can make our own emotions spike. “Does anyone else care that we aren’t moving? Am I in this all alone?”
In my opinion, this is the hardest part of driving here.
Narrow roads are probably the second most common frustration for foreign drivers.
Tolerance for close space is much different in Asia than in the West, mostly, because there’s no choice. There’s not much space here.
It’s very common to drive on a side street that is only wide enough for one car. And, well, the drivers just have to figure it out.
And 99% of the time they do.
The thing you need to be most careful about is pedestrians. Especially younger children.
It’s very common to see extremely young kids wandering the streets. So, take it slow when the road gets narrow, and watch out for kids.
Road Mirrors Are Your Best Friend
It took me a while to realize many side streets are equipped with mirrors at each intersection. The mirrors help you see if anyone is coming, allowing you to avoid having to stick the front end of your car out into the intersection and hoping you don’t get hit.
The mirrors are easy to spot and are usually painted orange.
Motorcycles and Scooters
There are a fair number of motorcycles and scooters on the road in Okinawa, especially the closer you get to Naha.
Though technically it’s illegal to drive in-between cars, plenty of Okinawans do it.
When changing lanes, it’s crucial that you don’t just check your side mirror, but actually turn your head and check your blind spot. More times than not, there’s a motorcycle there.
Tips for Driving on the Left Side of the Road
If you’re coming from the U.S. or another country that drives on the right side of the road, this is going to be your biggest adjustment.
Though just the thought of it can be intimidating, Okinawa is probably one of the best places to try driving on the “wrong” side of the road. Here are some tips to make the adjustment:
Get Familiar with the Car
Before you even start the car, it’s important to just get comfortable knowing where the controls are.
The biggest learning curve is going to be the blinker and windshield wiper controls; they’re reversed.
It’s very common to hit the windshield wiper when you actually meant to hit the blinker. It takes time to get used to it, but there are worse things in life.
Know how to turn the lights on, notice where the emergency brake is, how to roll down the window and get all the mirrors adjusted.
Don’t worry about the gas and brake pedals, they’re in the same position as back home.
The Fast Lane is the Far-Right Lane
The easiest way to remember this is that driving near the curb is the slow lane. Driving nearest to the center divider is the fast lane.
Think, “Driving in the fast last is more dangerous because I’m closest to oncoming traffic.”
Look Right, Not Left
Be very careful when crossing traffic. This is probably the biggest danger we have as foreigners when getting used to driving on the “wrong” side.
When you’re at home, you look left first. That’s because that’s where onward traffic is closest to you.
When you’re in Okinawa, however, it’s the opposite.
Look Right, Then Left, Then Right, Then Left, Again
When crossing traffic, take your time. Don’t look both ways just once, because half the time, when you’re first learning to drive on the left, you’ll look the wrong way.
Instead, just give yourself some time and look both ways twice.
Okinawans are extremely kind and patient, so chances are, the person behind you waiting isn’t frustrated. And if they are, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to show it.
Align Your Car Using the Line on Your Right
When you’re driving at home, you sit on the left side and drive on the right. And the way you center yourself in the lane is by judging your distance from the painted line on your left.
In Okinawa, you do the opposite.
Here, the steering wheel is on your right and the painted line is on your right.
It’s habitual to continue using the left painted line. But, what happens is you end up driving dangerously too close to the curb. You can easily hit the curb or worse (watch out pedestrians and bikers!).
So, you have to be mindful and aware to resist that instinct.
Just remember, align your car with the line closest to you (in Okinawa, that’s on the right; not the left).
Be a Passenger First
If you’ve never driven on the left side of the road, it’s probably best to first get your bearings a bit by being a passenger first.
Get in a taxi or jump in a car with a friend. Warm-up to the left side a little without the worry of driving.
Go Slow and be that Annoying Foreigner
That’s right. Don’t try to be something you’re not. We’ve all been that annoying foreigner before. So, give yourself permission to be that person.
Go Out There and Try
You’ll never learn if you don’t try. Being worried and anxious is completely normal, but if you follow these tips, and don’t get too far out of your comfort zone, you’ll be fine.
Important Laws to Know
Drinking and Driving
There are heavy penalties for driving with low-levels of alcohol in your system. If you’re driving with .03 BAC or more, you’re driving illegally.
Yes, you read that correctly: .03 BAC!
Something that gets many foreigners by surprise is getting hit with a DUI when driving the morning after a night of drinking.
They go out drinking, go home by taxi, go to bed, and get up in the morning and drive. Just because you’ve slept, doesn’t mean you’ve slept off the alcohol completely.
No Turning on a Red Light
Red light means you don’t go. Period. Sorry, unfortunately, you can’t turn on a red light in Okinawa or the rest of Japan.
If you’re on a U.S. military base in Okinawa though, you’re good to go. Go ahead and turn on that red light.
Don’t Use Your Cell Phone
Japan and Okinawa just stiffened their laws on using cell phones while driving. If you get caught, you’ll get fined $180, at best. And, at worst, you’ll serve some time behind bars. Don’t even touch your phone while driving, it’s not worth the risk.
Everyone’s at Fault in an Accident
In the U.S., usually, there’s just one person to blame for a car accident. In, Japan, everyone involved shares some of the blame.
“What if I get rear-ended? Surely I’m not at fault for that, right?” Sorry, you’re partially at fault for that too!
The only time you won’t share fault is when your car is parked and gets hit. So, it’s best to use defensive driving skills here in Japan. Don’t try to be right, because if you’re in an accident, you’ll never be 100% right.
Driving in Okinawa is pretty low key. If you have any anxiety, know that it’s completely normal.
From my experience, and I think most foreigners will agree, the biggest thing you need to worry about when driving in Okinawa, is your own frustration when traffic gets backed up or you get stuck behind a slow car (they’re all slow, by the way).
Enjoy driving in Japan! It’s easy!