Driving in Japan – A Complete Guide
Thinking about hitting the road in Japan? Before getting out there, read our definitive guide to driving in Japan containing everything you need to know.
Have lots of questions about driving in Japan? You came to the right place!
As with a lot of things, Japan does have a few regulations and procedures that differ from other countries. To help you out, we’ve listed and explained everything that you may need to get driving in Japan.
We’ve got an introduction to the rules of the road (some of which may be brand new); the lowdown on how to get your license; how to rent, purchase or import a car a car in Japan; and, towards the end, some invaluable tips for drivers.
Let me start with few things you should know about driving in Japan.
First, in Japan, you drive on the left. Meaning that the steering wheel is on the right in Japanese cars. Japan is one of the few countries with left-handed traffic beside the UK and many of its former colonies. Japan’s roads are generally good in the larger cities but may deteriorate slightly in the countryside.
Japan is crisscrossed by toll-free roads, which can, in theory, get you anywhere. With strict speed limits, red lights and the potential for traffic hold-ups, however, these roads can be slow going. Expressways are the alternative, spanning large swathes of the country between all the major destinations. Most expressways, however, charge a toll for their use which can be pretty steep. If for example, you were to drive from Tokyo to Osaka exclusively on toll-roads, the 5-hour journey would cost you upwards of 10,000 yen in fees alone.
Japan uses a system of ETC cards to allow traffic to flow smoothly through the expressway entry gates. For more information on these cards and the system generally, check this official ETC site here. To avoid high fees, there is a fixed-rate travel pass you can buy for certain areas. Check out this site for info on the Tohoku Pass.
Road signs in Japan are basically the same as everywhere else, except for the few that are written in Japanese only. One example is the ‘stop’ sign 止まれ tomare that is often seen on Japanese roads. On the expressways, all imporant signs are written in Japanese and English both.
Driving Permits for Vehicles
Driving permits in Japan are also inclusive of small motorcycles. Your Japanese driver’s license will just say futsu 普通, which means ‘normal’, allowing you to drive a car, a small motorcycle, small buses or truck.
Alcohol and Driving in Japan
Japan is very strict when it comes to drinking and driving (DUI). Different to some countries, Japan has a zero tolerance policy.
To get around this, consider leaving your car at home and using public transport. Alternatively, take a taxi, good for short stretches but expensive. A third option, quite popular and a tad cheaper than a taxi, is the daiko 代行: A driver service for your own car.
Call the service and a car with two drivers will come to your location. One of the drivers will take you home while the other will follow and pick up the driver. Simple and effective.
There are normal parking lots around large cities like Tokyo, but they are few and far between. The ones you will usually find have automated yellow bars that attach to the underside of your vehicle to prevent you from leaving without paying. This safety measure makes sense once you see the prices that can amount to a couple of hundred yen per hour!
The alternative is the automated parking lot, where drivers pull up onto a revolving disk from which the vehicle is automatically picked up and stored vertically. When you return, the whole thing goes into reverse and your car is returned. This is the cheaper option in some cases, but may take more time to find and actually use.
Drivers Visiting Japan
International Driver’s License
Foreigners can drive in Japan using an International Driving License for a maximum of one year.
International Driving Licenses are issued in a driver’s home country. Before being able to use the license in Japan, it must be translated into English (if it isn’t already), which can be done before arriving or at your country’s embassy in Japan.
For more documentation see the official page of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on drivers visiting Japan.
There are quite a few rental companies in Japan. Some don’t provide much English language support, but those we’ve listed below should be able to help you out if your Japanese isn’t up to scratch. Most also allow customers to book online.
Car Rental Companies
Residents in Japan
Japanese Driver’s License
Residents in Japan are eligible for a Japanese driver’s license either by taking a driving test in Japan or having their existing foreign license transferred for use in Japan.
The transfer process is lengthy, including a written test, a hearing and eyesight exam and plenty of paperwork. However, there are 25 lucky countries that are exempt from everything but the eyesight exam and some paperwork. These countries’ driving exams are, in the eyes of the Japanese government, as stringent as Japans. They are: Australia, Austria, Maryland (USA), Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Monaco, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and Taiwan.
If time is against you when you need to translate your licesne, the JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) is quicker and more efficient than most embassies and will have the translation done in a few hours at most. Simply make sure you go in the morning.
Driver’s License Testing and Issuing Centers
Fuchu Driver’s License Center
3-1-1, Tama-cho, Fuchu-shi, Tokyo
Samezu Driver’s License Center
1-12-5, Higashi-Oi, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo
Koto Driver’s License Center
1-7-24, Shin-Suna, Koto-ku, Tokyo
All centres close their offices quite early (usually around 15:30 in the afternoon) so get there as early as possible.
CLOSED: Saturdays, Sundays, National Holidays and during New Year’s Holidays
Information hotline in English on driver’s license issuance: 03-5463-6000
Insurance is not required to get your license but is mandatory when you start driving. Rental places offer insurance should you not be already covered. If you live in Japan and want a car, you are required to purchase Japanese insurance on top of any plan you may already have. There are two types: one that covers damage to your vehicle and another that covers damage done to other vehicles or people. It is advised both types of insurance are purchased. For more info on insurance, take a look here.
Importing a Car into Japan
To bring a vehicle into Japan for a limited amount of time involves first obtaining a Carnet de Passage de Douane – a customs document used to identify vehicles.
Importing your car into Japan permenantly is exceedingly expensive. It also involves ensuring your car is fit for the road by Japanese standards, paying an emissions penalty in some cases, paying for registration and paying for the trip itself. The whole process can easily cost several thousand dollars.
It is, generally, far easier and cheaper to purchase a car in Japan.
Purchasing a Car in Japan
Purchasing a vehicle in Japan is cheap compared to importing. The upkeep and inspections is the expensive part. Buying from a dealership is the best bet, as they will handle most of the paperwork for you. You will then only be required to sign the finished contract papers and stamp them with your inkan 印鑑, your personalized stamp (used in Japan in place of a signature).
On top of the price of the car itself, you will have to pay the following:
Security inspection (every 2 years): 100,000 – 200,000 yen
Annual automobile tax: 10,000 – 50,000 yen
Weight tax: ca. 30,000 yen
Note that for the above inspections you may be required to produce proof of parking.
Helpful Hints for Drivers
There are some infamous regions in Japan that you should be wary of. Specifically, drivers in cities in the south (Nagoya and Osaka are particularly notorious) are known for their aggressive driving style. Also, the weather in Japan can turn in no time, so be prepared for anything. In the winter, snow chains may be necessary and roads can close, particularly in mountainous regions.
It is common practice in Japan to flash your hazard lights as a thank you or as a warning.
Another thing to keep in mind is that at rail crossings, as an additional safety measure, Japanese tend to stop even if the barriers are up. Japanese drivers also have a tendency to suddenly swerve to the side of the road and stop, be it for a break or a phone call.
Further dangers for unaccustomed drivers lurk in taxis ‘weaving’ in and out of lanes, buses suddenly pushing into other lanes, bicycles coming the wrong way down the road at breakneck speed and people walking into the road carelessly. Be alert at all times.
People on highways usually don’t stick to the speed limits and drive around 120 – 140 km/h even in 100km/h limit areas. You can keep up with the cars, but try to stay responsible as fines can get quite hefty. Toll gates are mostly operated automatically, but there are some manual ones as well. Here, it is best, if you try not to hold up traffic too much and have the cash to hand.