The Inside Scoop: Driving in Okinawa

On my way to work today, something (annoying) happened and i started thinking about all the quirky things that makes driving in Okinawa fun, yet scary. I decided it would be cool to share these facts with you guys! During my break i sat down and wrote down a list, here’s what i came up with:

1. We drive on the left side of the road.

That’s pretty weird in itself, only a small number of countries practice left-hand driving and well Japan is one of them. It’s really not that hard, it takes about a week to get accustomed to it.

2. The japanese love small cars.

Much like the Europeans, the Japanese are all about compact cars. They are a plus when dealing with lack of parking spots (you can basically park these anywhere!), for driving on small roads or backroads, but when it comes to trunk space they suck.

3. They put too much thought into license plates.

They are classified by the size of the cars engine and they display a numerical representation of the measurement of the car as well as 1 of many hiragana symbol. In Okinawa, Americans have a “Y” displayed on their license plate instead of a hiragana symbol. The plates come in different colors (yellow, white, green), as well as their letters and they all mean different things.  The plates are placed both in the front and back of the cars. You can even get glowing letters for night time.

4. Stickers on Cars.

They have four types of stickers they use to basically send a message of “caution”. (1) Wakaba, this sticker is half yellow, half green and it means “beginner”, as in the person driving that car has only been driving for less than a year. (2) Koreisha, this one is half yellow, half orange and it means “elderly”. Drivers 70 years or older have to display this symbol in their cars. A few years ago they introduced a new design. (3) Yotsuba, is a four leaf clover umbrella symbol and it means “handicapped”. Japan doesn’t always use the international symbol of access. (4) Deaf Sign, this one is a yellow butterfly and it means that a deaf person is in the car or driving. If you notice all the stickers have a nature theme to them.

5. Japan does not have child car seat requirements.

Whaaat?! Yup, you read right. Children are not required to sit in car seats. It’s a pretty normal sight to be driving around and see parents carrying their babies in their hands while driving or seeing the older kids jumping around all over the cars. The first time i saw this i couldn’t believe my eyes but now it’s one of those things that has become a “norm”, even though i do not agree with it.

6. “Red Light means stop?” not in Okinawa!

After the light turns red you have about 5 seconds to run the light and yes, this is allowed. When we took our “Newcomers Brief” only a few days after getting here we were told during the driving part of the class that this was a “cultural norm”, that everybody does it and it’s perfectly ok. Consider me shocked, but what can i say.. it’s awesome!

7. Expressway.

The only highway in Okinawa is called the Expressway, it’s a toll road and with 10 exits it almost crosses the entire island. From one exit to the next is 100 yen, meaning from end to end it’s 1,000 yen (or $10). This highway has the highest speed limit in Okinawa, at 80km (50-55mph). It’s a blessing when you’re late but if you take it everyday it can definitely add up.

8. Random Stops.

The japanese have this habit of stopping in the middle of the road and just putting their blinking lights to let you know you have to go around them… It pisses me off!! (This was actually the annoying thing that brought on the idea for this blog post!)

9. Parking on the side of the road.

Some roads here have a big amount of space between the sidewalk and the white line, which serves as parking space, but other streets do not have that much space and people literally just park their cars by the side of the road. There’s a one lane road here (75) where you have to drive side by side to evade parked cars, i can’t stand it.

10. They do not know how to merge.

Simple as that, so have patience.

11. Beeping noise. 

You know that annoying noise trucks make when they’re in reverse?! Well in Japan every car makes that same noise when in reverse (you can only hear it inside though). It is annoying at first, but you’ll never make the mistake and try to go forward while your car is in reverse.

12. Traffic Lights.

Streets in Japan display two traffic lights, one on the left and one on the right. This helps whenever you’re farther away, when the street is curved and you can’t see the light on the left, or when there’s a truck in front of you.

13. Backroads.

Because speed limits are so low here, you try and find backroads (with less traffic and less lights) to make your drive even just a tiny bit faster; especially if you live north of Kadena. When we first got here, if we saw lots of “Y” plates (americans) coming in/coming out of certain streets, we would literally follow them to learn new backroads! We like to think we know the quickest, most efficient backroads in our city!

14. Kids.

Okinawa is such a safe place that even elementary kids (maybe 6 years and above) walk home from school and sometimes even take the bus! Whenever kids cross the road they raise their hand, this gesture means “stop! i’m passing through”. Kids are very good at waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green, you just have to stay alert during after school hours.

15. Left Turn.

You know back home when you’re on a red light and you’re turning right you are allowed to go, well in Okinawa if you’re on a red light and you’re going left (remember we drive on the left side) you are not allowed to go until the light is green. It sucks, although you can do it on base.

Little Talks, Mountain Sound & King and Lionheart by: Of Monsters and Men!

I recorded one of our drives and i thought it would be a fun way to give you a lil sneak peak of the Okinawan Roads! This backroad is our favorite and it cuts my drive to work by a couple of minutes! 🙂 In this drive you’ll see most of the things on the list above! Leave me a comment and let me know which ones you spot!

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Hi! I'm Laura, the girl behind Little Island Takara. I am a military wife and American expat living in Okinawa, Japan! Most days you will find me reading books, wondering what cafe to go to next or daydreaming of my next adventure.

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  • My car has a spot in the dashboard where my camera fits perfectly and stays put! That's how most of the video is super steady!! There are a couple of moments where i took the camera in my hands and it's suuper shacky! i'm so happy you loved the video! 😀

  • Yeah! It was surreal, because it felt so much like real life.
    Like, I was in the car with you.
    crazy.
    Out of this world.
    (and with such a steady hand!)

  • YAY! i'm so happy you enjoyed it! I've had this post in mind for a whiile but i wasn't sure how to write it. I'm so happy to have found inspiration in my road rage that day, haha! Did you spot some of the things i listed? I watched it again after editing it and it was pretty surreal because i drive through most of these roads everyday and it felt like i was actually in the car! I loved that effect!

  • Narrow streets can be pretty scary at first!! But after a while you'll get used to it 🙂 i promise! When i first started driving i was very slow and very careful but now i feel like i've adjusted pretty well and drive more confidently!

  • Haha i looved that post you wrote!! Road rage in Okinawa is the real deal 😛 and i bet! i know it's going to take us a while to get back into the 'safe' driving habits, haha!

  • Both of those things were pretty shocking once we were told!! It will definitely be an adjustment whenever we go back to the states and start driving!

  • The car seat thing is suuuper crazy! Sometimes i still can't believe it!

  • This was one of my favorite of your posts. ever.
    I was absolutely intrigued the whole way through.
    and the video? My husband and I were so interested, and watched it twice.

    WHAT A COOL IDEA!

  • I have to drive to my schools, everyday once school starts. I practiced once and I was going 10 km/h under the speed limit the whole time. I was sooo scared! It doesn't really help that the streets are super narrow too!

  • Kara

    I wrote a post about why I have road rage in Okinawa. It was fun though. It took the husband and I a little to get used to all the American ways again.

  • Whoa, the red lights and lack of car seats thing is INCREDIBLE! I couldn't imagine something so dangerous going on in the United States. Makes me wonder about driving in other countries haha

  • This is interesting. I love learning about other cultures. The car seat thing is kind of crazy, though!

  • Thanks for suggesting reading this…we have a chance of moving there next summer and I had no clue that they also drive on the left. Im glad I am getting a lot of practice but I am going to be so confused whenever we make it back to the states!!!

  • Caryn Mata

    Love this post. Not quite sure how I came to find your blog, but I'm enjoying it. We've been in Oki for almost a year now and live on the same base as you do/did. Loved being able to send this to my family to see the first portion of my daily commute!

  • Hi there, I stumbled upon your helpful post when googling some info for an upcoming trip to okinawa – could you tell me if it’s easy to find your way as someone who does not read japanese? Are road signs (telling you what city you’re nearing etc) generally in roman lettering or not? Thank you so much!

    • Hello! I’m glad you found this post helpful! 🙂 Road signs do have both japanese writing and english! We rented a car in Ishigaki (a smaller island off Okinawa) and the car had an amazing GPS system in English, so i’m guessing that maybe rentals in Okinawa will also have good GPS systems! Since we have iPhones in Japan it’s easy to use the Maps to get around.. You can look into renting a pocket wifi or unlocking your phone and renting a SIM card; that way you can use the maps app!

      Let me know if you have any other questions about your upcoming trip to Okinawa!! I hope you enjoy exploring this awesome island!! 🙂