Driving in Japan: What You Need To Know

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Photo by Yamashita Yohei

Japan is full of new experiences for the average foreigner. These experiences can range from the incredibly exciting, to the incredibly mundane. Driving in Japan falls somewhere between the two; getting out on the road for the first time can be a real thrill because the winding roads and the incredible scenery can make the driving fun. Equally, being stuck in traffic because of the 27th red light of your journey can be mundane to the point of infuriating. Either way there is a lot of information you need to know before you get behind the wheel in Japan.

International Drivers Permit

Firstly, before you can get out on the road you will either need to have a Japanese Driver’s License, or an International Drivers Permit (IDP). For your IDP, you will need to apply and receive it in your home country in advance of your stay in Japan. The IDP lasts for one year from the date of issue and makes it legal for you to drive anywhere in Japan for the length of the permit. Not every country has an agreement with Japan about driving so it would be best to check your own country’s embassy for more details. If you can get an IDP though, it is an ideal way to make sure you can drive during your stay in Japan and costs relatively little to receive making it the perfect choice for tourists or short stay travellers.

Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

Getting your Japanese Driver’s License can be a little more complex and difficult. First of all, again if you are from a country that has an agreement with Japan (the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and large parts of Europe do) then you can go to the Japanese Driving Centre with a certified translation of your home country licence, and after a quick interview with an official at the centre you will be issued with your new Japanese driver’s license (in all with fees included it will costs in the region of 10000 yen).

Most countries though, do not have this arrangement in place (the USA does not) and these people will be required to take the actual Japanese Driving exam. The exam is made to be difficult and the Japanese average for passing the test is four attempts. Each attempt costs around 5000 yen, so be sure to save up some money in advance if you have to take it. Also be aware that your driving examiner is unlikely to speak English and if you do not speak Japanese you will need to make appropriate arrangements.

So once you pass your test then great it’s time to get out on the road. Well almost, but not before a note on insurance. In Japan all cars must have insurance and it is illegal to drive without it. If you rent a car usually the cost of the insurance is added into the rental, but if you buy your own car it will be up to you to set up your own insurance. Be Warned!

So now you are ready to get behind the wheel. Here are four tips to help you acclimatize yourself to the new experience of driving in Japan.

Flash your Hazard lights for Thank you

Japanese drivers for the most part are kind and patient with each other. There is often no need to be too aggressive when pulling out because other motorists will happily let you go if they see you. As in most countries though, you should acknowledge this good deed with a gesture. In Japan this means either a polite bow of the head if the other driver can see you, or switching on your hazard lights for a few seconds if they can’t. Flashing your hazard lights may sound counter intuitive but the other driver will definitely appreciate it.

Stop at all Train Tracks

You already knew this but Japan is full of trains. This means that Japan is also full of train tracks for cars to cross. So far, so obvious. What you may not know though, is that by law each and every time you cross a train track you are required to bring your vehicle to a complete stop and look left and right before crossing. This is an important law and one that Japanese Police spends time enforcing, so next time you are at a train tracks, stop!

Running Red Lights is Standard Practice

As I’ve already implied Japan has a lot of traffic lights. If you are coming from a European country, you will definitely notice just how often you are required to stop and wait in comparison to your home country. You will also quickly notice that Japanese drivers love to drive through traffic light on amber, and will often even run the first second or two of a red light if they think they can get away with it. It’s standard practice in Japan, and whilst I do not encourage this type of driving behaviour, it is important to know for your own safety. Don’t speed off too quickly even if the light is green because you never know who may be trying to sneak through.

You Can’t Turn Left On A Red Light

And finally, for all our North American drivers; in Japan a red light means red. You cannot turn left on a red light just because there is no traffic coming through. This may be acceptable in your home country but in Japan, unfortunately, it is against the law.

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Karaoke pro living in Fukuoka.
  • b_daeck says:

    Just some things to add to driving on highways…
    •You’re legally allowed to exceed the speed limit up to 20km/h on a highway when you’re in the overtaking lane and you’re trying to overtake an other car.
    •Yes, most Japanese drivers drive over the speed limit on highways (often 120~, some cars go 150~), but be aware of undercover cops patrolling the highway.
    (*Most of the times they ride a Toyota Crown)

    Experienced drivers will identify them and slow down… so when other cars suddenly start slowing down to the speed limit and the overtaking lane is strangely open, think twice before putting your pedal to the metal because there is a strong possibility that there’s an undercover patrol car running ahead of you.

    (*From my experience I often see them in an 80km/h limit-zone)

    When you’re caught exceeding the speed limit by over 40 on highways and by over 30 on other roads, your driver’s license will be suspended.

  • kujirakira says:

    Yes. It’s much like US where you’ll find a few no-barrier crossings out in the countryside but otherwise the little arms and flashing lights are standard.
    I’ve never seen everyone stop for a railroad crossing in Japan … or police be sticklers about it… but situation is different in various areas. It’s a bigger more diverse country than people give it credit for.

    • Sik says:

      Oh, only a few, that makes more sense. There are some of those here (Argentina) too but people don’t stop and it’s kind of pointless, if you arrive the barrier (which you can still see the sign from a distance) and you aren’t hearing the train then it’s pretty much safe to cross. (you can hear the train from a distance and it’ll also sound the horn when it’s getting close)

      I guess it may still be a good idea to stop if you’re deaf (though foliage may be prone to hide an incoming train, making it kind of pointless), but otherwise you can tell just from sound alone.

  • Diego Garcia says:

    I disagree with the point made about international drivers license. I am currently in Japan and from Europe. I haven’t changed my EU license for a Japanese license yet, because I didn’t need it for now. However, this week I wanted to rent a car, ideally for long-term 1 month. Man o man what have I learned how racist Japanese can be. Even if the website of a rental company says “daijobe” ok for IDL you still might run into the problem that each branch wherever located sets its own rules often times, and simply disprove foreigners coming in with an IDL paper. I even booked already a car over the net, but decided to double check with the office here in Sumida Tokyo to see if everything was ok. Well, good thing I went because they turned me down immediately when they found out I had an IDl.

    I booked through NicoNico and also informed at 100 Yen rental, both very PRO JAPANESE even if you have a resident card like me. Obviously this is a game where they let proper residents benefit great deals and lower prices for renting than for us foreigners who have to go to the major dealers like Nissan, Toyota, Herz, Nippon, etc. Also, most branches do not speak a word of English which makes it even double frustrated. Now I know I need to be the one to adjust and able to speak Japanese, but Japanese tend to use very difficult Kanji letters and never translate their website properly in a simplified manner so novice Japanese speakers/learners can actually understand what is written and going on.

    Japan might be super efficient in one way, but I can name at least 100 points that do not make sense and it clearly shows their nationalism and bigotry towards non-Japanese people.

  • Defalterman says:

    I think some Japanese drives with their f… assess or other way I cannot explain their driving skills

  • Nathan Shanan Crookes says:

    Watch out for old people!They are the ones who are careless on Japanese roads not the young people. And im not just talking about drivers Im also talking about old ladies walking across the road at random with no warning with out a care in the world and old men cycling on the wrong side of the road (knowingly) and if they get hit -even if they are at fault- you the driver takes full blame. Sorry to say this one last thing but old ladies are the worst drivers and old men are the rudest drivers in Japan!

  • Kaytea Miyagi says:

    The author means it in the same way as turning right in North America. Since japanese drive on the left, left turn at a red light would be equal to turning right at a red light in North America. 🙂

  • Barry Jeffers says:

    If you hit someone on a bicycle. IT IS YOUR FAULT. High school boy dressed completely in black darts out from between two parked cars at midnight? YOUR FAULT. The message is clear. Be on the lookout.

  • Elizabeth says:

    The exchange process is definitely easier than sitting a test, but it may take more than a brisk stop-off at the driving centre. I was exchanging a Canadian license and was caught out the first time by not having a certificate of residence (Jumin-hyo) issued from my ward office in addition to my residence card, and a driver abstract (3 year record) from the Ontario Ministry of Transport. The latter document wasn’t listed on the application form, so it’s worth calling the test centre (or asking someone else to) to check the paperwork you need.

    I also had to prove I’d been a resident in Canada for three months after getting my license. In theory, this should have been straight forward: I’d lived there for two years. However, they are very fussy about what they’ll accept. I brought along my apartment rental contract for one of the two years but they went through every stamp in my passport to check this lined up with a 3 month continuous visit. While it did in theory, Canada didn’t always stamp my passport when I returned from the USA (which was a short drive from where I lived). The upshot was that the only confirmed three month period according to my passport stamps was on the different year from the rental contract. This made me look like I’d led a much more exciting life than I had, and was simultaneously deeply annoying. In the end, they accepted prove that I’d been medically insured by the Ontario Government during that key three month period and waved me through: but it was close.

    The driving test centre was also out of town (I live in Sapporo), I needed an appointment to go, they were only open weekdays and the whole process took over 6 hours (although the above kerfuffle about residence slowed it down).

    So, thumbs up for this being the easiest option but …. brace yourself.

  • Vamp898 says:

    > Most countries though, do not have this arrangement in place
    Most countries do, just not the USA and some others. You are not the worlds Center, get over it.

    • Moogiechan says:

      Part of the problem is that in the US, licenses are issued by the states, not at the federal level. So, Japan would have to enter into an agreement with 50 entities (they’d want the same license exchange privilege for Japanese in the US), which is not worth their time.

    • Spike says:

      The countries are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan and South Korea. That is not even near most of the countries in the world.

      I have no idea how you took the word “most” in that entire article and managed to find a way to mindlessly spew your hatred. If anyone needs to “get over it”, it’s you.

  • Kathryn Sanday says:

    I too used to drive fast on the Highway, like everyone else, but I didn’t know about the speeding cameras. You get a ticket in the post a week later, then have to go to the police station in the prefecture where you were speeding, pay a fine (120,000 yen) and lose your license for 3 months:( Speeding cameras are preceded by 2 white signs 500 -2000 metres apart and a sign tells you which lane the camera is aimed at, activated over 100 kms per hour)

    • kujirakira says:

      They’re different by prefecture. The signs are also different by prefecture.
      In Western Japan they seem to be triggered over 120kmph. I got an 80,000 ticket clocked at 152 (was going 180+).
      That’s when I decided to learn how to read. Still went 180+ in that Laurel, but no more tickets.
      Gotta watch for the cops up there too… the all-white sedans with a large thick antenna in the trunk are the biggest danger. Occasionally you’ll see a police car get on, raise his lights a couple meters up, and go exactly 80 (or whatever the posted limit is). Scores of cars will line up behind them — all in the left lane. Presumably anyone who passes gets pulled over? But I’ve seen a few brave it going 1 or 2 kmph faster and nothing happens. After awhile, they’ll exit and it’s literally like watching the start of a Super GT…

      • Kathryn Sanday says:

        I always pass them because the other drivers are too close together…an accident waiting to happen. I also have a gold license now!!! 3 weeks after a sneaky speeding ticket but DLC hadn’t been notified so I got the prized license 🙂

  • Joe Peters says:

    You can turn left on red if there is a white sign with a blue arrow pointing left. These spots are limited though.

    Insurance can be, and often is, sold by the car dealer which makes the process easy.

    If buying a car you must prove that you have a parking space available. No parking space, no car.

  • Bradley Temperley says:

    May I add some?
    1. Almost everyone drives at 100-120km/h on toll roads despite a speed limit of 70-80km/h. My record is 150km/h and I was overtaken by two cars like I was standing still. Keep up. But if the traffic slows, use those hazard lights to warn drivers behind you.
    2. Turn off headlights when waiting in traffic. Not sure if there is one reason for this: saves energy, reduces glare / polite to other drivers.
    3. Toll attendants might look 70 years old, but they are fast. Hold coins between index and middle fingers and drop them into the attendant’s palm. At the same time take the receipt with thumb and little finger. The car behind will expect you to stop for 1/2 second.
    4. Old ladies on bicycles won’t move to the left to allow you to pass; they will jump off their bikes and walk to the kerb. Be ready to stop.
    5. On multi-lane roads, keeping to the left when not overtaking is not common practice. Some exits are on the right, especially on inner-city elevated roads. So overtake on the left, but be careful.
    6. Brush up on your parking skills. Mini car parks demand attention. You are generally expected to reverse park. You can fit in unfeasibly-small spaces if you just try.
    7. Expect cyclists to ride on any side of the road in any direction at any time or the day or night. Just leave space.
    8. Enjoy. It is a lovely place to drive.

    • kietero says:

      Some things to add to this as well, some things to take away… The downside to driving in Japan…

      Numbers 4 and 7 are actually illegal and the police are starting to enforce these laws. Cyclists who jump off their bikes in the middle of the road willingly put themselves in great danger when they do so. This also goes for anyone who cycles instead of drives… If a cop sees you, you will get the ticket.
      Number 7 is especially illegal. I stop my car because I refuse to swerve into oncoming traffic just so I can yield to someone coming at me head-on. It sucks for everyone else behind me but it will especially suck for the cyclist if I ram into him. Japan recently changed the driving rules, relieving drivers of responsibility if there is a head-on collission like this. However, for foreigners, it is very difficult to prove your innocence. You have that bruden/stigma on you so don’t go playing chicken with people cycling on the wrong side of the road. Just because technically you can get away with it doesn’t mean that you should press your luck and end someone’s life.
      Again, 7 applies to anyone also who rides a bike. The police consider your bike a road vehicle and is technically NOT allowed on the sidewalk, except in Tokyo Prefecutre (only, from what I’m told). As a result, you are expected to go on green, stop on red, not cross into traffic lanes illegally, not ride on the wrong side of the road, not wear headphones, that sort of thing. When you go around busses, you must go around them with the cars. Crossing on the unloading side of the bus is illegal.
      Aside from all that, I, personally, record my driving. LIke I said, as a foriegner, you are automatically guilty in a traffic accident even if you clearly weren’t at fault. The police will cite you as at-fault, just because. I set my smartphone up to capture each driving session, no matter how short the distance is. As the original poster said above, driving includes having to deal with people running red lights, though I think he was conservative on his time estimates. I’ve seen people run red lights well past establishment time, when the opposing light was a “true green.” As a result, I take nothing for granted and I take the extra 10 seconds to set up my cell phone as a drive recorder (drive recorders are standard on some new model cars here as well so I’m not totally wierd here). It’s a good way to show the police officer exactly what happened – and it doesn’t lie. If you’re truly guilty, the officer will see it. If you’re not at fault, the officer will see it. It leaves no doubt.
      As for the driving test, the article is 100% right. It’s super rare for any foreigner to pass the test on the first try. In fact, most police officers will fail you, even if you were flawless, just because. I took my test twice because I missed one critical, yet really stupid, thing. So I went to a driving school, which cost about JPY 10,000 for an hour, and the instructor took me on a course and taught me what the police will be looking for on the test. It was real helpful and the next time I took the test, the police officer didn’t hesitate to pass me. Doing a driving course for an hour is well worth it.
      Last thing to note: this is for us Americans, I’m not sure how it is in other countries. Police drive with their lights on when they’re on patrol. When a cruiser gets behind you, red lights flashing, do not panic! They’ll actually siren and announce to you to pull over if you’ve broken a law. Just go the limit, hands at 10 and 2, and keep your head on a swivel, use your winker uselessly if need be… they’re watching you but they’re also looking around as well, on patrol. But you’re not directly in trouble – that’s how they roll here.
      I think that about covers it…

      • Bradley Temperley says:

        Regarding keeping to the left, I should have made it obvious that Japan drives on the left, just like Australia.

        There may also be a bias towards passing foreigners from left hand traffic countries. A foreigner could almost ‘convert’ a full licence to a Japanese licence about 10-20 years ago, but I think that has now been restricted to certain countries.

        Quid pro quo, in ACT at least, a Japanese full licence can be converted to an Australian licence after passing a computer test; no driving test required.

        Bicycle riding and parking is now being enforced more… forcefully. However, this would generally be parts of big cities; not across the board. It pains me slightly as a cyclist to say that many cyclists in Japan aren’t good road users. Though I did take advantage of the otherwise lax approach to enforcement to ride a scooter, without a helmet, along the roads and footpaths of Kyoto to follow my wife would was running in the event this year. Scooted past the Tokyo and Kyoto Imperial Palaces!

        I have a book from about 2003 with all of the police patrol cars types, uniforms, speed traps and practices. There is even a table listing police car models and number plates (some partial) and the roads that they patrol! And a review of radar detectors. I bought it in a perfectly legitimate bookshop.

    • Anthony Joh says:

      Great info! Thanks for adding it.

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