Driving in Japan will show you many aspects of the city and countryside that are inaccessible by public transport. Be cautious, because roads and highways in urban areas can be very crowded.
- Drive on the left side of the road. Japanese traffic rules and signs (also in English) follow international standards.
- Follow the speed limit shown on road signs or markings. At places where there are not any road signs or markings, drive at 60km/h. On highways and expressways, drive at 100km/h unless specified otherwise.
- Do not drive after drinking alcohol. Driving under the influence of alcohol is strictly prohibited and will result in a fine, imprisonment or penalty. When a driver is arrested for DUI, the driver and the person offering the car will be fined a maximum of 1,000,000 Yen, and all other passengers in the vehicle knowingly allowed the driver to drive will be fined a maximum of 500,000 Yen.
- Do not talk on the phone while driving.
- It is obligatory for all passengers to wear a seatbelt.
- Do not park illegally or your car may be towed away.
- Always carry your driver’s license!
Transferring a Foreign Driver’s License to a Japanese Driver’s License
You can drive using a foreign license with an International Driving Permit or an official translation (depending on your country) for the 1st year, but you must get a Japanese driver’s license after the 2nd year. To transfer to a Japanese driver’s license, you need to submit the required documents to your Prefectural Driver’s License Center in person. An eye test, written test and driving test is required for license transfer, however, people from certain countries are exempt from the driving test.
Here is a list of the documents required:
- Application form (available at the center).
- A valid driver’s license (official documents may be required if the license was renewed within the last 3 months, and does not state when it was first obtained).
- Passport (previous passports will be required if the current one does not prove that you have stayed in the country where you obtained the license for at least 3 months).
- A translation of the driver’s license prepared by your embassy or JAF (Japan Automobile Federation).
- Resident card or alien registration card. [Read about resident cards and alien registration cards.]
- 1 photo (3.0cm x 2.4cm) taken within the last 6 months.
- Application fee. (The fee can vary according to the type of license. Check with your local driver’s license center.)
For those who wish to obtain a driver’s license in Japan, or need to take a driving test for license transfer, there are driving schools offering courses in English as well as courses for license transfers.
The expressway (Kosoku-doro or Jidoushado, in Japanese) is probably a much quicker option for long distance travel. For the most part, you will have to pay to use them. Charges are either flat-rate or distance-based. For flat-rates, you will have to pay frequently at toll booths along the way, while for distance-based fares you will receive a ticket as you enter, and present this at the toll booth as you leave, alongside the fare. Toll booths are manned or unmanned (ETC), with manned toll booths allowing you to pay by credit card.
To use ETC, first have the ETC system mounted on your car, then use the ETC lanes when entering and exiting the expressways. As a general rule, it is not possible to create an ETC card without a credit card issued in Japan, but for those without one, you can create an ETC card by putting down a deposit and paying an annual fee.
The toll changes depending upon the road and the size of the car. For example, Shuto Expressway (“Shuto-ko”) in an average-sized car will cost you 500 Yen for the first 6km and 100 Yen for each subsequent 6km. On long-distance expressways, such as Tomei, from Tokyo to Gotemba (approx. 84km) will cost 2,500 Yen, while Tokyo to Nagoya (approx. 315km) will cost 6,900 Yen.
Tolls are displayed on the websites for each individual company, and are searchable. Discounts are also available, for example, for traveling at certain times of the day and for using ETC.
Another distinctive feature of Japan’s expressways are its rest stops, known as parking areas (PA) and service areas (SA), with the latter being generally much larger than the former. In the past these areas had toilets, light meals, kiosks, gas stations and information desks, but recently they have come to include places to bathe and sleep, numerous restaurants, shops, cafes and dog runs. The amount of service areas conscious of architectural, interior decorating and hygiene is on the rise, and service areas themselves are becoming something to see while traveling.
In Case of Accidents
- Try to keep the scene as it happened.
- Rescue anyone who is injured.
- Call “119” (Ambulance) if there is anyone injured.
- Call “110” (Police) and tell the location and describe the situation.
- Move the vehicle if it gets in the way of traffic. When doing so, be sure to mark where the vehicle had been before removal.
- Follow the instructions when the police officers arrive.
- Call your insurance company.
If you have a camera with you, take a picture of the scene before you move your car. Also, it may be helpful to keep the contact information of your insurance company with you at all times.
Owning a Car
Buying & Selling
Buying a car involves a lot of paperwork and complicated procedures, but in most cases, for an extra fee, you can have your car dealer do them for you. In order to own a car, you must first find a parking space, and get an Inkan-shomei (seal certificate) or a signature certificate from their embassy. Aftercare, such as guarantee and support services vary depending on the car dealer, so these are some points to compare aside from the pricing. Also, in addition to the car price, you need to pay extra fees such as registration fees, various taxes and car insurance (see section on insurance and taxes).
When you want to get a new car or want to sell your car before you leave Japan, you can go to the car dealer where you bought your car, or alternatively consult a car buyer. The prices range from one place to another, so it may be better to consult several buyers.
Leasing a car is a great way to drive a car without making a large upfront payment. Another feature is that you only pay for the actual usage of the car. Generally, there is no down payment and fees are monthly. Maintenance fee and insurance are included, so the only cost to the driver is gas. When you leave Japan, the lease company will take care of deregistration or sale of the car.
In many cases, Japanese lease companies require a Japanese guarantor and a minimum lease term of 3 years. Also, because you cannot break a lease contract without a cancellation fee, it is important that you understand the penalty and how the fee will be calculated.
There are mainly two kinds of lease, closed-end and open-end. The responsibilities and monthly payments differ depending on which type of lease you sign, so make sure to check the details before signing a contract.
The Jibaiseki-hoken (automobile liability insurance) is a compulsory insurance required for all automobiles, and must be purchased when you buy a car. It covers compensation for damages of expected profit lost due to the injury or death of third parties. The contract is renewed at the time of the vehicle inspection.
Most drivers also purchase the Nin-i-hoken (voluntary insurance), as compulsory insurance has only limited coverage. Voluntary insurance is available online or at car dealers.
Shaken (vehicle inspection system) is a regular check conducted to confirm whether the car meets the safety standards. The initial inspection certificate is effective for three years, and the vehicle must undergo renewal inspections every two years thereafter. Vehicles can be inspected at licensed service shops or at the Transport Bureau. Car maintenance and adjustment may be needed to pass the inspection. Most car dealers have inspection and maintenance services.
Car Related Tax
Various taxes are imposed when you own a car.
- Jidousha-shutoku-zei (acquisition tax) is a 5% tax you pay at the time of purchase of your car.
- Jidousha-zei (automobile tax) is an annual tax you pay the prefecture for owning a car, and an invoice will be sent to your home address every April. Tax rates differ depending on the size of the engine.
- Jidousha-juryou-zei (tonnage tax) is a tax you pay for the weight of your car. This is collected at the time of vehicle inspection.
In order to own a car, you also need to secure a parking space near your house. Parking fees in metropolitan Tokyo range from roughly 30,000 Yen to 50,000 Yen per month. A parking space certificate must be issued when you buy a car.
When parking elsewhere, you must park at designated spaces. You can find paid parking on the road or in a lot. The parking fees are about 300 Yen to 800 Yen per hour. Street parking is prohibited on most of the roads, and may result in a fine. When your car is towed, you will also have to pay commission for the towing. See here for parking at airports.
If you choose to do it yourself at a self service station, the different types of gasoline are indicated by multi-colored nozzles, so please be aware of what they represent.
- Hai-oku (High-octane/Super Premium/Premium): yellow nozzle/nozzle cover
- Regular (Regular-octane/Regular): red nozzle/nozzle cover
- Keiyu (Light Oil/Diesel): green nozzle/nozzle cover
There is a gasoline tax and some stations may list this separately on your receipt.
Here are some useful Japanese phrases when using a full service station.
Japanese: “Hai-oku mantan” Please fill it up using high-octane.
Japanese: “Regular mantan” Please fill it up using regular.
Gas prices have been fluctuating greatly recently, but the average as of October 2012 is about 142 Yen/L for regular gas, 153 Yen/L for high octane, and 121 Yen/L for light oil.
(1L is approximately 0.26 gallon.)
Renting a Car
You can rent a car, as needed, if you do not wish to own your own. Rent-a-car services are reasonably priced in Japan, and you can rent different types of cars depending on your purpose. A small car would be about 6,000 Yen and above for a day, and a van for 7 passengers would be about 20,000 Yen per day.
Some companies have full English support.
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