Japan: To Drive or Not to Drive?

ByRay Proper
Dec 10, 2014

Japan: To Drive or Not to Drive?

When discussing the pros and cons of driving in Japan, one of the most common questions that comes up is whether a car is really necessary at all. Those relocating to the one of Japan’s major cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, or Osaka soon find upon arriving that most large metropolitan areas are serviced by extensive and efficient transportation systems. In these areas, some residents neither own a car nor even possess a driver’s license, although car usage is fairly common amongst families with children. However, outside the main Japanese metropolitan areas, public transport is not as extensive and trains and buses do not run as frequently, and so cars are the main form of transport for most residents.

Rules And Manners

Compared to other countries in Asia, driving in Japan is relatively safe, and personal drivers are not
necessary. While there are different rules and manners that need to be adjusted to, and also the occasional narrow road or sharp turn, experienced drivers will likely find the transition to driving in Japan relatively easy to make.

One major rule to note here is that cars in Japan drive on the left side of the road, with the driver’s seat on the right side of the car. No, Japan was never a British colony; this is actually a custom that has been carried over from feudal times. However, most people who hail from right-side driving countries are able to adjust quickly to this difference (although for the first few months, they may occasionally switch on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal). Road signs also follow international standards and for the most part should be relatively easy for experienced drivers to understand, and in large metropolitan areas many signs marking important roads and landmarks are written in both Japanese and English.

However, there are some common mistakes typically made by first-time drivers in Japan. For instance, at a 4-way stop, the vehicle on the left has the right of way. It is also not possible to make (right or left) turns at red lights, even if there is no oncoming traffic. Most importantly, Japan has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to alcohol, meaning drivers should hand over their keys to a sober companion even if they’ve had just a sip. Or better yet, the smart thing to do would be to rely on public transport if the evening’s activities will involve alcohol – something that is certainly not uncommon in Japan.

As for manners, the Japanese tend to be very considerate drivers. For instance, they acknowledge by honking their horns when other drivers allow them to pass on narrow roads. They also signal their gratitude when given the right-of-way by flashing their hazard lights three times, and turn off their headlights at intersections or crosswalks to reduce glare. However, there are times when they can be impatient. One example of this is that most Japanese drivers tend not to stop at yellow lights or even the first few seconds after the light turns red, and the inexperienced run the risk of being hit from behind if they fail to “go with the flow.” This partially stems from the need to relieve congestion at intersections by showing a little flexibility with the traffic signal rules. Additionally, due to narrow roads and a general lack of parking space, many cars park illegally, forcing other vehicles to veer in and out of the outside lane.

Licensed to Drive

Japan Drivers LicenseInternational Driving Permits (IDP) can be obtained in most countries, allowing holders to drive overseas temporarily. License holders from countries which are signatories of the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (95 countries and 2 regions including Japan have signed as of March 5, 2011) are technically allowed to drive in Japan for up to one year after arrival. There are also 6 countries from which license holders are allowed to drive in Japan with their foreign licenses alone (Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, and Taiwan) as long as they carry a certified Japanese translation.

It is important to note here that there are several things to be aware of when using an IDP in Japan. First of all, an IDP is only valid for up to one year from the date of arrival, and cannot be renewed or replaced with a new permit unless the holder leaves the country for at least three months. Secondly, the IDP is meant to be used by tourists and short-term residents of less than one year. The police are not always lenient in their treatment of long-term residents who have not yet acquired their Japanese licenses, and according to some consular missions such as the American Embassy, there have been a few incidents of individuals with IDPs being charged with driving without a valid license, which also invalidates their insurance policies. Long-term residents are therefore strongly encouraged to obtain their Japanese drivers licenses at the earliest opportunity.

See a full article detailing the usage of an IDP in Japan here.

Even as a foreign resident, in most cases it is not too difficult to obtain a Japanese license, as a simplified conversion process exists for holders of valid foreign licenses. Furthermore, if the license holder is from one of the 23 countries (plus one region) with a bilateral agreement with Japan, they may not even be required to take a written test or practical skills (road) test. Fortunately, even if these tests are required, those utilized for foreign residents are simplified versions of the normal tests, and can be passed relatively easily with adequate preparation.

The conversion process does, however, involve quite a bit of document preparation, and all of this documentation needs to be submitted with the initial application. The nature of the documentation will depend on individual circumstances, but generally applicants will be required to submit the following: the foreign license and its official translation (issued by the Japan Auto Federation, or JAF), passport, Resident Registration Certificate, proof of holding a license for at least three months, and lastly proof of physically being in the license issuing country after the license issue date for a period of at least three months.

For more information please see www.JapanDriversLicense.com

Car Ownership

Lease JapanBefore buying a car, there are a few points to know about car ownership in Japan. Owning and operating a car in Japan involves numerous fees on top of the price of the vehicle. The most significant of these fees is for what is called “shaken,” a compulsory car inspection required every two years (three years for a new car), and depending on the vehicle, fees typically range from JPY 100,000 – JPY 200,000. There is also a car weight tax, an annual vehicle tax, and compulsory enrollment in a liability insurance policy. Compulsory insurance provides minimal coverage, and so it is highly recommended that all drivers enroll in secondary (collision) insurance for full coverage

Another hurdle with car ownership is the car registration process. This process can be very daunting, even for Japanese speakers, as it involves a great deal of paperwork and preparation of documentation, as well as visits to both the local police station to register the designated parking space (proof of owning a parking space is another requirement), and to the land transport office to register the car and license plate number under the name of the car owner.

Typically, most people will choose to purchase their vehicles at a dealership, as the dealer will assist with some of the necessary paperwork. When purchasing used vehicles from auction sites and especially private individuals, the new owner of the vehicle will need to personally take care of the registration process and also an additional process for transferring ownership of the vehicle from one person to the other.

For those looking for a more hassle-free way of driving in Japan, car leasing is also a popular option among expatriates and other foreign residents. Leasing removes the responsibilities of car ownership and also usually includes a variety of benefits such as providing full liability insurance, vehicle delivery service, and regular maintenance checks. While the majority of companies offering car leases only provide service in Japanese, there are a few which do offer support in English. One such company is H&R Consultants, a relocation and real estate company which also offers leasing services through its Lease Japan brand.

For more information please see www.leasejapan.com

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