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Driving Ambitions – Facts About Getting Around Japan by Car

Having driven in my home country for a time, I did not consider needing to drive in another country until I finally made the decision to make Japan my home. With Japan's vast and convenient train networks, I even thought having a driver's license here unnecessary.

However, lots of tourists these days love the idea of renting a car during their stay here to maximize the area they can cover during their often all-too-short vacation. 

Depending on your country of origin, or more appropriately the country where you learned to drive, transitioning to driving in Japan could be either totally straightforward or mind-bendingly confusing. 

Photo by Ec5w6a13 on Wikimedia Commons.

First off, people from the UK, New Zealand and Australia will have an easier time of it. Since these countries have a reciprocal agreement with Japan, getting your license from your home country converted into a Japanese one is fairly straightforward. There are also several European countries that have this arrangement too, and its best to check with your individual Japan Embassy in your home country before heading over. 

International Driving Permits–IDP's

Photo by on Wikimedia Commons.

One major country that doesn’t have any such agreement with Japan is the United States. One of the reasons for this is that whilst countries like Australia and groupings of countries like the UK have one centralized government agency to handle vehicle licensing and registration, in the US vehicle licensing and highway regulations are issues devolved to government at the state level. So in order to have a reciprocal arrangement with the US, Japan would, in theory need to negotiate 50 separate reciprocal agreements, which is a nightmare capable of dumbfounding even the most ardent career bureaucrat!

So, what is the solution for drivers from the US and other countries not fortunate enough to have an arrangement with Japan for driving?

This is where something called the International Driver’s Permit (IDP for short) comes into play. This is a document that you will have to apply for in your own country before coming to Japan and you can do so via your local Japanese consulate or embassy. Once you have the permit, it is good for 1 year from date of issue, no matter how many times you enter or leave Japan with that timescale. 

Photo by Carissa Rogers on Flickr.

Of course it goes without saying that in order to apply for an IDP you will need to have a driving license in your home country. Not all countries’ drivers are eligible for an IDP so be sure to check with your local Japanese embassy before making any travel plans. 

Once you’ve got certified and you can get out on the road it should all be plain sailing from there on, right? Wrong.

Traffic Rules & Regulations 

Photo by kyu3 on

There are a great many different traffic rules and regulations in Japan that you will need to get used to before you try to drive. 

However, since we don’t have all day here, I’ll just focus on a few of the more immediately obvious differences. 

First of all, anyone who is from the UK will instantly feel a bit more comfortable with driving in Japan. Not only are cars here right-hand drive, the same as the UK, but cars also drive on the left hand side of the road as is the case in the UK and indeed is the opposite to the US and mainland Europe. 

Photo by BATACHAN on Wikimedia Commons.

You’d be surprised at how disorientating this simple change can be, and adapting to doing everything in a mirror image of how you would normally do it is initially quite confusing. At least, that’s what my American friends tell me. 

Pedestrian crossings can also be a point of confusion, especially to motorists from the UK. 

Whereas in the UK a driver is expected to stop and wait when a pedestrian light is green and people are crossing, in Japan, stopping is optional in this instance. Whilst drivers are expected to give way to pedestrians in this situation, as a matter of courtesy, if there’s nobody immediately crossing the road at that time, you are free to drive on, provided your lane has a green traffic light, of course. 

Photo by 奈良泉 on Wikimedia Commons.

This may sound confusing to UK drivers, but if it makes you feel any better my Japanese driving friends were equally flummoxed when they encountered a roundabout for the first time in the UK. Roundabouts just aren’t a thing on Japanese roads. 

Also, an important legal note, much like the UK, car insurance is a legal requirement here in Japan, though those with a clean driving record will be pleasantly surprised to find it’s a whole lot cheaper to get insured here than it is back in the UK. 

How Strict is Japan on Drunk Driving?

Photo by Paris/Kyoto Yamamoto/Muto on Flickr.

Also, whilst drink driving laws tend to vary from country to country and state to state in the US, Japan operates a zero-tolerance policy with regards to drunk driving. If you have any alcohol in your system, or even if you are still recovering from the night before, do not drive as you risk being arrested if stopped and breathalysed.

Driving in Japan will certainly open up a whole new realm of out of the way places to see and explore while you are here. Use your common sense, drive carefully and sensibly and you’re sure to have a great time. 

And if you should happen to be driving through Osaka during a heavy downpour and you see an unfortunate, slightly overweight Scotsman trying to fight his way through the torrential rain, please stop and offer him a ride home, chances are, it’s probably me!

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