A Complete Beginner's Guide To Driving in Japan - Rules of the Road, How To Get Licensed, and More!
Yes, you can drive around in Japan, and no, it's not difficult! Here we go over the important differences between driving in Japan and the rest of the world, walk through how to get your license and a car, explain what to do in an emergency, and drop a few tips learned from first-hand driving experience in Japan. This guide to driving in Japan is useful whether you live here, or you're just visiting on holiday!
Sep 04 2020 (Sep 18 2020)
To Drive or Not To Drive While in Japan
When you think of Japan and transportation, driving is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Bullet trains and crowded subways may be the sleek and popular way to get around, but the humble car still exists. If you plan on going anywhere outside of the city, the car quickly becomes the easiest and most convenient way to get around. With a car, you don’t need to fuddle with rural train schedules or infrequent busses, but can rather spend that time exploring and moving at your own pace. If you live in Japan or plan on visiting the country, don’t pass up on driving. Take note of the differences, get yourself a license, and go out and explore!
Driving in Japan: The Important Differences
These are the differences to take note of when driving in Japan. Some are big, like the direction of traffic. Others are quite small, like when the right turn signal appears on traffic lights. All of these are important to commit to memory. That being said, all will come quite naturally after a day or two on the road.
Japan drives on the left, full stop. If you’re from a right side-country (i.e. a hard majority of the world), you’ll need to reorient yourself to be able to drive on the left. This means the steering wheel will be on the opposite side of the car and your turn signal/wipers will also be switched (be prepared to accidentally turn on your wipers quite a few times). When driving, your short turn will be left and your cross-traffic turn right. It takes a few days and several wrongly-opened doors to make the switch, but when you do, it becomes second nature. Despite being one of the biggest changes when driving in Japan, it’s one of the least difficult to overcome.
Unique Rules of the Japanese Road
For the most part, the rules you follow in your home country apply when driving in Japan, there are only a few unique cases that you have to keep in mind.
1. Stop at all railroad crossings. Similar to school buses in America, when you come to a railroad crossing, all traffic must treat it as a stop sign. You come up to the crossing, stop, look both ways for train traffic, and then proceed. The railroad signals will do a good job of telling you when a train is actually coming, but it serves as an extra precaution in case they’re not working or buggy for some reason. This rule may seem to slow down traffic unnecessarily, but considering the number of trains and their regularity in Japan, it's just safer.
2. No left on red. This depends on where you come from of course, but in Japan left on red (equivalent to right on red in right hand-driving countries) is not allowed. You can only go when the light is green or if you’re given a green arrow. Red means stop.
The only exception to this rule is if there is a rectangular blue sign with a white arrow pointing left, as shown below. This sign indicates that a left turn is okay, regardless of what the traffic light says. However, it is still necessary to come to a full stop and check the traffic before making the turn.
3. Red lights and green arrows. This one is confusing when you see it for the first time. If you see a traffic light with both a green arrow pointing in the direction you’re going and a red light, this means to keep going in your direction but only in your direction. The red light applies to all other turns, left/right. In general, when you see a green arrow, the direction it is pointing is allowed no matter what the rest of the light displays.
Japan drives slow, and in some cases, really slow. This is especially true in comparison to America, where everything from residential streets to highways will be 10-20 mph faster than Japan. Even on the Japanese tollway, you’re not allowed to go very fast. Be very careful with your speed and keep an eye on both the speed of the traffic around you as well as speed limit signs.
The sign on the left above denotes the maximum speed limit, while the sign on the right with the line below the number denotes the minimum speed limit (this sign is rarer to see). The low speed limits on Japanese roads may be annoying, and indeed it does make going places take a long time, but it’s a precaution for Japan’s tiny and often winding roads. There are roads where two-way traffic is allowed despite only one car being able to fit, along with many blind turns and hidden alleyways all of which will contain cars. It’s safer and gives you more time to react in case of danger.
Japanese Traffic Signs
Although most of these are pictorial, some may be hard to parse when driving on the road. Take time to familiarize yourself with them before taking to the streets.
Japanese stop signs are red, triangular, and have the word 止まれ (tomare) written on them. The English word will also sometimes be included, but not always.
Like the stop sign, the slow sign will sometimes include English but oftentimes will only show the Japanese word 徐行 (jokou). When you see this sign, slow the vehicle to 10 km/hr or less so that you can stop suddenly if necessary.
Do Not Enter
Confusingly, there are 3 different do-not-enter signs that indicate that you shouldn't turn down a particular street. Especially in the city, where the roads are narrow, one-way streets are quite common. If you see any of the above signs, don't make the mistake of going down that street.
Not to be confused with the do not enter signs above, the no parking signs (the two signs on the left) can be distinguished by their blue backgrounds. This blue color reflects the much rarer parking allowed sign (above on the right). Unlike in many other countries, streets allowing street parking are quite uncommon in Japan outside of the rural countryside. In general, expect to park in a metered parking lot if parking in the city. However, if you see a sign like the one in the photo above, street parking is allowed within the time designated (in the case of the sign above, parking is allowed for a maximum of 60 minutes from 8:00 am to 8:00 pm).
The above sign denotes that a street has one-directional traffic. On such a street, you can drive straight down the middle without worry that someone will come from the other direction (but watch out for bicycles, who are usually exempt from the restriction).
These are the critical road signs to know, but take a look at the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) webpage for more detailed traffic rules, and scroll down to the traffic sign section for an overview of all the most important signs.
The Less Important Differences of Driving in Japan
These differences are important to keep in mind as well, but they’re more a ‘heads up!’ than things that need to be committed to memory.
The Dedicated Right Turn Signal at Traffic Lights Occurs Last, Not First
This is the opposite of America, where the equivalent left turn signal occurs first in the traffic light cycle. In Japan, if you’re waiting at an intersection to go right, once the light changes to red you’ll be given a chance to turn right. That way there's no need to rush out of the intersection. Similarly, if you think you’re going to miss a light and intend to turn right, you don’t need to speed up to make it as you’ll be given a chance when it changes.
There Are Two Kinds of Gas Stations
It may seem a bit old fashioned, but in Japan, there are both self-service gas stations and full-service gas stations. Look out for the katakana [セルフ] when going to a gas station if you prefer to do it yourself. If you go to a full-service station, they will walk up to your window and ask you what type of gas and how much you want to put into your tank. Saying “regular” and either “full” or “mantan” will get you a full tank of regular gas.
Parking Lots Trap Your Car
If you park at any paid outdoor parking area (not garages) in Japan, they will trap your car until you pay. The way they work is each parking space has a metal mechanism that waits for your car to pull over it. Once you pull over it (and park your car), after about five minutes of waiting, the mechanism will open and a metal bar will come out at an angle, trapping your car. If you try to pull away while this metal bar is up, you’ll do a great job of either destroying your fender or possibly breaking something important. Don’t do this. After you’ve finished parking, you will go to a small automated kiosk where you will punch in your parking space number and pay however much you owe. The mechanism will lower, and you will have a grace period to pull your car out. Do make sure to pull your car out in time, because at some point the sensors will reset and raise the bar if your car is still in the parking space.
The Tollway is Expensive, Freeways Are For Commuters
If you’re going to drive long-distance in Japan and would like to do so in a reasonable amount of time, you might consider the toll road. The toll roads in Japan were built and are currently owned by a private company, so they are immaculately maintained and a breeze to drive on. However, in turn, they are extraordinarily pricy. Unlike other countries, where you may consider driving as the cheaper albeit longer option, driving is often both the longer and more expensive option in Japan.
Expect the price of tolls to be about the same as the train for the same distance, and in some cases, a plane ride for the same distance. As an example, driving on toll roads from Tokyo to Osaka costs about 12,000 yen and takes more than 5 hours (with no delays, which is basically unheard of). Add to that the cost of gasoline, and it becomes more expensive than a shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Osaka, which costs 14,720 yen and takes just two and a half hours.
What you gain by driving, of course, is the freedom to stop where and when you want. The more people riding in the car, too, the more economical it becomes. It should also be noted that you don’t have to take the tollway, as there are plenty of free roads in Japan. However, there is no real freeway system, like in some other countries, where you can easily travel long distances toll free. There are local freeways, and roads that act as links across prefectures, but these are often there to host commuter traffic between cities/towns and not long-distance travelers. Taking these as opposed to the tollway will often double, or in some cases, triple the length of your drive.
If you do plan on taking the toll road, there are two ways to pay for it. The first is to use a ticket. When you pull up to the toll booth to enter the highway, go into the lane that doesn't say "ETC." Pull up to the booth and take a ticket. When you exit the highway, you will return the ticket and pay its fee (be sure to bring cash with you!). You can also use an "ETC" card, which is what the ETC lane is for. This is an automatic payment system tied to your credit card, and usually only of interest to people who live in Japan long-term/expect to use the highway a lot.
Unlike the rules of the road or the big/small differences above, the rules below are not mandatory to remember. However, these are often good habits, and most Japanese drivers will practice them when they drive.
Reverse Into Parking Spaces
Japanese people are taught to back into parking spaces, as opposed to pulling in and then backing out. A good majority of people do this. When trying to park in Japan, you’ll often see cars pull past the space they want only to suddenly stop and reverse into it, which, if you’re not prepared for it, may catch you off guard. If you’re not comfortable backing into spaces, you don’t have to. However, when parking in a busy place, be wary of other drivers who will be doing this.
Apply the Parking Brake When Parking
Due to the often hilly terrain in Japan, people are taught to always use the parking brake when parking, making it the last thing you apply before turning off your car. Similarly, when starting your car, it is the last thing to be adjusted before driving off.
Hazard Lights Have Many Uses
In Japan, the hazard lights get used much more frequently than in other countries. One of their most important uses is to warn drivers behind you if you need to slow down suddenly on the tollway (as will almost inevitably happen if driving long distances, as traffic jams are quite common).
Another common use that is more curtesy than necessity is to communicate gratitude to the driver behind you. If you let someone in, they will thank you by flashing their hazard lights several times as opposed to simply waving. This is the standard form of showing gratitude on the road. If someone lets you in, try to remember to thank them with your hazards!
The Right Lane Is for Passing
In tandem with driving on the left, when on a multilane road the furthest right is for passing traffic. You can use it to drive faster than the traffic on the left, but it's bad form to continually sit in it. Rather, use it to get ahead of traffic in the left lane and when you’re done passing, go back into the left lane. It’s a tool to be used, not to be hogged.
Orange Mirrors Are for Looking Around Corners
This is on the border between being a rule and good practice. A ubiquitous sighting in Japan are orange roadside mirrors. Japanese roads are often tiny, windy, and rarely straight. This introduces a ton of blind spots, tight turns, and fog-of-war, so to speak. At many turns and intersections in Japan, large convex mirrors will be placed at the corner. Use them to look around corners so as not to be surprised by traffic. These are especially useful in cities with walls close to the street or when traveling on mountain roads, which often have sharp corners and steep drops where cars can easily hide.
Beginners, Old Folks, and Rental Cars Are Easy to Spot
In Japan, new drivers, elderly drivers, disabled drivers, and hearing-impaired drivers can be identified by various stickers placed on the back of their vehicles. The idea behind such stickers is to warn other drivers and encourage kinder driving (although hopefully you'll be driving kindly regardless of the stickers on the cars around you). If you get a Japanese driver's license by using a license from another country that you've held for less than one year, you will also have to place the beginner's sticker on your car for the first year that you have your license. The various stickers and their meanings are as follows:
It is also possible to glean some information about a car based on the license plate. Japanese license plates have a character before the 4-digit number. If the character is a わ (wa), that means that the car is a rental. If the character is a Y or A, that means the car belongs to U.S. military personnel. In addition, if a license plate is yellow-colored, that means that the vehicle is a "kei jidosha," meaning the engine is 600 cc or smaller. It isn't necessary to know this information, but it might help to explain some of the things you will see on the road, like why a certain car is driving slower than others around it.
Driving in Japan: Licenses
In order to drive in Japan, you either need an international driving permit or a Japanese driver’s license. Neither is particularly hard to get, but there are still some steps and work involved.
International Driving Permits
This is the easiest way to drive in Japan. As long as you attain an international driving permit in one of the following countries, you will be allowed to drive in Japan. Each country has a slightly different procedure when obtaining an international driving permit, but a quick Google search will point you in the right direction. Keep in mind, though, that international driving permits are valid for one year only. This is fine if you’re only visiting Japan as a tourist. If it expires and you want to visit and drive in Japan again, you can always apply for a new permit, which will again be valid for another year.
However, if you’re planning on living in Japan long term, it’s best to switch over to a Japanese license as soon as possible. According to Japanese law, you can only use an international driving permit if you have been living in the issuing country for at least two months prior to applying. This means that if your International License expires while in Japan, you cannot simply apply for a new one by mail, receive it in Japan, and start driving again. You must go back home, wait two months, reapply, and then return to Japan.
Basically, an International Driver's License gives you a year to get a Japanese Driver’s License.
Getting a Japanese Driver’s License
Luckily, getting a Japanese license isn’t that big of a deal if you already have a license from another country (the same can't be said for people starting from scratch). There are some steps involved that can be a bit tedious, but it's relatively straightforward. It will take some time though, so if you intend to get one it’s best to start the process right away.
The first thing you need is a valid license. An expired license cannot be transferred to a Japanese license. Similarly, you need to have held the license for at least three months prior to having come to Japan. If your license doesn’t meet either requirement, then you’ll need to go through the full process of getting a Japanese license. This will mean applying to a driving school and taking a full course, which will be very pricey and take quite a bit of time.
The next step will be to translate your license into Japanese. Some embassies will do this, but more often than not you will need to go to your local Japan Auto Federation (JAF) office and have them translate it for you. This will cost you ￥3000 and take about half a day (although it could take much longer if you live somewhere like Okinawa, so plan ahead).
You will also need to go to your local city hall and get a copy of your “juminhyo” (certificate of residence). This is a document that just tells the licensing center that you officially live where you say you live. This won’t be more than ￥300.
After this, you will need to go to your local licensing center. Most prefectures will have one or two. You will need to bring with you the following:
- Residence card
- Your valid foreign driver’s license
- Proof that you lived in the country where your license was issued for at least three months (if the information cannot be verified from your other documents)
- Japanese translation of foreign driver’s license
- Two passport-style photos
- International driving permit (if you still have one)
- Money (about 5,000 yen) for the fee
- Corrective lenses (if required on your driver’s license)
Once you’re at the center, and after you’ve paid and signed up to change your license, you will go through a process that will take roughly half a day (expect it to take longer if in Tokyo). If you are from one of the countries that have a license reciprocity agreement with the Japanese government, all you need to do is fill out the paperwork and wait for your Japanese license to be printed. There is no need to take any test, written or practical. The countries lucky enough to get this exemption are:
Iceland, Ireland, United States of America (only licenses from Hawaii, Virginia, Washington, and Maryland), United Kingdom, Italy, Austria, Australia, Netherlands, Canada, South Korea, Greece, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Slovenia, Czech, Denmark, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Hungary, Finland, France, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, Monaco, Luxembourg, and Taiwan.
For people from other countries, it's a bit tricker. First, you will be interviewed. This interview will be very short and most likely in Japanese, but all they’ll ask you about is what you did to get your license in your home country, how long you drove for, what classes you took, etc. It’s very basic and nothing to be worried about. (If you don't speak Japanese, you can bring a Japanese friend to help you).
Second, you will take a written test, available in 11 different languages, including English. Again, this will be very basic. You will be asked a series of true or false questions about situations on the road. The situations will be along the lines of “what to do at red lights” or “can you park here or not?” If you’ve driven on the road before, you can easily pass. If you're unsure about the test, you can get the JAF's book on the rules of the road for about 1,000 yen.
Finally comes the practical driving exam, which is the most difficult part of getting your license. It is not unheard of for people to fail it once or twice before passing. The test will take place on a driving course and will have been pre-mapped before you arrive. Therefore, you can study the map and memorize the route before attempting it (this is highly recommended).
The course will take you through a variety of situations you will see on the road, such as making right-hand turns at intersections, crossing hills, stopping at railroads, making crank-turns on tight roads, etc. Your instructor will direct you the whole way through. What they are most looking for when testing you is whether or not you keep left, drive slowly, check your mirrors and blind spots, and signal properly. During tight turns, you’re actually allowed to fall off the road into the gutter one time, provided you properly back up onto the road again. It may seem a little strict, but if you take things slowly, and do it by the book, it’s no more difficult than driving on a real road. Be careful, confident (but not overly confident) and you should finish the 10-minute drive with flying colors.
Getting a Car
Renting a Car in Japan
Cars for rent are readily available in Japan from a number of large companies. As most of these companies target foreign tourists, their websites will not only be in English but also allow for online reservations. To rent a car in Japan, you must be over 18 years and have a valid Japanese license or international driving permit. However, renting can be a bit pricey, especially in comparison with using trains and public transportation. If you only plan to stick to the big cities, you’re better off without a car.
If you want to travel to more rural locations or prefer the privacy of vehicles, then expect to pay anywhere from 5,000 yen per day for a subcompact to 15,000 yen for a full-sized vehicle. Add to that the cost of insurance (highly recommended so you don't have to pay a large out of pocket fee in the case of damage to the car), and gasoline and you can expect to pay around 8,000 yen per day for a compact car.
Some of the major nation-wide car rental companies include Nippon Rent-A-Car, Toyota Rent a Car, Times Car Rental, and Nissan Rent a Car. The prices at these companies will be fairly comparable and the cars will be new and reliable. However, there are also a few budget rental car companies that offer substantially cheaper rental cars, one of the most well-known of which is called Niko Niko Rent a Car. However, many of the budget options only rent to people with a Japanese license and don't have information in English. If you can speak Japanese and have a Japanese license, however, you'll save a lot of money by going this route.
Keep the time of year in mind when planning to rent a car, and be sure to reserve months in advance if you hope to get a car on a public holiday, as most car rental companies will be fully booked during major holiday periods.
As a note, rental cars in Japan will come with GPS installed on the dashboard. For tourists, most of these will be in English to allow for easy navigation of Japan’s often tricky roads.
Living in Japan: Lease, Buy, Rent, or Car Share?
If you think you will want or need to drive frequently while in Japan, you have a few options to consider.
First, you could consider getting your own car. If you will only be in Japan for a year or two, you’re probably best off leasing a car as opposed to buying one. When you lease a car, you forgo many of the charges that would come from vehicle ownership, such as the oft-dreaded “shaken,” or mandatory vehicle inspection. If you don't mind driving a second-hand vehicle, however, you'll definitely want to consider buying a used car. In general, used items are not very desirable to Japanese people, so used cars can be purchased at very cheap prices. Check out a website like Gulliver Frima for a taste of just how cheap a used car can be obtained.
If you plan to live in Japan for more than two years, then (even with shaken considered) it becomes cheaper to purchase a car than to lease one. Ultimately, it’s up to you and how much you want to spend vs. how much responsibility you want to have for your vehicle.
If you think you'll only be driving occasionally on the weekends, however, it is likely much more affordable to rent or use a car share service than to own your own car and pay for parking and other fees. For those living in the city, a convenient option is Times Car Share, which costs a small monthly fee to join and gives users access to any of the company's thousands of cars parked in lots around the country. You can reserve a nearby car for as long as you need it using the app or website and unlock it by scanning your membership card. The fee is based on the time and mileage that you drive but includes the cost of fuel. If you just need to take a quick trip across town or make a shopping run to a large store outside the city, this is a great option. For longer or multiple-day trips, however, renting a car from a traditional car rental company will be cheaper.
If you think you will only need to drive a few times every month, skillfully combining your options of car rental and car share can be much less expensive than owning a car while still being very convenient.
Emergencies: What To Do If You Run Into Trouble On the Road
What To Do In the Case of an Accident
Handling an accident in Japan is much the same as handling an accident in another country. Follow these steps:
- Make sure everyone is okay. If anyone has a serious injury, call an ambulance right away by dialing 119. If you don't speak Japanese, the operator will connect you to someone who speaks English, so stay on the line until you are connected.
- Take steps to prevent a second accident. Turn on the hazard lights. If the vehicle can still be used, move it to the left side of the road. Set up reflector triangles and/or flares (usually located in the trunk) 50 meters behind the vehicle to warn traffic, and stand away from the road.
- Call the police. Dial 110 to report the accident to the police. As with the 119 number, if you don't speak Japanese, wait for the operator to connect you to an English speaker. It is required by law that you contact and wait for the police in the case of an accident, so be sure not to skip this step. Once the police arrive, answer their questions and follow their instructions.
- Exchange information with other parties involved with the accident. Request the name, address, and contact information of the other driver, and record the license plate number of their vehicle. This information might end up being important when communicating with the insurance company or if you need to contact the other party directly in the future.
- Contact your insurance company or rental company (in the case of a rental car) to let them know what happened and arrange a tow truck, if necessary.
What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down
If your car breaks down suddenly on the road, take the following steps.
- Turn on your hazard lights and pull over to the far left side of the road.
- If there are flames coming out of the hood, call the fire department right away by dialing 119.
- Set up the reflector triangles and/or flare found in the trunk of the car 50 meters behind your car to warn other drivers of the hazard.
- Contact your insurance company or rental company (in the case of a rental car) to let them know what happened and arrange a tow truck.
Now That You Have a Car and a License, Where To Go?
If you’re coming to Japan, driving is something you should highly consider. Despite its incredibly robust public transportation infrastructure, there is plenty of Japan that is just beyond the reach of the trains. With a car, not only are you able to experience the far and the wide, but also the comfort and the beauty that only Japan’s roads can offer. I’ve said it to many of my friends, but Japan is built for road-trips. Consider going out into the countryside and camping, or seek out one of those unpolluted starry sky views. If you've been driving a lot, drop by one of Japan's famous "michi-no-eki's," or roadside stations for some local food and other goodies.
All in all, don't pass up driving in Japan. It's a wonderful way to get around a wonderful country!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.