Driving in Japan


Are JETs allowed to drive in Japan?

Yes. Although some contracts may limit or restrict driving during work hours, all JETs are allowed to drive in their free time. Most JETs are also allowed to commute to and from work using a car or scooter.

Are JETs allowed to own a car?

All JETs have the right to own a car. Whether you are able to use it for commuting to work ultimately depends on the terms of your contract. In particular, it is not uncommon for Tokyo JETs to be prohibited from using cars for work-related reasons, including commuting.

Please keep in mind that car ownership is a serious responsibility. You will be required to obtain sufficient insurance, pay for shaken (mandatory bi-annual automobile safety inspection for older cars), as well as registering a parking space with the local police.

Are JETs allowed to drive for the commute to work?

According to the CLAIR model contract, JETs are allowed to drive to and from work but must obtain permission from their supervisor to drive during work hours or for work purposes. However, each contract may vary, so please check your individual contract.

What is the difference between a regular car and a kei car?

The difference between regular cars and kei cars is the power of the engine. The maximum engine size for a kei car is 660cc – not much, compared to the 1500cc of a Honda Civic, for example, and consequently, the car itself is also usually quite small. Regular cars have white license plates while kei cars are issued yellow license plates. While regular cars tend to be safer and more powerful, kei cars are cheaper to run. Kei cars are given discounts for most toll roads, ferries and parking fees as well as insurance rates.

How do I obtain car insurance?

If you buy or rent your car from a car dealership, you can sort out your insurance through the dealer. Most dealers will be able to offer you affordable and reliable insurance.
If you purchase a car outside a dealership (i.e. from another JET), you can also visit a local car dealership to obtain insurance, or go straight to an insurance office. Insurance in Japanese is hoken 保険 or sanpo 損保 (non-life insurance).

How much should I expect to pay for car insurance?

The cost of insurance varies depending on your age, driving record and car model as well as the amount of coverage you wish to have. Japan offers a compulsory insurance that provides limited coverage in the event of injury or death caused to a third party while operating a motor vehicle as well as optional insurance (strongly recommended) that will cover damage to the vehicle. Most initial insurance plans range from about 56,000 yen to 204,000 yen per year, payable in monthly installments.

When you first begin driving in Japan, your driving record in your home country is pretty much irrelevant. The insurance system in Japan is a numerical system where the better your driving record is, the higher your number is. The higher your number is, the cheaper your insurance becomes. All drivers start at the number 6. Each year that you have a perfect driving record (no accidents or major traffic violations), your insurance number goes up one number. (i.e. if in your first year in Japan you aren’t involved in any accidents, your insurance number for your second year will be 7). For each year with a perfect driving record you can expect your insurance payments to drop 10,000 to 50,000 yen per year. If you do happen to have an accident, your insurance number drops 3 points. (i.e. if you have one accident in your first year, your insurance number drops from 6 to 3). If you only have one accident your insurance cost should still go down after one year, but only slightly. More than one accident and you should expect a significant raise in your insurance costs.

Insurance costs are also lowered for anyone over the age of 26 or for anyone that obtains a blue or gold license (color depends on Japanese driving record). Most JETs are issued a green license when they first get their license transferred and aren’t in Japan long enough to earn a blue or gold license.

Should I rent or buy a car?

Opinions on this vary but listed here are some pros and cons of buying and renting:

Renting Pros

  • The dealer will take care of most (if not all) of the paperwork for you.
  • In the event your car is un-drivable, your dealer will most likely provide another car until your car is fixed.
  • The dealer is responsible for updating and paying for shaken.
  • You don’t need to worry about selling the car when you leave.

Renting Cons

  • Monthly rental fees can be expensive (if you are here longer than a year, renting tends to be more expensive than buying)

Buying Pros

  • Once you pay for the car, you will not have to make monthly payments. (Over two or three years, it is usually cheaper to buy rather than rent a car).
  • If you are able to sell the car when you leave Japan, you are able to get at least some money back.

Buying Cons

  • In the event of an accident, you will be responsible for all of the paperwork and payments, although your insurance should help or entirely cover the payments.
  • You are responsible for updating and paying for shaken.
  • You will have to either sell or pay for the disposal of your car when you leave Japan.

How much should I expect to pay for a car?

Depending on the age, make and condition of the car, you should be able to find a used car for 50,000 to 300,000 yen. Be sure to ask when the car is due for shaken as this can be an additional 60,000 to 100,000 yen expense. Shaken is required every 2-3 years.

How much is a scooter?

A decent used 150cc scooter (with limited guarantees) can be purchased for as little as 20,000 yen. However, the more options and guarantees you want the higher the price goes.

What are the road rules?

Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) offers “Rules of the Road” for foreign motorists. It is available in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Persian, Chinese, and Hangul. You can get a copy of this book for around 1000 yen (plus postage) by contacting your regional JAF office. JAF has a site in English that includes information on rules, licensing, road services and other driving related services is available at: http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/index.htm

In the meantime, here are a few things you may want to be careful of:

  • There is ZERO tolerance for drinking and driving in Japan. Even though some people risk it, the bottom line is, if have consumed ANY alcohol and are caught driving you will be fined 500,000 to 1,000,000 yen and may have your licensed confiscated and/or face imprisonment. If you refuse to submit to the Breathalyzer test, you could face a penalty of 500,000 and/or up to three months imprisonment. It’s safe to assume that you get caught drinking and driving, your time on the JET Programme will come to an end.
  • There is also zero tolerance for getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking. Should the driver of a car be pulled over for drinking and driving, all passengers in the car who have a driver’s license will share equal liability with the driver.
  • Be sure to stop at all railroad crossings. Failure to do so will earn you a 9000 yen ticket if the cops are watching!
  • Watch your speed! Despite the fact that many drivers in this country tend to drive way over the low speed limits, it will cost you if you get caught. It is most common to get pulled over for going 20-25 kilometers over the speed limit, however it is not unheard of to be pulled over for going 10 kph over the limit. A ticket for going 20 kilometers over the limit costs about 15,000 yen. A speeding violation up to 30 kph over the limit will usually simply result in a fine, but more than 30 kph will probably result in a compulsory training session, a test, and a heavy fine. Of course, any speeding violation also results in you having points taken away from your license quota, and serious offences or repeat offences may result in you losing the license entirely! The police often set up speed traps during the mornings on weekends and holidays, and there are also speed cameras in some places. If you ask around, co-workers can probably fill you in on the common speed traps in your area.
  • Parking tickets are also not cheap. While illegal parking seems to be quite popular, especially in more urban areas, parking tickets will run you about 15,000 yen.

What happens if I get pulled over?

The Japanese system of pulling over drivers is slightly different to what we are used to in our home countries. The most common reason for being pulled over is for a random breath test. In this case, police usually set up a roadblock and wave a flag or light stick, signaling for you to stop. An officer will approach your car and ask you to breathe on him. If he thinks he detects alcohol on your breath, he may ask you to step out of the car and walk a straight line. If you have been drinking (remember zero tolerance, folks!) the officer can confiscate your license, impound your vehicle, and escort you home in a cop car (not to mention the hefty fine of 300,000 yen).

Many drivers are also pulled over for speeding. In Japan, they rarely chase after you with flashing lights. You will know you are being pulled over by the sound of sirens and or a voice on the car’s loudspeaker. Police often drive through the streets with their lights flashing – so let your heart stop racing if you see flashing lights in your rearview mirror! Instead, they will set up a speed gun which records how fast you are going. If the police deem that you are speeding, a police officer will step out into traffic waving a red flag a little ways down the road. He will signal for you to pull off the road and park near a table set up with other officers waiting to give you your ticket. Turn off your car, take the key out of the ignition and put on the emergency brake. The officer will ask you to get out of the car and have a seat at the table where they will ask to see your license (or IDP) and your alien registration. There is no excuse for not having these two cards with you, so be sure not to forget them. Your alien registration card must be on your person at all times and you are required to carry your license with you anytime you get behind the wheel of a car. You may be asked to provide your hanko and/or a fingerprint, as well as your workplace contact information. Whereas in our home countries, fingerprinting may be seen as something done only to criminals, in Japan it has for many years been akin to a personal signature and, therefore, it is possible that the police will request your fingerprint, even for a minor offence, and you will ultimately be obliged to give it. Be advised that you cannot be punished for not having your hanko on you – you are allowed to visit the police station at a later point in time to provide any necessary stamps.

What are the coloured stickers on some of the cars?

You will notice several different kinds of stickers on cars here, some shaped like teardrops or leaves, and others shaped like clovers. These stickers are required by law for most Japanese drivers who fall into the various categories of needing them.

The V-shaped green and yellow sticker indicates a novice driver. Some JETs like to place one of these stickers on their cars during their first year even if they have experience behind the wheel. After you transfer your IDP to a Japanese driver’s license, you will have a stamp placed on the back exempting you from requiring this sticker on your car due to your driving experience back home.The colourful clover shape, or the orange and yellow teardrop, indicates an elderly driver (70+). Handicapped drivers will use either the handicap symbol you’re probably used to seeing back home, or an umbrella shape made out of white clovers on a blue backdrop. Hearing-impaired drivers will have a yellow butterfly sticker on a blue-green background.

I can’t read Japanese. Will I be able to understand the road signs?

Most signs posted on highways are usually in Japanese and English, or at least Japanese and romaji. Japan uses international road signs. Most of them are easily understood, but if you have any questions, ask your supervisor to obtain a list for you.

Are car seatbelts compulsory?

Legally, seatbelts are compulsory for all persons riding in a motor vehicle. Most people mistakenly believe that only the front passengers require belts, but the letter of the road traffic law (article 71-3, part 3) clearly states that the driver must ensure his/her passengers, in front and back seats, are also wearing seatbelts. In reality, the police rarely stop drivers for seatbelt infringements by their passengers (they WILL stop drivers without seatbelts) so you will often see unrestrained children with their faces pressed against a vehicle’s window.

Are car seats compulsory for infants and children?

Child seats are also mandatory for children, with the types of seats governed by the child’s weight and height. As a rough guide, infants up to 9 months must use infant seats, up to 3 years, child seats, and booster seats for up to age 6. (Exceptions include buses and REGISTERED taxis: “Mom’s Taxi” is not an exception.) If your kids travel with other parents, or other kids travel in your vehicle, don’t be afraid to tell them that you want them strapped in. Car seats can be purchased from most major department stores.

Can I refuse a breath analyser test?

If you refuse to submit to the Breathalyzer test, you could face a penalty of 500,000yen and/or up to three months imprisonment … simply for refusing. DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE.

Is it okay to use a mobile phone whilst driving?

No, it is not okay. Unless you have a fully hands-free mobile phone kit installed in your vehicle, you are subject to fine for using a keitai whilst driving. The fine is up to 50,000 yen as of November 2004.


License Issues

Should I get a driver’s license before coming to Japan?

Yes – the sooner the better. While some JETs are able to rely only on public transportation and bicycles, many placements on the JET Programme require the use of a car for commuting and/or getting around. Foreign residents and visitors of Japan can use a valid foreign driver’s license in conjunction with an International Driving Permit (IDP) as a legal license in Japan for up to 12 months after your initial arrival in Japan. After that, you must obtain a Japanese license. Most foreign licenses can be transferred for a small fee and a quick sight test. However, some nationalities (the US, South Africa and Jamaica, for example) are required to take the written and practical tests, too. This transfer is only applicable if your home country license was issued to you more than 3 months before arrival in Japan. If you do not have a drivers’ license prior to arriving in Japan, getting a Japanese license can be expensive (upwards of 300,000 yen including driving school) and time consuming.

What is an IDP?

An IDP is an International Driving Permit and it is a necessary document for driving in Japan with a foreign-issued license. You should apply for an IDP prior to leaving your home country. This can usually be done at a local office of your home country’s automobile association, such as the AAA in the United States, the NRMA or RACQ in Australia, and the AA in Britain.

Do I need a Japanese driver’s license?

An IDP is only valid for one year from your initial entry into Japan. If you plan on staying and driving in Japan longer than one year, you will need to apply for a transfer to a Japanese license. You can no longer reapply for a new IDP during a summer trip home. Penalties for being caught driving without a valid Japanese license after your first year of residence are steep, and could possibly lead to deportation. You should start preparing for this transfer as soon as you are aware that you’ll be staying on for longer than one year. If, for some reason, you are late in finalizing the transfer, don’t be silly enough to drive to the licensing center yourself!

What documentation do I need to obtain a Japanese driver’s license?

A brief overview of the process for switching overseas licenses to a Japanese license is located on the JAF website: http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm

In order to obtain a Japanese driver’s license, you will need to provide the following:

  • Your passport
  • Your foreign residence/alien registration (gaijin) card
  • A valid license from your home country
  • An official translation of your foreign license ( see below-can obtain from JAF for around 3,000 yen)
  • If your foreign license does not have a date printed on it, you will need a letter from your local DMV/Licensing Center that offers proof that you obtained your license more than three months prior to arriving in Japan.
  • Certificate of residence (Juminhyo) from your local city/town/village office
  • A recent photo (passport style, 3.0 cm x 2.4 cm)

Where can I get my home country license translated?

License translations must come from an official source (i.e. your Japanese friend/spouse/co-worker cannot translate it for you). The easiest option for getting a translation is via the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) that you can do by either mailing or faxing a copy of your license (do not mail the original) to a JAF office or by going to the office with your license. By mail a translation will take about 7-10 days. In person, it should take about 30 minutes.

An explanation of how to get your license translated from JAF is located here: http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm

How much time does it take to get a Japanese license?

If you are only required to take a sight test or sight and written test, it will take at least one full day to get your Japanese license, possibly two visits on separate days. Most licensing offices require applicants to arrive by a certain time in the morning. Please check your local center for exacts times. Upon arrival, an officer will examine your license and other documents, ask you to fill out some standard forms, and possibly interview you whilst you do this, before administering a sight and/or written test. After the test you may have to wait several hours before the center processes your card or, alternatively, you may be told to come back (in person) a week or so later.

If you are required to take the practical test, you will need to set aside at least 2 full days (possibly 2 half days depending on how far you live from the licensing center) in order to obtain a Japanese license. On the first day you will need to arrive by a certain time in the morning in order to provide all of your documentation and be interviewed by the officer to determine judgement on whether or not you are eligible to test for a Japanese license. This judgement can take up to two weeks, but afterward you are eligible to schedule your exam. You will arrive in the morning and take the sight and written test. If you pass all of that, you will then need to make an appointment for your practical test (sometimes this can be done the same day). After passing the practical test, you will usually have to attend a short seminar on “safety driving” (usually about a one hour lecture, entirely in Japanese), and then you will have to wait another hour or so before getting your picture taken and having your actual license printed.

Some JETs have failed the practical test numerous times (upwards of 6 times or more), while other have passed the test on their first attempt. If you do fail the test you will be required to make another appointment to re-take your practical test. There is usually a waiting period of about 2 weeks before you can get another appointment.

Finally, if your own Japanese is not up to a level where you’re confident on dealing with official documents and questionnaires and verbal driving test instructions by yourself, you should arrange to take a translator with you.

How much does a Japanese license cost?

The fee for getting your license translated is 3,000. The application to transfer an overseas license costs around 4,000 yen and can be paid for at the licensing center. Additionally, if you are required to take the practical test, it will cost around 3,000 yen each time. In some places you will also have to pay to “rent” the car for the practical exam. Please check these prices at JAF or your prefectural licensing center as they may vary.

Can I transfer my license through the mail?

No. You must apply for your Japanese license in person at your prefectural licensing center.

How can I find my nearest licensing center?

Most prefectures only have one licensing center that handles switching overseas licenses. Your prefectural advisor or local AJET should have information and directions on how to get to the center in your prefecture. Please note that you must apply at the center in the prefecture where you reside, even if the center for the neighboring prefecture is closer or more convenient.

What is the test format?

Transferring your license requires you to go through the following steps:

  • Have your license from home translated and collect all the documents needed for transfer
  • An application for a license transfer – This is when you have to provide all of the above mentioned documentation. An officer from the center will interview you on the contents of your file. Some of the questions may seem inane or unnecessary, but keep your cool and respond politely.
  • Aptitude test – This includes a sight and hearing check. The sight check is very similar to sight tests performed in the doctor’s office. You will have to look at a chart and distinguish where the gap in the circle is (up, down, left, or right). The Japanese for these words are: ue (up), shita(down), hidari (left) and migi (right). They will also make sure you can distinguish between the colors red, yellow and green (blue). The hearing test checks to make sure you can hear normal conversation levels.
  • Written Test – This is a multiple-choice test, which should be provided for you in English. All questions refer to the rules of the road in Japan. However, be forewarned that the English is often not translated by a native speaker and the wording can be strange. If you understand enough Japanese, it may be a good idea to double-check the Japanese original at the bottom of the page to make sure you don’t misinterpret the meaning. Many test takers have complained about inconsistencies in the test format (i.e. sentences containing double negatives and then asking true or false).
  • Practical Driving Test – Applicants will have to drive a vehicle resembling a typical Japanese taxi through a closed course. Before test time, you will be given a map and allowed to walk through the course. During the test, an officer rides along with you and gives you instructions throughout the test. You might be able to bring an interpreter with you if the officer does not speak English. Before your turn to drive, you should be allowed to sit in the backseat of the vehicle during another person’s test so that you can familiarize yourself with the course directions.

Where can I get driving lessons?

There are driving schools everywhere in Japan and some even offer special courses for foreigners looking to transfer an overseas license. You can find the school nearest you in your local phonebook. Be advised that lessons in Japan are NOT cheap – our research has estimated that a short course can cost approximately 10,000 to 35,000 yen.

What are some things I can be failed for?

Each center and officer will have their own specific things they look for when passing or failing applicants. Before taking the test ask other JETs who have taken the test about their experience to get some ideas as to what to look out for. Some things we’ve heard you can be failed for are:

  • Failing to stop at the railroad crossing
  • Not checking under and behind your car for animals or small children prior to getting in
  • Not adjusting your seat, seatbelt and mirrors before starting the car
  • Not putting the emergency brake on when you finish the course
  • Wearing open-toed shoes
  • Chewing gum
  • Leaving enough room on the side of the road for bikes to pass you
  • Exceeding the speed limit
  • Touching the curb on the S or crank turn (you may however, reverse the car up to 3 times in the S/crank turn)
  • Not responding with a polite “hai” (or yes/OK) after the officer gives you instructions
  • Not doing appropriate checks (kakunin) before and during the blinker process

Do I have to take paid leave to take my driver’s test?

Taking your driving test does not entitle you to any special leave under the JET model contract. Most JETs are required to use their paid leave (nenkyuu) in order to take the test. If you are placed in a location that requires you to drive to work, you may want to discuss with your supervisor(s) options other than paid leave for taking the test. Some JETs who are required to drive to work have been granted special leave in order to take the test, but please be aware that this is NOT the norm nor is your school/office obligated to give you special leave for the driving test.

Do I need a special license to operate a scooter or motorbike?

If you would like to drive a scooter or motorbike with an engine larger than 150ccs, you must apply for a special license for two-wheeled vehicles. You cannot drive a scooter at all simply on the merit of having an IDP. To drive a scooter of 150cc size or less, you must either have a prior qualification for riding motorcycles on your home country license (and an IDP verifying this), or you must obtain an actual Japanese driver’s license, as described above.


Further Information and Websites

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