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 10,000 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!
This is ideal for those who are staying in Japan long-term, be it an international student or a foreign expatriate. Take note that it is not allowed to reapply for IDP repeatedly if you are in Japan long-term. The IDP is only for one-time use for long-term visa holders in Japan, and therefore, the Japanese driver’s license is more reasonable.
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.
Tip #1: 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.
Tip #2: 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!
Tip #3: 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.
Tip #4: 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.