Buying a card, getting a license, and driving in Japan are all somewhat complex (especially if you’re from a non-Commonwealth country). The following resources will help you navigate the process.
Buying and Registering a Car
If you buy a car from a dealer they will take care of the process of registering your parking spot and the car, then deliver the vehicle to your home. If you choose to buy privately, you may need to complete this process yourself (unless you pay a mechanic to complete the process).
What type of car should I buy?
There are two main types of cars in Japan: the kei (軽) car, colloquially known as a “yellow plate,” and the “white plate” futsuu (普通), or regular car. Ask around at your BOE, to your JTEs, and other JETs to get a feel for what your needs are and what your best option will be.
Yellow plate cars: Limited in engine displacement to 660ccs or under (about half the size of the average economy car in your country), and are also subject to regulations limiting overall external dimensions.
Yellow plate cars are smaller inside and out than the vehicles you’re used to seeing in your home country, and safety standards are also typically not as good (which is why they’re not exported). These drawbacks are balanced out by reduced cost of ownership. Fuel economy is better, tolls are often discounted, and registration, inspection, and insurance costs are less. Legal occupancy for a kei is capped at a driver and three passengers.
White plate cars: Any vehicle with an engine larger than 660ccs or exceeding the allowed dimensions for a kei falls into the futsuu, or regular (white plate) category.
White plate cars are larger, more powerful, and safer, but more expensive to own than a yellow plate. The exact difference in cost really varies a lot depending on the cars being compared. Tax-wise, the absolute minimum is about ¥37,000 annually, but insurance, increased fuel consumption, shaken (車検/inspection), and higher tolls will push that number upwards.
Motorcycles and Scooters
Two wheeled motorized transport is quite popular in Japan. If you already have a motorcycle license in your home country, you will be able to drive a scooter or motorcycle of any displacement using your IDP. For its own licenses, Japan has a tiered motorcycle licensing system.
Those are: up to 50cc, up to 125cc, up to 400cc, and over 400cc (see table below). Obtaining a license for anything over 50cc is a fairly difficult (although doable) process if you don’t hold a valid motorcycle license to convert and want to do a Japanese license from scratch.
Like with a car license, Americans, South Africans, and Jamaicans will have to pass a pretty strictly-evaluated practical test when converting their foreign motorcycle licenses. JETs from other countries will be fine with just an interview and vision test, and their license should convert over to an oogata (大型) in most cases.
||50cc or less||Typically automatic, some models available with manual transmissions. License is pretty easy to get, even without pre-existing foreign license to convert. Legally limited to 30kph, cannot carry a passenger or use the expressways. Turning rules, etc. vary from other vehicles in some situations.|
||51-125cc||Further subdivided into automatic (AT) or manual (MT) licenses. Allowed a passenger after one year, higher minimum speed limit (60 kph) unless otherwise stated, not allowed on expressways.|
|中型, chuugata||125-400cc||Further subdivided into AT and MT licenses. Can carry a passenger after the first year, and are allowed to use the expressways (can take a passenger on the expressway after 3 years of holding the license). All bikes over 250cc need to undergo shaken every 2 years.|
|大型, oogata||401cc+||Unrestricted license (same restrictions as the chuugata on passengers apply, however)|
Registering your vehicle
The registration process involves two main steps. First, you should obtain a shako shomeisho (車庫証明書) from your local police station. This is a certificate that proves you have sufficient space to store your vehicle. To complete the application, you will need the vehicle’s shakensho (車検書), or inspection certificate, which you can obtain from the current owner. The application will ask you to fill out some basic information about the vehicle and draw a diagram of the parking lot/space (this should be to scale and as accurate as possible). Note that depending on where you live, you may not need to fill this out. It generally only applies to those who live near the center of their city.
After you have the shakoshomeisho, head over to either the Land Transport Office (rikuun jimusho 陸運事務所) for white plates or the Light Vehicle Inspection Agency (kei jidousha kyoukai 軽自動車協会) for yellow plates. You will need to bring the following documents:
- The shako shomeisho you just obtained
- The old shakensho from the previous owner
- An inkan shomeisho (印鑑証明書), or Personal Seal Certificate (obtained at your City Hall)
- The jibaiseki hoken-sho, (自賠責保険所) or Compulsory Insurance Certificate from the previous owner
- Your Resident Card
- The Deed of Transfer (譲渡証明書)
- The license plates (if you’re registering the car at a different office than it’s currently registered at)
*Note: You may not need all of these documents to register a kei car depending on the office. Kei car registrations can be completed within an hour but white plate registrations may take up to 10 days.
Costs of Owning a Car
Inspection: Shaken (車検)
Shaken is the every-two-years inspection required of all cars after their 3rd year. While costs can vary widely based on the condition of the car and repairs necessary to pass, they start around ¥70,000 for yellow plate and ¥100,000 for white plate cars. Remaining shaken can play a huge part in how much a car costs.
Payable in May of every year by whoever owns the car on April 1st, and determined by the size of the car’s engine. It costs ¥7200 for a yellow plate, ¥34,500 for a typical white plate in the 1L-1.5L displacement range. It increases by about ¥5000 per 500cc of engine displacement. Motorcycles pay around ¥3,000, and 50cc scooters about ¥1,000.
Check with your CO or landlord about the cost associated with registering a parking spot at your apartment or home. Those who live in apartments can expect to pay ¥2000-3,000/month, though some LeoPalace apartments charge more.
Third party liability insurance
Optional, but essentially compulsory. Japanese liability laws basically guarantee that you will be found to be no less than 20% at fault regardless of the circumstances. Your contracting organization may require proof of liability insurance as a condition of driving. May range from ¥4,000-9,000/month, depending on your age, type of vehicle, etc. Ask around about a group policy or discounts through mechanics.
The good news is that Japanese cars are generally quite reliable, and most JETs do not rack up huge mileage. That being said, parts and labor prices are likely significantly higher (30-50%) than in your home country. Establishing a good relationship with a mechanic can sometimes net you some discounts or extras (such as a loaner car while yours is in the shop), so it’s a good idea to ask friends, co-workers, or other JETs in your area who they use.
First, ensure that you are familiar with the rules of the road in Japan – the most obvious being that traffic drives on the left side of the road. The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) issues a book called “Rules of the Road” in five languages, which is designed to prevent traffic accidents involving foreign residents in Japan and promote safety on the road. The price is 1,000 yen per copy, but first you might want to ask around amongst JETs to see if they have a copy lying around that you could have or borrow.
To drive legally in Japan you will need to have either an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) plus valid home country license, or a valid Japanese driver’s license. Your IDP is valid for one year from either your date of entry into Japan or the date you got it (written on the IDP), whichever comes first. This means you cannot leave the country and just renew your IDP when it expires.
Even if you don’t plan on owning a car or driving in Japan, consider getting an IDP to use in case you want to rent a car.
Please be sure to confirm the expiration date, and if you plan to stay in Japan and drive after this time plan to get a Japanese license. Do NOT drive in Japan without a valid license; it is a serious offense and could result in a very expensive fine and/or revocation of your visa, which equals deportation.
If you will need to get a Japanese license, start preparing as early as possible. The process can sometimes take one month or more, even for those from Commonwealth countries. Visit the licensing section for more details. The National Police Agency have an English translation of the road rules here.
Drinking and Driving (+ Cycling)
Finally, remember that Japan has a zero tolerance law with regards to alcohol and driving (including bicycles!). The legal BAC level is 0.0%. The police have been known to set up random checkpoints, and when drunk drivers are apprehended, it is a major story on the evening news. This is especially true when those apprehended are public servants, and even more so when they are foreign.
Fortunately, Japan has a system of two-driver taxis called “daiko” (代行) where a second driver can drive your vehicle home for you. The fare is negotiated in advance, and is usually not too far off what a regular taxi would cost, and in many cases is cheaper.