Riding a 50cc Scooter in Japan

Monday, 4 Dec, 2017

Our daughter made her first purchase as an adult - a 50cc Honda Giorno (aka “Metropolitan” in some countries). She let me drive it, and I was smitten, so I bought my own. Read on to find out what I learned:

I’ve been researching the scooter and motorcycle situation in Japan, so I thought I’d write out what I found so that foreign residents in Japan might benefit.

I chose a Honda Dunk

Since I never rode a scooter anywhere, it was a new world for me to learn about. I looked at Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Vespa before deciding on a Honda Dunk. Honda models have a place to plug in your phone, and have a bit more thought put into storage space, compared to Yamaha and Suzuki. Suzuki’s seemed “cheap” and were actually cheaper, while Yamahas were lighter on amenities but more expensive than Honda. Vespa, the iconic Italian scooter brand, are really nice, but they’re also double the price. Understandably since they are all metal, compared to the local brands which are plastic.

Hondas are reliable, and like other domestic brands, get great gas mileage, and you can easily get it fixed pretty much anywhere. Several models including our daughter’s Giorno, my Dunk, and the Super Cub are made in Kumamoto Japan (except for the Chinese brand stock tires, which are not that great). So, I went with Honda in the end.

About the Honda Dunk:

50cc “gentsuki” license

A 50cc scooter needs the smallest class license, the “gentsuki” (has-a-motor) license. A 50cc license is included with a standard Japan car license and so, you can ride one without any training. That does not mean you should do so, and there’s really a lot you need to learn, if you’re just starting out.

I strongly recommend taking a class if you can. You can take a 50cc scooter class for around 5000 yen, which is so not much, and you get some training about how to operate it, in a safe environment (inside the DMV training grounds). I got the license and took the class separately because I wanted that training.

There are some rules for a riding a 50cc, like:

License classes

If you’re wanting to drive something larger, there are several classes of motorcycle license -

  1. 4-wheel car-included 50cc (strictly speaking, a 49cc)
  2. 50cc scooter alone
  3. small motorcycle, up to 125cc (option for manual motorcycle that includes auto, or, auto only)
  4. regular motorcycle, up to 400cc
  5. large motorcycle, >400cc

Each license class covers those below it, but manual trumps automatic. So, if you have a large motorcycle manual license, you can ride everything. The licenses even have different colors, e.g. a white plate for a 50cc, a pink plate for a 125cc, and some others.

125cc and less is favored

For commuting to and from the station, which is what I need, 125cc or smaller scooters are the most favorable or practical. Here’s why:

Other points about a 125cc license:

On insurance

The so-called “Jibaiseki hoken” 自賠責保険 mandatory insurance is attached to the bike itself, and stays with the bike. Any remaining amount transfers with the deed. If the bike is under 250cc, the rider has to sign up themselves (though bike shops will basically queue it up for you), and failure to do so means a fine of less than 500K JPY, a jail sentence of less than a year, and 6 points off the license. Above 250cc, it’s automatically included with the inspection fee, that is required for these larger bikes.

Cost of this mandatory insurance depends on the bike size and there is a discount for multiple years, up to 5 years. For example, 5 years for a 125cc or less is ~18000 JPY, and ~28000 for 125-250cc.

However, the “jibaiseki” insurance covers only injuries to others in the accident, not to you or damage to the bike itself or surrounding property. It covers simple injuries up to 1.2 MM JPY, and physical disability from 75K to 30MM JPY depending upon rank assigned by the accident assessor, or up to 40MM JPY if the injured requires full time care. In the case of death, it covers 30MM JPY and 120K JPY up to the time of death.

Therefore it’s important to get “nin’i hoken” 任意保険, or optional insurance, to cover your own injury or death, or, bike or property damage. Japan car insurance has an option called “Family Bike Tokuyaku” or roughly, Family Bike Rider (rider as in contractual rider, not vehicle rider). This option is about 20,000 yen per year, and it covers all bikes 125cc or below that your family has. Larger bikes require a separate policy, so “Family Bike Tokuyaku” is a pretty good and inexpensive deal.

Protect yourself

When I took the training, the police website for that specified “proper attire”, i.e. long shirt, long pants, gloves, sturdy shoes with laces tucked in, besides the mandatory helmet. Even on a small scooter, if you crash at 30kph, it’s enough speed to get seriously injured. I took a spill braking on gravel at about 20kph, and got some bad scrapes. I’m glad it was winter. If I had been wearing lighter clothes, it would have been worse. My left leather glove got a bad scuff, but my hand was protected. So it is best to wear the proper gear, even if you’re only commuting to and from the station.

In Japan, by law you have to wear a proper motorcycle helmet and cannot substitute a bicycle or construction helmet. Further, while you can wear a “half helmet” (looks like a baseball helmet) on 50cc, they are not made for larger bikes or faster speeds, and from a safety perspective, they are not safe at all if you like your jaw and teeth.

Here in Japan, we have easy access to famous helmet brands Arai and Shoei, which produce really good helmets. I’d recommend going to a shop like NAPS, and trying them on. I ended up getting an Arai SZ-Ram4, which is an open face “jet” helmet with a bit more jaw coverage than standard “half” helmets. Also, the NAPS floor staff really helped me get a perfect fit, working with the various inner pads to make it work for me.

And whatever you do, stay visible. I put some reflective tape squares here and there to be more visible, and installed a brighter headlight. Also I got rain gear that has a bunch of reflective fabric sewn or painted on. You are a small target on a bike, so help others see you by being “bright”.

Our daughter’s friend made some operational mistake on her scooter, hit her head on the center concrete berm and tragically died at the scene. Safety awareness and practice is critical, so don’t cut corners on it.

How is it riding in Japan?

After about 900km driving on the Dunk, I have a few observations:

See the linked video below if you’re interested in what scootering through a typical Japanese suburb and neighborhoods looks like, and stay safe and visible out there!


🎌 🚥 🚏 🚫 ⛽ 🏁