Driving in Japan

By Mark Ellis

Japanese driving culture is a fascinating dimension of the country. For the new foreign resident in need of a motorized vehicle, embracing it and learning how to make sense of the traffic flow requires far more patience and humility than overcoming any legal hurdles and rules of the road that don’t apply back home. The defensive driver won’t get very far in Tokyo, and runs a high risk of getting slammed from any side at any moment. Extreme confidence, 360-degree vision, a quick foot and — in line with the general well-mannered and considerate aspect of Japanese culture — the ability to make a polite little “sumimasen” bow to other drivers whenever you screw up, will get you everywhere. As will always yielding to the nicer car, especially if it has tinted windows — and going first when that car is yours….

Getting a Driver’s License

To drive an automobile, motorcycle or scooter/moped on public roads in Japan, one must be at least 18 years old and hold a driving license (運転免許, unten menkyo), which is issued by the public safety commission of the prefectural government in which one lives. Foreigners with a recognized International Driving License (IDL) may use it for up to one year after entering the country. Others, whose international driving permits are not recognized by Japan, must attain a Japanese driving license. All drivers staying in Japan more than one year will need a Japanese driving license, and fines can be stiff (up to 300,000) for those driving without a proper permit. For foreigners, penalties can possibly be even more severe, who may be subject to arrest and even deportation. Depending on your personal situation, you may need to take a written and driving test. This quick Q&A , although a few years old, can help clarify what to do to transfer a license or take the driving test. Persons caught driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs are subject to having their licenses confiscated, and drunk driving that results in a death carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. Talking or messaging on cell phones while driving is also illegal.

Keep Left

In Japan, cars are driven on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel being located on the right. Road conditions are usually quite good, but side streets in Tokyo can be spectacularly narrow and literally impassable to larger vehicles. For the most part, road signs and rules follow international standards, and although many signs on major roads are in Japanese and English, not all are, so it’s worth spending some time learning how to recognize the key terms. Obeying the speed limit will not fend off tail-gaters, and may incite impatient taxi drivers to perform feats of irresponsible vehicle manipulation in the rear-view mirror. Also, leaving enough space between yourself and the vehicle in front in case of sudden stops will not endear you to anyone directly behind. Every inch of pavement must be covered with vehicle. Cars and delivery vehicles parked on curves, although illegal and extremely dangerous, are tolerated to an astonishing degree.

Buying and Owning a Car

If money is no object, Tokyo offers every type of vehicle under the sun for a price. If you’re on a budget, a new or used Japanese vehicle can be quite reasonably priced, and even brand new compact cars sell for less than a million yen. Japanese cars are classified into regular and light (軽車, keisha) cars, which require yellow license plates and also offer the advantages of tax and toll breaks, and other regulations that make them cheaper and easier to own than regular cars with white license plates. This can help, as owning and operating a car in Japan involves numerous expenses. For example, compulsory inspections (shaken) every two to three years, yearly automobile taxes, mandatory and optional insurance, high parking fees, toll expressways and the cost of gasoline.

Shaken alone, a compulsory safety inspection every two years (starting from the third year for a new car), typically costs between 100,000 and 200,000 yen, including a weight tax and mandatory insurance ? which doesn't provide full coverage, making secondary car insurance highly recommended. Then there is the expense of parking in Tokyo, which can be exorbitant, but cheaper than the fines for parking illegally, if caught. The first time your car goes missing while illegally parking, instead of assuming it is stolen, assume it has been impounded. The phone number of where to call to get it back will be written in chalk on the pavement. Either way, a trip to the police station and a ready stack of 10,000 yen notes is part of the deal.

Purchasing a car requires the filing of numerous documents, including forms to register it and to verify you have a place to park it. If a parking space is not included as part of your residence package or situation, you’ll have to shell out a monthly fee of anywhere from 40,000 yen and upward to rent one, depending on which part of the city you live in. Fortunately, if you purchase an auto through a car dealer, they will do much of the paperwork for you, while you “sign” them by stamping all the necessary places using your officially registered seal/chop (印鑑, inkan).

Renting a Car

Most residents of Tokyo get along just fine with the public transportation system and a bicycle, and those with a driving license will often rent a car for excursions outside of the city or other purposes. There is an abundance of car rental companies in Japan, offering cars in all sizes and, in some cases, large vans, buses and RVs, for fees ranging from less than 10,000 yen per day and up. The major companies are Nippon Rentacar, Toyota Rentacar, Orix Rentacar, Mazda Rentacar, Nissan Rentacar and Ekiren. International car rental companies such as Budget, Avis and Hertz are also in Japan, but typically are tied up with one of the leading Japanese car rental companies, making their rates less competitive. Most companies or outlets will not be able to deal with English, so some help from a Japanese friend will come in handy.

Useful Links

Driving in Japan and Passing the Driver's Test

Driving License in Japan (Wikipedia)