Car seats.  Those of us with infants and toddlers know that they are a must.  When I gave birth to my son two years ago I wasn’t allowed to leave the newborn ward with him until a nurse had inspected his infant car seat to be sure it was properly set up for him.

Bear infant seat

Car seat regulations across the United States are varied, but nearly all require that infants under twenty lbs and younger than twelve months old ride in a rear-facing seat.  Toddlers can sit front-facing and in three- or five-point harness systems up to forty lbs, but after that regulations are spotty.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as part of the Department of Transportation, now states that all children under eighty lbs. and 4’9″ in height should sit in a booster seat; nearly all car manufacturers agree that the safest place for a child under the age of twelve to ride is in the back.

Until I arrived in Japan, however, I had no idea that the US laws I’ve come to understand and enforce with my own children are not nearly as present here.

Our first encounter with Japanese confusion regarding car seats came at our layover in Osaka, where we landed after our thirteen-hour flight from San Francisco.  Because we’re a military family and have traveled by air frequently to visit our families while stateside, my husband and I purchased car seat backpacks for our kids’ seats.  When traveling domestically, we often checked them with our luggage and were not charged for these against our bag totals.


Coming over here, though, we opted to bring those seats on the plane with us.  We each carried a bulky car seat on our back, our carry-on bags on our fronts, and hung my then four-year-old daughter’s small backpack and my then twelve-month-old son’s diaper bag on the back of his stroller.  We must have been a spectacle walking through the airports.  In the end it was worth it; my kids had seats they were comfortable sitting in on the very long flight, and better yet, they were restrained from getting up when they wanted.  Was it a hassle?  Oh yeah.  Would we do it again?  You bet.

But it seemed that there was a bit of confusion at the check-in counter in Osaka.  Our highly gracious – and highly confused – airline counter workers wouldn’t allow us to put those car seats on the plane with us.  When we tried to check them, we were initially told that we had too many bags and would need to pay a fee for them.  Thirty minutes later we finally convinced them that we weren’t going to pay to check those carseats, but it was a confusing situation in a very foreign country.

And then we arrived on Okinawa and I finally understood where that confusion came from.  Carseats are just not as regularly utilized here as they are in the US.

Kid in driver seat

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the sight of driving next to a car where an unbuckled parent or grandparent is holding an unrestrained infant on his or her lap – in the front seat.  I’ll probably never get used to the sight of toddlers and children standing up and moving around inside cars, or even seeing infant car seats buckled into the front seat.  This is not anything I’ve ever seen with such a regular occurrence as I have here.

It’s important to remember, however, that although Okinawans do not seem to adhere to the same car seat practices that we’re used to stateside, on all US military installations we’re still required to follow US traffic laws.  That includes making sure that all passengers (and drivers) are wearing seatbelts, and buckling all kids under 80 lbs. and under the height of 4’9″ into size-appropriate car seats and booster seats.

Coming here with our carseats – especially our very large convertible carseats – was an adjustment.  We purchased two cars, one of which was a small Toyota Celica and into which both carseats together wouldn’t have fit in the back seat.  We also had to teach ourselves to buckle the car seats into the pre-LATCH system cars using just the lap belts.  Now that my daughter is in school and participating in extracurricular activities, it’s a hassle installing her car seat in my friends’ cars when we carpool.  But she’s not yet big enough for a backless booster and she’s still small enough that she fits safely in the car seat we purchased when she outgrew her infant seat.

Car and booster seats

What I’m trying to say is that although using getting your children’s car seats here from the US and getting used to using them in older vehicles can be a hassle – and the temptation to do as we see so many of our host nation’s citizens doing – it’s in your kids’ best interests to keep them in car seats and booster seats as long as possible.  If space in your vehicles is in short supply and a smaller child will need to sit in the front, be sure that any airbag systems have been disabled and that his seatbelt is properly adjusted.

What about you?  Were you shocked to see babies and kids riding unrestrained when you first arrived on island?  Or had you been better prepared for that sight than I was?


  1. OMG!! I’m so glad that I came across your site. Yes, I was really freaked out about their apparent lack of safety for their children. We just arrived in Sasebo last Tues evening. We had some small issues putting our 4 month old in a rear facing car seat on our flight from Nakita to Fukuoka. They wanted him to be forward facing for take off & landing!! I was firm, but polite & tried to get them to understand that he was safer.
    My husband’s sponsor met us at the airport in a gov’t minivan and we were able to get both boys in their safety seats; our oldest is in a temporary booster until our HHG comes in with their Graco Smart Seats. Our 4 year old, up until our stuff was packed has always been in a 5 point harness.
    Taking short taxi rides with our youngest in just my lap still scares the daylights out of me & I’m worried about our oldest too. Cannot wait to get our own vechicle, but almost wished we had sent our car over here & had it converted to their standards, just for the safety reasons. I was surprised at all the car seats they have in Babies R Us here, but they just seem to shrug them off nonchalantly like it’s no big deal. My husband is just getting ready to get his international driver’s license & his instructors informed him there’s no LATCh system here.
    Thank you for your write up. It’s nice having other parents that have the same safety concerns as myself over here. 😀
    Pamela Love

  2. Here is what the welcome abroad packet says:
    Seatbelts must be worn at all times while driving on and off base. Department of Transportation approved car seats are required for children under 40 lbs. and/or 4 yr. old.

  3. Does anyone know how I can find out the age or weight limits that a kid has to use a booster seat on base? I found a site for all the state requirements, but I’d like to know the specific military base requirements.

  4. I am a wee bit confused. We are reporting to Kadena in January and have two boys, ages 7 and 5. Here they have to be in a booster seat, which I am totally cool with because they are safer. They don’t have to be in one over there at all?

  5. I guess the unbuckled and uncarseated thing didn’t surprise me because I don’t expect everyone else to be just like us. The traffic is much slower here, drivers are not as aggressive and the vehicles are not as big and huge for just a family of four so I can understand that the rules might be different from the US. I do know that Japan does have a carseat law just like they have a seatbelt law for all passengers.

    In Thailand you will see an entire family (as many as 6 or 7) all on one moped…infants included. It is just a different culture from what we are used to.

    I actually think we are a little overboard on all the safety stuff in the US…but that is just my opinion and of course this is not a forum for a debate.

    I do love the backpack idea for the carseats though because I do always see parents struggling with those cumbersome seats…especially the bigger ones in airports and that backpack does look like it would make things easier.

    • I am in agreement with you. Just watched a lecture on how child safety seats may not really have an effect in an accident and in some cases, can be more harmful. Why did American government specifically enforce these laws? Think about how much carseats cost and how they encourage you to buy a new one every few years because they become “outdated”. Carseat manufacturers rake in a pretty penny. Maybe even enough to influence politics. The lecturer gave a good solution – vehicle manufacturers should include child safety restraints built into the seats of vehicles, eliminating the middle man. Seats would also be more stable and wouldn’t have to be installed “correctly”. I just think that’s an amazing idea. I hope they do that in the future! I would consider buying a vehicle from a manufacturer who did this.

      Anyway, it is disappointing to hear people judge their host nation. I believe in personal freedom, responsibility and doing what you believe is best for your own family. What right does anyone have to come into another country and say disparaging things as if they think they don’t love and care about their children just as much as others do? The world is so much bigger than America. Yes! I have been to Thailand before and saw some crazy things on the highway. Some Americans would have heart attacks! LOL Do what’s best for your children, don’t judge others unless you want them to judge you. Please! Practice kindness. Your customs and laws are strange to many too.

  6. I have seen a few of the “non-buckled-in” kids while driving around Okinawa. The one that shocked me was when one of the smaller children put their head (or tried too, they were quite small) out side window! I almost had a heart attack…but none the less, picked up by camera and took a picture. What gets me is that Japan has some of the COOLEST looking carseats! I mean, at BabiesRUs they had one that actually turned so that if you had your child facing backwards the carseat swiveled around and it was so much easier to take them out! What a smart idea as I wrestle to get my daughter in and out of her rear facing carseat.

  7. We actually brought our carseat on the flight from mainland to Okinawa with us. We did not check it, we used it as a car seat. We got alot of questions from airline staff about it, but we insisted that we use it on the plane. They did not let us take our stroller to the gate in Toyko but they did have strollers that we could use. Not sure why they do this and I wasn’t happy about it, but that’s another post!
    I too have noticed the lack of car seat usage here in Okinawa. It’s frustrating, but I’ve noticed that the younger generation of parents here on the island are buying seats for their children as the car seats are more available in stores.

  8. There is no reason that the gate guards cannot enforce the obvious violations, such as children under 4 not being in a child seat, be it a car seat or even a booster.

    They will sure as heck tell an adult passenger to buckle up-they should be doing the same with children improperly buckled.

  9. One post wants gate guards to enforce better safety laws. But, if they took the time to check and make sure the children were buckled in the right way every time with the amount of children on this base, you would have PLENTY of people then complaining of the back-up in traffic when trying to get on base. If it is something you think should be enforced and aren’t sure why it is not Col. DeMouy is the commander over 18 SFS and the number is 634-2475.

  10. Heather and others, I found that Amazon has a large selection of carseats and boosters (including ones with backs!) that have free shipping, even to Okinawa. We had to use Amazon to get a booster with a back for my daughter, and she was so excited to be able to get a pink one. It makes it much easier to move seats from car to car now too.

  11. I was not surprised that Okinawans are not following American traffic safety requirements for child car seats.

    As far as I know Japan does not have a child car seat requirement.
    For man many, many years Japan has had only a seat-belt requirement for front seat passengers only.
    Just recently Japan has expanded its seat-belt requirements in 2008 for all passengers to wear a seat belt.

    It may take some time for Japan to get used to this new requirement just like it did in the US many, many years ago.

    I can remember in the 70s laying in the back windowshield of my parent’s car or riding in the back of the pickup truck which is still seen today in the US.

  12. I agree completly with the post and I utilize car seats for my children according to all the standard saftey requirements but I did happen to catch the news the other morning where they had people who researched the usuage of car seats vs regular seat belts. It kinda made me scratch my head and think for a second.

  13. When I brought my baby home a year ago, we were checked to make sure we could buckle our child safely into his seat but not that the seat was safely buckled into the car. Luckily, we read all of our manuals and were able to do it. The hardest part was attaching the metal clip since our seatbelts wouldn’t lock!

    And just as an FYI, some car seats are made to allow the handle to be up when driving. I double checked my instruction manual several times… mine specifically had to be completely up in carrying position or completely down. It couldn’t be in between.

    I wasn’t planning to have a child over here so checking the way the seatbelts worked didn’t even occur to me! Luckily I have some great friends who are already parents to help me make sure mine is in properly. The LATCH system is just one more reason I can’t wait to get back to my car in the States! 🙂

  14. I’m actually mostly appalled by the way Americans use their seats here-it’s as if they saw that the locals are more lax and decided to run with it.

    I see plenty of infant carseats in the front of Y plate cars. And both parents are American.

    I’ve seen children smaller than my three year old sitting unrestrained in the front (and back) seat.

    I’ve seen a good majority of infant carseats used incorrectly-chest clips right next to the buckle, straps way to loose to do anything, handles left up while driving with toys dangling in baby’s face.

    I’ve seen many people turn their infants around too early-the earliest possible point is when your child is 20 lbs AND 1 year, not 20lbs OR 1 year. And they are actually safest remaining rear facing until they outgrow their seat in that position.

    Overall, I think that the gate guards need to do a better job of checking/ticketing parents that don’t have their children properly restrained, and Lester needs to do a better job of teaching all of these new, very young parents how to properly restrain their children in the car.

  15. “And then we arrived on Okinawa and I finally understood where that confusion came from. Carseats are just not as regularly utilized here as they are in the US. ”

    “It’s important to remember, however, that although Okinawans do not seem to adhere to the same car seat practices that we’re used to stateside, on all US military installations we’re still required to follow US traffic laws. That includes making sure that all passengers (and drivers) are wearing seatbelts, and buckling all kids under 80 lbs. and under the height of 4’9″ into size-appropriate car seats and booster seats. ”

    Two things to remember: Although they are not used often, it is the law here to use them on and off base.

    Also, laws for passengers off base are similar. Everyone should be belted at all times. Traffic laws here are selectively enforced; actually, there are really only two times of the year that they are strictly followed, and that is during the bi-annual safety campaigns. Don’t push your luck though trying to test the waters.

  16. I am glad that someone finally touched on the subject of car seats here! It is my passion and obsession and it makes me so sad to see improper use or lack of use :(. I really wish there was more education on this topic since many people just don’t know. The guards at the gates should also be educated and start ticketing for improper use. It would also be nice if parents were made aware of a place they could take their car seats to be inspected.
    I could go on about this all day, but I will step off of my soapbox now 😀