The road network in Japan adds up to a length of more than 1.28 million kilometers, including thousands of bridges and tunnels due to the mountainous nature of the archipelago. Roads contribute to economic activity and are indispensable for natural disaster relief. Yearly investments in public roads were somewhere around six trillion Japanese yen in the last years. In the context of Japan’s demographic development, planning, financing, and executing road maintenance will remain an issue.
Which kind of roads are there in Japan?
The network has a hierarchical structure that broadly classifies municipal roads, prefectural roads, national highways, and national expressways. Their classification is based on their function and implicates their jurisdiction, administrator, and financing.
On the bottom of this pyramid-like hierarchy, municipal roads account for around 85 percent of the total network length. The municipalities administrate them and carry costs for the development, improvement, maintenance, and repair. The national government may subsidize up to half of most costs. The same rules apply to prefectural roads, accounting for roughly 11 percent of the network.
The next higher category is national highways. They may either be under prefectural (ca. 2.6 percent) or national (ca. 1.9 percent) jurisdiction, and the administrator may be the Minister of Land, Infrastructure Transport and Tourism (MLIT), the prefectures, or the cities designated by government ordinance. Accordingly, the burdens are shouldered - to a higher or lower degree - by the national government.
On top of the pyramid are the national expressways, Japan’s roads for high-speed, supra-regional traffic (ca. 0.7 percent). By law, the administrator is the MLIT. However, the vast majority is not under MLIT jurisdiction but is toll roads under the control of the Expressway Companies (NEXCO).
NEXCOs: Privatized road infrastructure
The NEXCOs came into being through the privatization of public bodies. NEXCO East, NEXCO Central, NEXCO West, Metropolitan Expressway, Hanshin Expressway, and Honshu-Shikoku Expressway construct, renew, and manage expressways in exchange for the right to collect toll fees. They pursue the repayment of debts accumulated by the government in years preceding privatization. The laws encompassing privatization declared September 30, 2065, as the expiration date of the leasing contracts with the Japan Expressway Holding and Debt Repayment Agency (JEHDRA). NEXCOs may earn revenues with toll fees but also other businesses. They operate facilities on their routes, offering rest areas, gas, food, playgrounds, et cetera. Toll fees can be paid in cash, but many vehicles are equipped with Electronic Toll Collection (ETC).
Hopes are that privatization has created incentives to minimize costs and the toll system has ensured the cost burden is carried by those using the roads - not by taxpayers in general. MLIT infrastructure expenses are nonetheless expected to increase until fiscal 2044. On the other hand, municipalities struggling with demographic change and depopulation will have to find a way to finance and execute maintenance of likewise aging road infrastructure.
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