Japan Traffic Lights Guide: More Than Red, Yellow, and Green

Understanding Japan traffic lights should seem straightforward, right? But throw in a mix of cultural and language differences to the complexity and business of roads in Japan, and it can quickly become a maze. 

From my years living and driving in Japan, I understand that international visitors might be left scratching their heads about the traffic lights in Japan, trying to make sense of the multi-directional signals or the seemingly ‘blue’ go lights. 

In this article, we’ll explore the history behind Japanese traffic lights and their colours, discuss their locations, and look at the intricacies of directional signals at complex intersections. We’ll also explain the purpose of flashing traffic lights, highlight the importance of pedestrian signals in ensuring safety, especially for the visually impaired, and shed light on the consequences of traffic light violations.

By reading this article, you will understand in more detail how Japanese traffic lights work and, therefore drive with greater confidence and understanding. 

Disclaimer:  This article contains affiliate links.  If you book after clicking on one of these links then we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Car Rental in Japan - Use Coupon Code K49O12 to get a 1,000 Yen Discount
  • Easy comparison of multiple car rental provider options using ToCoo!
  • Use coupon code K49O12 to get your 1,000 yen discount
  • ToCoo! is a local Japanese car comparison site that has the most options available
  • Clear description of included protection and excess
  • Good cancellation options
  • Child seats, GPS, electronic toll cards, second driver and more are available as add-ons
Overhead Directional Traffic Lights
Overhead directional traffic light

An Overview of Japan Traffic Lights

A Japan traffic light commonly shows three colours: red, yellow, and green … or maybe blue. More on that later.

There are also single-light traffic signals in Japan. These lights can either be red or yellow, and they serve specific functions in traffic management, such as cautionary stops or signalling temporary controls.

What Do the Traffic Light Colours Mean

In many cultures, it’s commonly understood, even from a young age, that red means stop and green means go. Yellow is a warning colour. The light is about to turn red, so stop if it’s safe.

Traffic light colour meanings are also the same in Japan, with one big exception. If you search the internet, you’ll find many references and articles that say the traffic light colours are red, yellow and blue.

What Colours Are the Traffic Lights in Japan

The red lights are consistent with those in other countries, while the yellow lights in Japan might lean towards a more orange hue. But in Japan, you will find both green and blue traffic lights.

So, why are the “go” traffic lights described as blue and sometimes look blue? 

Why Are There Blue Traffic Lights in Japan?

Japan has historically referred to the “go” signal as a Japanese blue traffic light due to language and cultural reasons. This is because the Japanese term “ao” refers to both blue and green shades. 

When traffic lights were first installed in Japan in the 1930s, the Japanese people described the ‘go’ signal as “ao,” covering both blue and green. 

The Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals in the late 1960s aimed to standardise traffic signals internationally (including green traffic lights). Japan, which didn’t sign the convention, continued to use the term “ao” for the ‘go’ signal. 

Under international pressure to address this linguistic and cultural challenge, the Japanese government found a compromise. A 1973 cabinet order directed using the bluest shade of green possible for traffic lights, leading to what some call “grue” lights. 

Today, as you navigate Japan, you’ll come across various Japanese traffic lights with ‘go’ signals ranging from standard green to distinctly bluish hues. Maybe you’ll see a blue traffic light in Japan like in the picture below?

Red yellow and blue traffic lights
Red yellow and blue traffic lights

Traffic Light Technology and Design in Japan

The typical traffic signal in Japan uses densely-packed LEDs, so they look like a single colour from a distance. Older lights, which had a single coloured pane, are often updated to these LED systems for better brightness. 

Older lights (that you may still see around) also had louvres, making the light harder to see until closer, and sun shades for better visibility when lit up. In contrast, newer LED-based signals don’t require sun shades, as they appear black when unlit and don’t need louvres.

Where are traffic lights in Japan located?

Japan traffic lights are typically overhead, particularly in urban areas. They are mounted horizontally across lanes in green (which can appear blueish), yellow, and red order. 

Overhead traffic light in Japan
Overhead traffic light in Japan

Due to this positioning, taller vehicles like trucks and buses might sometimes obscure them. To address visibility issues, especially around curves, secondary lights, often called ‘slave lights’, are placed at different angles or positions to duplicate the primary light.

Rural areas with less traffic might have lights on poles beside the road. These lights often feature pedestrian buttons, allowing walkers to request a crossing signal safely.

While many smaller streets in Japan don’t have formal names like in Western countries, major roads and intersections often do. If you’re lost, look for labels or signs near traffic lights, as they often indicate the intersection’s name, many of them in English.

Directional Traffic Signals in Japan

Japanese streets, especially in older parts of cities, are not always in orderly grid shapes. They sometimes merge and separate in seemingly chaotic ways. This complexity means that directional traffic lights can often be required to keep the movement of cars separated and minimise accidents.

Where many intersections in other countries are four-way, sometimes Japanese traffic lights have to control from five or six directions. Figuring out when you can go can become tricky. Therefore, navigating these intersections requires attention and understanding of the signalling system.

Directional traffic lights in Japan
Directional traffic lights in Japan

What to Do When Directional Arrows Contradict the Main Traffic Light

Navigating traffic signals in Japan can sometimes feel like trying to solve a puzzle. 

At a simple intersection, you might see a red light with a green (or, in Japan’s case, blue) arrow beneath it pointing right. This means you can turn right even if the main light is red; the system is programmed so that right-turning cars won’t clash with others.

But venture into a big city, and things can get much more confusing! Some intersections sport three or four directional arrows and equally complex street signs. It’s like attempting a new board game without reading the rules. Even locals sometimes scratch their heads at these intricate setups. 

But here’s a tip: always follow the direction of the green arrows. If they align with where you’re heading, you’re good. Otherwise, if the main light is red, it’s a universal signal to stop and wait. And when in doubt? Let the car in front lead the way. If you make a mistake, your car navigation system will quickly correct it, plotting a new course in seconds.

Flashing Japanese Traffic Lights

Imagine this. You are in a place in Japan with only one traffic light, and it just keeps flashing. Or, you are out early (normally before 5 AM) and see all the traffic lights flashing red synchronously from all directions. What do you do?

The single red flashing Japanese stop light has the same meaning as all the traffic lights flashing red at the same time. It simply means “take it carefully”. 

Legally, the flashing traffic light in Japan has the same meaning as a stop sign. Cars have to stop and take turns going through. If the flashing red light turns solid, you should stop until given the signal to go.

There’s also the flashing yellow light, which is a caution signal. Unlike the flashing red, you aren’t mandated to stop, but you should be vigilant and proceed with care. 

Additionally, if you see a flashing light at the entrance of a one-way street, remember it’s not a regular traffic signal but a warning light.

Pedestrian Crossing Lights in Japan

You may have seen pictures from the Shibuya scramble crossing, where thousands of people move towards and through each other with the precision of a marching band. However, you may not recognise how the traffic lights synchronise all the pedestrians. 

The Shibuya scramble crossing is particularly busy and complex. It is more common for pedestrians to cross one road at a time. 

The pedestrian signals in Japan are distinctive: a figure in a hat against a red background indicates ‘stop’, and the same figure walking against green means ‘go’. 

Pedestrian Crossing Light
Pedestrian Crossing Light

Where traffic lights aren’t automatic, there’s a button, usually on a yellow box at waist level. It prompts ‘Please wait’ (待ってください) until it’s safe to cross.

Pushbutton Crosswalk Signal
Pushbutton Crosswalk Signal

Many pedestrian lights feature a series of triangles that count down the remaining time on the green signal. And it’s worth noting that these pedestrian lights start flashing before turning red.

Pedestrian Crossing Sounds

In Japan, a melody plays when the pedestrian signal changes to show a green person walking. This melody aids blind individuals in timing their crossing. 

In city centres, traffic lights often have a white box, not yellow, which activates this melody for the visually impaired. Some traffic lights emit beeping sounds to help people who are blind locate them. 

More Obscure Traffic Lights in Japan

You’ll come across trams or streetcars in various cities across Japan, including Hiroshima and even Tokyo. For instance, Tokyo has one tramline called the Sakura Tram, which runs from Waseda to Minowabashi via Ikebukuro. 

These trams share the roads with cars, but they follow their own unique traffic signals. Unlike the usual traffic lights for vehicles, tram signals use arrows to guide the drivers, indicating when they can proceed or need to halt.

Traffic Light Violations

Traffic light violations are taken very seriously in Japan. When a car crosses the stop line at a red traffic light in Japan, it is likely to be stopped by the police. 

Pedestrians are not treated as harshly, but if you cross the street while the traffic light in Japan is red, you will likely get a warning from the police. 

Final Thoughts

Navigating Japan’s traffic lights might initially appear simple. Still, cultural and language differences, combined with complicated road systems, can present a challenge. 

Looking back on my years of experience living and driving here, I understand how newcomers might have to grapple with the complexities of traffic lights in Japan.

In this article, we looked at the history of Japan’s traffic light colours, their placement, and the difficulties of directional signals at multifaceted junctions. We’ve also demystified the purpose of blinking lights and looked at the cues used for pedestrian traffic lights, particularly for those with visual impairments. 

Reading this article, you should now have a deeper understanding of Japan’s traffic lights, allowing you to navigate Japanese roads confidently.

Traffic Light at Rail Crossing in Japan
Traffic Light at Rail Crossing in Japan
Car Rental in Japan - Use Coupon Code K49O12 to get a 1,000 Yen Discount
  • Easy comparison of multiple car rental provider options using ToCoo!
  • Use coupon code K49O12 to get your 1,000 yen discount
  • ToCoo! is a local Japanese car comparison site that has the most options available
  • Clear description of included protection and excess
  • Good cancellation options
  • Child seats, GPS, electronic toll cards, second driver and more are available as add-ons

Frequently Asked Questions – Traffic Lights in Japan

Understanding traffic lights in Japan is crucial for both drivers and pedestrians. Check out my answers to these frequently asked questions to ensure a safe and smooth journey.

Japan Traffic Lights - Pinterest Image
Japan Traffic Lights – Pinterest Image

You may also like:

Join the Japan Travel Planning Facebook Group or Discord Server

You are also welcome to join our Japan Travel Planning Facebook Group and our Japan Travel Planning Discord Server – they are great resources to enable you to ask questions about your upcoming trip to Japan!

Disclaimer:  This article contains affiliate links.  If you book after clicking on one of these links then we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.