Japan Struggles with Soaring Incidence of Intoxicated Roadside Sleepers

Japan Struggles with Soaring Incidence of Intoxicated Roadside Sleepers

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Woman collapsed on road - drunk people sleeping on street in Japan story
Picture: 梅藤えりか / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Japanese authorities are stepping up road safety warnings. The reason? People sleeping on the streets after drinking.

Japan knows how to throw a party. As the sun sets, cities light up with the cozy glow of izakaya, where laughter and lively chatter fill the air. Sharing drinks is deeply rooted in the culture, offering a much-needed break from the day’s hustle and a chance to bond with coworkers.

But, as with any good time, there’s a fine line. Sometimes, that festive vibe can lead to some less-than-safe choices.

Turns out, in Japan, partying comes with its own set of risks. You join a gathering, indulge a bit too much, and before you know exhaustion hits, leaving you yearning for a moment to just lie down. This situation is pretty common after celebrations, where a brief rest can easily spiral into falling asleep wherever your foggy mind deems comfortable.

But what if that cozy spot happens to be right in the middle of the road?

Just a moment: Time for a quick nap!

In Japan, drinking gatherings sprinkle the calendar, from casual weekly post-work drinks to grand annual celebrations. As March rolls in, marking the end of the fiscal year, the parties ramp up, often with no holds barred on the alcohol. During this season, it’s not uncommon to stumble upon people passed out on the road – a perilous scene known as ‘roadside sleeping’ (路上寝).

Many of these street sleepers are at risk of falling prey to robbery and other criminal activities. Between May and December 2022, Naha, Okinawa, reported 36 cases of stolen wallets from people found unconscious after excessive drinking. But the dangers go beyond theft. As this tends to happen at night when visibility is low and alertness wanes, they put their lives directly on the line. A reporter from a leading Tokyo TV station voiced deep concern amid the growing number of such incidents:

“When I’m working the overnight shift, I occasionally receive accident reports from the Metropolitan Police Department. Around the year-end, New Year holidays, and fiscal year-end, we often come across cases where people are found sleeping on the streets multiple times a week, resulting in accidents. It’s not unusual for this to happen daily, to the point where you can’t help but think, ‘Again?'”

Following a promising dip during the quiet of COVID-19, these accidents have sadly spiked again in recent years. The “Status of Traffic Accidents in 2022” reveals a concerning statistic – out of 895 fatal road accidents involving pedestrians, 109 lost their lives while napping on the road. This troubling trend holds steady with an average of around 100 deaths annually. Plus, according to the Metropolitan Police Department, episodes leading to severe injuries are 15 times higher, hitting roughly 1,500 annually.


Certain timeframes come with increased risks – think March, April, June, and December, especially between midnight and 6:00 am, with rare daytime occurrences. Wednesdays and Saturdays witness more accidents, often when vehicles exceed 40 km/h. It’s a chilling reality that might just convince you to ditch the car, hop on public transport, or take a stroll instead.

Get off the road

Woman nearly asleep after drinking beer
Picture: ペイレスイメージズ1(モデル) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Anticipating when this is likely to happen goes a long way in prevention and staying alert during certain seasons. Police seek to prevent tragedy through intensified nighttime patrols and public awareness spread through well-timed warnings.

“There are times when taxis accidentally encounter people sleeping on the street. Like clockwork, every March and December, taxi associations across each prefecture issue warnings. It’s been a recurring pattern for over two decades,” shared a 50-year-old taxi driver from the Kanto region.

Despite the cautionary alerts, the yearly accident count linked to this phenomenon persists. Street sleepers defy the common assumption that “nobody should lie on the road,” and they tend to do it at night. Shrouded in darkness, with drivers focused on their immediate path, spotting human figures becomes a real challenge.

In a push for safer roads, a joint experiment by the police and the Umeda Gakuen Driving School yielded practical solutions for handling risky situations. With a mannequin positioned 45 meters ahead of a speeding vehicle, the test proved that switching on high beams at night could make all the difference between life and death. This extends visibility up to 100 meters ahead, empowering drivers to spot and identify potential objects on the road.

Against this backdrop, police urge night drivers to be on the lookout for potential hazards on the road. Turn on those headlights and keep a steady pace. But let’s face it, even with all precautions, sometimes it falls short. Road accidents, particularly when involving intoxicated people using the street as their bed for the night, lack precise science.

“We navigate the roads with caution, anticipating the worst, but there might be limits even when advised to ‘be careful because someone might be sleeping on the street,'” adds the taxi driver.

Okinawa’s streets: A human obstacle course

In the vibrant districts of Naha, Okinawa, 2021 saw over 35,000 emergency calls – second only to Shinjuku. A staggering 84% were complaints about heavily intoxicated individuals, some using the curb as an improvised pillow, dangerously straddling the roadway.

By May 2023, the count of roadside nappers hit 2,341, a notable increase of 409 from the previous year. While not all result in tragedies, the constant risk is palpable, making it a stark reality for many.

Drenched in the fumes of alcohol, street sleepers pose a genuine threat to those who cross paths with them. In 2022, in Matsuyama, Naha, a police officer trying to guide a man off the road ended up being physically assaulted. Though the assailant was later arrested for obstructing official duties, the incident prompts a question: how do you assess mental clarity when alcohol saturates their thoughts?

So, what’s the deal with Okinawa drawing so many street sleepers? Well, for starters, making direct prefectural comparisons is a bit challenging since Okinawa is the sole region tracking these figures. When probed about it, the prefectural police first pointed at the consistently warm climate, averaging over 20 degrees annually. Sure, the high temperatures might cloud people’s minds and mess with their reasoning, but that’s not the whole story.

The police cite another key factor: alcohol. In Okinawa, famed for its tasty local “awamori” liquor, drinking is practically a social rite. Japan, as a whole, nods along, boasting a national alcohol intake of 7901.3 kiloliters per 100,000 inhabitants (April 2019 – March 2020). Notably, this count doesn’t even include Okinawa. In the Alcohol Consumption per Capita Ranking, Okinawa secures second place with 9794.9 kiloliters, just behind Tokyo (17,830). That’s over 2000 kiloliters more than the national average, making Okinawa a real heavyweight in the drinking game.

This clarifies the common sight of people sprawled on the roads, resting their clouded heads on the asphalt and unwittingly risking their lives in the process.

The pedestrian is (almost) always right

Man sleeping on sidewalk
Picture: ワンセブン / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

The sheer tragedy of the whole scene blurs the lines when it comes to assigning blame. In fatal cases, the driver finds themselves in an unforeseen situation, while the pedestrian confronts the ultimate consequence.

Yes, there’s negligence involved, like sleeping on the road after a few too many. But at the heart of it, we’re talking about human lives.

Article three of the Automobile Accident Liability Security Act (自賠責保険) outlines the allocation of responsibility in case of accidents. Put plainly, the driver is typically held accountable for the death or injury of another person, even if their behavior is severely impaired due to alcohol intoxication. This often results in facing both civil and criminal charges, bringing along hefty fines.

These incidents typically wrap up with insurance companies settling for a 30 million yen lump sum through automobile liability insurance. However, it doesn’t necessarily end there. In 2022, a man in his 60s tragically lost his life due to “roadside sleeping.” Legal proceedings ensued, and personal injury insurance bumped up the driver’s owed compensation to 70 million yen. He was, after all, the one behind the wheel.

Keep caution up, year-round!

The sight of people sleeping on the road is truly alarming. But it also serves as a wake-up call for all of us navigating Japanese streets. As the fiscal year winds down, the odds of encountering these situations rise for both taxi and regular drivers. Even with heightened patrols, handling them promptly and averting nighttime tragedies isn’t always a smooth ride.

Let’s stay sharp on the roads all year round, and be ready to sound the alarm if not behind the wheel. No matter how many warnings come our way during certain times, keeping that awareness always fresh is key. And, of course, let’s drink responsibly and save our beds for a peaceful night’s sleep.

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