You’ve probably heard of drones by now. Also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the word ‘drone’ brings to mind all sorts of images; from stealth reconnaissance missions in warring nations all the way to Amazon’s innovative delivery methods.
You’ve also probably seen some cool drone photos or video footage. Drone photography for weddings has been trending lately and people are finding all sorts of other interesting uses for them.
While drones are steadily getting more popular in Japan, many people have a lack of knowledge about the rules and regulations. This is largely due to a language barrier as most of the information that’s out there is on dense-looking government websites, all in Japanese.
So, I thought I’d clear things up once and for all. Fortunately, it’s a lot less complicated than it looks!
1. It is legal to fly a drone in Japan
You might remember when some genius decided to fly a drone full of radioactive sand over the Japanese prime minister’s house. Bad news always sticks. Not surprisingly the Japanese government reacted by creating drone laws.
Since there were no specific hobby drone laws in existence before the incident, when the government passed these new laws it was more of an exercise in laying down some basic ground rules rather than enforcing super strict regulations banning drones from all public areas.
Drones are still absolutely legal to fly in Japan – the laws they passed just make it safer for everyone. You can’t fly over crowds of people over a certain distance, you can’t fly near airports, and you can’t fly in densely populated areas. No flying over power lines and trains, or in public parks. But this is all common sense.
This does mean that Tokyo is pretty much off limits, since there are people, parks, trains and power lines everywhere. But venture outside of the capital and you’ll discover many opportunities to fly freely.
2. You don’t need a license
Being a drone “pilot” sounds cool but maybe seems like an inaccessible skill to learn. In the United States you have to register with the FAA while in other countries there’s reams of paperwork to be done.
But in Japan you actually don’t need any sort of certification or license to fly a drone. You can simply buy one and fly, as long as you’re in a safe fly zone.
If you would like to fly in a restricted zone, you’ll have to get permission from the government. There’s a document that you have to fill out online (飛行許可申請 – hiko kyoka shinsei, in Japanese) and send to them by post.
Last time I tried to get permission there was a three to four week-wait as they were “flooded with requests.” I suggest sending it far in advance. If you are unsure whether or not you can fly at a certain venue then you should simply ask the venue/building owner. Many places are cool with it, especially outside of Tokyo.
3. There’s a free map that shows you where you can fly
Drones are legal and you don’t need a license. Great. So where to fly? Fortunately DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of drones, has made it very easy to check on this dedicated page.
Just type in the place you’d like to go in the top left corner. Red means no-fly zone, and unless you have special permission like above don’t risk it (there’s a hefty fine). As you can see Tokyo is a no-go.
Everywhere else is generally fair game and is a safe-fly zone. But I always recommend checking this before taking your drone out anywhere.
4. Prime Minister Abe is a drone supporter
Prime Minister Abe has been vocal about supporting the drone industry and thinks it’s kind of a big deal. In fact, he sees it as part of the next industrial revolution. He’s created “deregulated zones” where the laws are a bit more lenient. Chiba prefecture is the largest of these zones and might soon be a test facility for Amazon’s drone projects.
E-commerce giant Rakuten has experimented with drone delivery on golf courses, delivering golf balls, food and drinks to golfers. They’ve piloted the service at Camel Golf Course in Chiba but haven’t expanded beyond as far as I know. What I do know is that we’ll soon be able to officially add ‘golf caddie’ to the list of high-risk jobs.
5. Drones are easy to get and easy to fly
Make your way to any electronic retail store in Japan and find an entire section dedicated to drones. I went to both Yodobashi and Bic Camera and the store staff were surprisingly knowledgeable, plus they had a pretty impressive collection of toy drones (don’t fly these when it’s windy) ranging from 2,000 yen all the way up to 800,000 yen for the drone-of-all-drones; the DJI Inspire 2. You can also rent them with my company, SeraNova, for special occasions, trips, or if you just want to try it out first.
Traveling? I’ve been able to transport my drone on airplanes, both in Japan and overseas, with no hassle or issue from customs or security. I always took it as a carry-on rather than put it in the hold as it’s less likely to get damaged.
I’ve owned a few drones now and I’m pretty sure it took me longer to learn how to use a Macbook Air than it did to learn how to fly a DJI Mavic, a popular consumer drone. Plus if you’ve ever played Mario Kart on any game console, you’ll be able to pick it up pretty quickly. The only difference is that it’s actually real and arguably much more fun.
Yep, it’s that easy. Happy flying!