General Information

If you live in a rural area, you may need a car to get to work or visit friends. Talk to your predecessor, supervisor, and neighboring JETs/WI-ALTs about buying a car from someone leaving or from a Japanese dealership. Also confirm with your contracting organization whether there are restrictions on using your car to drive to work or during your free time.
There are two main kinds of cars to choose from: regular cars (普通自動車 futsū jidōsha) and light or “kei” cars (軽自動車 kei jidōsha). Regular cars have white license plates and may be a bit more compact than back home. Kei cars have yellow license plates and are smaller with weaker engines, but gas, taxes, and the car itself are cheaper. For everyday driving, either should be fine, but kei types may struggle with steep hills and highways.

To legally drive in Japan, you will need an International Driving Permit (IDP, obtained before departure and valid for one year) or a Japanese license. If using an IDP, you must have your IDP and your home country license with you while driving. You cannot return home and get a new IDP for your second year, so you will need to get a Japanese license.

The process for getting a Japanese license differs by home country, and those who must take the infamous practical exam may have to take it multiple times, so it’s recommended to start the process during your spring break in March.

Other links:
The 2012 JET Programme General Information Handbook. Information related to driving in Japan can be found on page 75 of the pdf file.
A genius guide with just about everything you need to know about driving in Japan.

Wiki Driving Articles:

Actually Driving on the Roads

Everything you've practiced for the driver's test was a lie, you say? Well, kind of. Driving for the test is very different from driving on the roads, so here are some tips you can take right (on your way) to the bank.
  • If you're used to driving on the right side of the road, be careful when making turns. Follow traffic and visualize which lane you have to turn into before you go into the road.
  • Roads are very narrow in Japan and you may have to share them with scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, motorized wheelchairs, pedestrians with umbrellas, parked cars, and stray cats. Usually these things will come at you from the left. If you have to cross the center line to pass them, oncoming traffic may not have any room to move over for you. It is your responsibility to slow down/stop and wait until you can safely pass.
  • Japanese drivers often ignore red lights. Even if the light is green, make sure it is safe to proceed before doing so. If cars are turning right, they will probably all go even if the light has been red for 5 minutes. This does not mean you get to run red lights too, because the other side might not be expecting you to do so!
  • If you're stopped at a red light, some drivers turn off their headlights (or turn them down one level to the parking lights) so they don't blind the driver in front/across the intersection. Some drivers also drive with their parking lights on in early evenings.
  • Turn your lights on in tunnels.
  • Many Japanese drivers turn slowly, turn wide, stop suddenly and decide to park, pull suddenly into the road, drive 10kph under the speed limit, drive twice the speed limit, and other sorts of dangerous driving. Be on your guard as you would driving in any country.
  • It is illegal to pass/overtake cars in front of you on most roads, but people still do it. If you are behind a kei truck or a scooter, wait for a straight stretch of road where you can see clearly if cars are coming.
  • Most roads don't have signs. Some bigger ones have numbers. If you don't have a GPS you will get lost a lot, but eventually you'll figure it out.

Caring For Your Car

You should keep all important car-related documents in your car whenever you drive, as you can be fined for driving without a license or without a current inspection sticker.

Most areas should have both self-service and full-service gas stations, with some better equipped than others. For example, at Eneos you can save up points on a Tsutaya card and use them for gas/restaurants/DVDs/etc. later. Some stations will also have a car wash, where you drive in and park and the machine moves over you. Some have a giant vacuum where you can clean out the inside of your car. Some have a station where you can check the air in your tires and get your oil changed. You can always ask the attendants and they'll help you.

You should also find the nearest Yellow Hat, Auto Wave, or similar car service store near you. This is where you can buy car batteries, seat/steering wheel covers, sun shades, and some services as well. I recommend a sun shade for the windshield to keep your car cool, a steering wheel cover so you don't burn/freeze your hands, a designated trash can/bag, and some kind of bug-killing device to keep in your car at all times.

Car Documentation and Fees

  • Japanese driver's license OR Home country license + International Driver's Permit
  • Proof of parking place (車庫証明書 shako shōmeisho)
  • Taxes:
    1. Automobile acquisition tax (自動車取得税 jidōsha shutokuzei) paid once when you buy a car
    2. Automobile tonnage tax (自動車重量税 jidōsha jūryōzei) paid at purchase and inspections, based on weight
    3. Automobile tax (自動車税jidōshazei) paid April 1 every year
  • Car Inspection (車検 shaken) every few years. Fees range between 50,000-150,000 yen and may take a few days for the auto shop to complete the inspection. You can ask for an estimate beforehand but it really depends on what they find wrong with your car, and if you don't get it fixed your car won't pass inspection, in which case you can't legally drive it. There are some things they don't check during shaken, like the car battery and radiator fluid, but they will if you ask. Keep the certificate of inspection (車検証明書 shaken shōmeisho) in the car at all times and sticker on the front windshield.
  • Car Insurance:
    1. Mandatory insurance (自動車損害賠償責任保険jidōsha songai baishō sekinin hoken or自賠責jibaiseki) that only covers if you injure someone in an accident.
    2. Optional insurance (自動車任意保険jidōsha nin’i hoken) that covers damage to other people/vehicle/objects in an accident, driver and passenger injury, and damage to your own car. Get one that offers roadside service in case your car breaks down.
      The company I use is Mitsui Direct, where you can do everything online and pay in installments or save a bit by paying a lump sum for a year. They'll send you an email when it's about to expire and you can renew online. It also comes with a roadside hotline that you can call if your car breaks down, and you can use this service for free once every 90 days (more than once within 90 days will cost money). But remember that the cheapest plans will cover people and things you damage, but not so much damage to your own drive safely!

How to use a self-service station:

  • Pull up to pump and open gas tank cover, put gas cap in well on the dirty rag
  • Press the button on the screen to pay in cash(現金genkin)
  • If it asks for a point card or membership card choose no (いいえ iie)
  • Choose full tank (満タン mantan) or up to a certain price (金額 kingaku)
  • Put in the amount you chose, or if full tank, estimate about \5000
  • Put gas nozzle in your car and press the handle
  • When handle releases, return nozzle and put gas cap back on and close cover
  • Take your receipt to the separate change machine (精算機 seisanki) and have it read the barcode to get your change.

How to use a full-service station:

  • Pull up to pump and open your gas tank cover.
  • Tell station attendant full tank (満タン mantan) or for example 3000 yen's worth (3000円分 sanzen-en bun) and hand them your money
  • Get your change
    At full service gas stations you can also have them check the air in your tires, oil, washer/radiator fluid, etc. and they may also have a car vacuum or a car wash.

If your car breaks down

In your glove compartment you should keep your insurance information and a number you can call for roadside service. If you are a member of the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF, ジャッフ), you can call them (similar to AAA in America), but if you're not a member it will be very expensive (like 10,000 yen).

If your battery dies (バッテリー上がり batteri agari) you can have a coworker/friend jump it with cables or call your insurance roadside service. Then drive it to the nearest auto shop or gas station. Gas stations can sell you new batteries but they don't have a lot of variety so it might be more expensive--depends where you are when your car dies.

If you get a flat tire, you may have a spare tire under your trunk storage. But the spare tire is not the best quality, so only use it for driving to the auto shop to get a new tire.

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