The most convenient thing about driving here - if you're British, at least - is that they do so on the left-hand side of the road. This means that to obtain a Japanese driving licence, all I had to do was take an eye test and fill out some forms (similarly, Mrs M got her British driving licence in double-quick time), whereas if you hail from a country that drives on the right, you'll need to pass a practical driving test first.
The vast majority of cars are automatics, which often leads to the kind of accidents where confused OAPs mistake the accelerator for the brake pedal, and for someone who was born and raised on the manual gearbox, makes for a rather dull driving experience. For variety's sake I keep my left hand busy by shifting into neutral and 'coasting' to a halt at the traffic lights, but even allowing for such eco-friendly driving techniques, you can still get more miles to the gallon - or rather, kilometres to the litre - out of a manual. Speaking of which, at the time of writing a litre of unleaded costs 145 yen (about £1), and a litre of diesel (aka kei-yu / 経由) 125 yen. Hybrids, incidentally - the Toyota Prius is still the second-best-selling car in Japan, and recently passed worldwide sales of five million - aren't necessarily any more economical, and if you buy an all-electric car - like, say, the Nissan Leaf - there are still precious few places to plug it in.
As for road safety, Japan is statistically similar to the UK, with 4,663 road deaths in 2011 compared to 1,901 in the UK: in other words, nearly 4 deaths per 100,000 people, or 7 deaths per 100,000 cars owned. This compares favourably with many developed countries, including the US, where you are approximately twice as likely to kick the bucket in a car crash. Within Japan itself, while Ibaraki accounted for the eleventh highest number of road deaths by prefecture in 2012 (142), relatively speaking, and as of 2010, it was only the 27th most dangerous prefecture in which to drive, with around 50 accidents per 10,000 people. Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku was ranked as the most dangerous in both 2010 and 2011, with 112 accidents per 10,000 people, and Shimané Prefecture in western Honshu as the safest.
While seatbelts and child seats are compulsory, the latter are a recent development, and many people still neglect to strap their children in, or only resort to doing so to avoid being stopped, rather than with the more noble intention of protecting their child in the event of an accident. When M Jr was born, Mrs M's mother wondered why we didn't just hold her in our arms for the drive home, and the two-year-old daughter of a friend of Mrs M's is regularly taken to the family rice field by her grandmother: the grandmother rides a scooter, the granddaughter sits between her legs in the footwell, and neither of them wears a helmet.
The speed limit on most roads is a conservative 60kph (around 40mph) and even on expressways rises to just 100kph (around 65mph), although as in the UK, the majority of road users routinely exceed the limit by 10 or 20kph. You are, therefore, unlikely to be pulled over by the rozzers unless you're really putting your foot down.
Drink driving, on the other hand, is very much frowned upon, and while the limit in the UK is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, in Japan it is just 0.15mg. Not only that, but depending on the circumstances, the owner of the car, the passengers and whoever supplied the alcohol in the first place can all potentially be found liable should a drunk driver get into a prang. Civil servants caught drink driving automatically lose their jobs - I know of several teachers who have been sacked in and around Mito, and who will never be able to work in the school system again - and as a consequence are no longer permitted to hold staff parties on the evening before a work day. (My one brush with the Japanese police came way back in 2005, when I was stopped for failing to obey a stop sign. It was the middle of the night on a deserted side street - or at least that was what I pleaded as an excuse - and having had a beer earlier in the evening, I could have received a lot more than just a ticking off had they decided to breathalise me.)
Similar to the UK, accumulating a certain number of points on your driving licence can cause it to be suspended or revoked, and the licences themselves come in three different flavours. New drivers get a green licence, which is replaced after two or three years with a blue one - at this point you are required to sit through a two-hour lecture on road safety, during which the boredom is only partially relieved by a video of real-life fender-benders and near-misses. Provided you don't get into trouble within the following three years, you are then rewarded with a gold licence, which only has to be renewed once every five years, although the renewal time starts to come down again once you reach seventy years old.
Perhaps more important than this in practical terms is the MOT - aka sha-ken / 車検 - which is both stricter and more expensive than in many other countries. Putting my clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra through its UK MOT often cost no more than the basic cost of the test - currently £54.85 - whereas the two-yearly sha-ken on our Platz recently set us back 100,000 yen (about £750), despite the fact that it was in perfect working order. For this reason, you will hardly ever see a clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra in Japan, and if their car needs some work, people tend to get it done properly (Mrs M couldn't believe it when I replaced a broken wing mirror on the Astra with a new one in a different colour, simply because a matching one would have been more expensive).
So Japan is, by and large, a relatively safe and relatively peaceful place to drive, although there are some habits, customs, rules and regulations that are worth bearing in mind for the foreign first-timer:
- Most drivers on a dual carriageway will opt for the right-hand lane, meaning that a lot of overtaking is done on the inside lane. The Japanese equivalent of the Highway Code says that you should keep to the left and overtake on the right, so like the speed limit, this is another case where theory and practice differ.
- When approaching an open level crossing, one is expected to stop one's car and check for trains before proceeding, and as is the case with stop signs (see above), a police car will often be lurking to catch anyone who fails to do so. For someone who has absolute faith in the reliability of Japanese technology, up to and including the automatic barriers at level crossings, this seems unnecessary, but the law was brought in to prevent accidents like the one that occurred in 2000 in Saitama Prefecture, when a car was hit by a train after a lightning strike cut the electrical supply to the barriers.
- If they overtake at all, motorcyclists and scooter-ists tend to do so on the inside, and you will often see bikers patiently waiting in line in traffic jams, which as far as I'm concerned defeats the whole object of riding a bike in the first place. But anyway, while helmets are compulsory (unless you happen to be a great-grandmother giving a lift to her great-granddaughter, that is), one or two youngsters will deliberately flout the rules for the purposes of 'looking' 'cool'. Just the other week we saw one such rebel-without-a-skid-lid being chased by a police motorcycle, and Ibaraki, it should be noted, is a magnet for boh-sohzoku (暴走族 / motorcycle gangs), who ride their souped-up machines (actually, perhaps souped-down would be a better phrase) at maximum revs for maximum disturbance, but are almost certainly polite young lads with proper jobs who still live with their mums.
- Many minor and indeed major roads have no pavements (that's sidewalks if you're of the North American persuasion), which can render pedestrians unnecessarily vulnerable: in April 2012, a teenage driver fell asleep at the wheel and ploughed into a line of parents and children on their way to school. Two people were killed, including a pregnant mother, and their lives might have been saved had there been either a pavement or the concrete dividers - known as enseki / 縁石 - that are often used in place of one.
- You are expected to give way to pedestrians when turning either left or right into a side road, so if you try to nip through a gap in the oncoming traffic while turning right, you may find yourself confronted with a walking stick-wielding grandad and no choice but to wait until he finishes crossing. Conversely, Japanese motorists are addicted to what bikers refer to as the 'crafty right' - ie. turning right the very millisecond the lights change, and before anyone coming from the opposite direction has had time to react.
- A much more risky addiction than the crafty right is what is known in Japanese as shingoh-mushi (信号無視 / ignoring a red light). It is not unusual for as many as three or four cars to carry on through a junction after the lights have changed, and the practice is so prevalent that I can only assume the traffic lights here are timed to take it into account.
One final piece of good news: despite being included in the driving test, parallel parking (juu-retsu chuu-sha / 縦列駐車) is practically unheard of, and you will never encounter the kind of street one so often sees in the UK, with a line of parked cars on either side and barely enough room down the middle to ride a Fiat 500. Instead, the typical Japanese driver will take great pains to use an ordinary car parking space correctly: for example, I have never seen Mrs M's father park his car without going in and out of the space at least three times, until the wheels are perfectly aligned and precisely equidistant between the markings on either side.