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Things You Should Know: American Driver in Japan

Japanese road signs

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Driving comes as second nature for many of us Americans who grew up living in cities or suburbs with so much land to cover on wheels. For many, including myself, it’s a rite of passage as a teenager to finally get that ID telling us that we are responsible enough to get behind the wheel. Fast forward a few years; there may come a time when you’ll have to finally drive in a foreign country. No, I’m not talking Canada, but a place as foreign as Japan – where driving rules and practicalities can be just as different as the language.

I recently drove in Japan for the first time, and here I recount some of my experience, share some of the differences of driving in this country.

Driving in Japan
Driving the camper van pictured below
camper van in Tokyo
My sweet ride parked in front of my Tokyo apartment. This is what I rode for my first time driving in Japan…seemed like a big huge leap!

The Permit:

First and foremost, make sure to attain an International Driving Permit before leaving the US. This just takes a quick trip to your nearby AAA (American Automobile Association) with a valid license (from a country where you lived for at least 3 months with the license), a passport photo, and $20 in hand. The permit is valid for a year, but if you plan on staying longer, you will have to renew either in person or by mailing your request. If you are or going to be a resident in Japan, though, you won’t be able to renew your permit which is intended for tourists. In this case, keep on reading to find out how to get your Japanese license!

American International Driving Permit
The cost of the International Driving Permit increased from $15 to $20 in 2015.

The Laws and Safety:

The driving age in Japan is 18 – not 16 –which means that even if you legally can drive back in the US, you can’t drive in Japan until you’re at least 18 years old. Even then, many rental car companies will have different restrictions and costs for younger drivers. Also, driving lanes are on the left side of the road with the driver seat being on the right. Both of these are opposite of the US, which definitely frightened me at first, but it surprisingly came naturally! Just as a rule of thumb: always remember that the driver seat is closest to the middle of opposing lanes.

This lane difference also means that turning right on red (like we do back home) is dangerous and very illegal! In fact, all turns on red are illegal in Japan, so don’t even try. On the other hand, U-Turns are accepted on many intersections. Even though most overheard signs are written in English and Japanese, Japan is still full of road signs I’ve never seen in the US before. Here’s a helpful link to get yourself familiar with the signs you’ll see.

Don’t forget that distance and speed are measured in kilometers, not miles, so read your speed limit signs carefully. Luckily, your Japanese car will already tell you the speed limit in kilometers, but pay close attention in the beginning anyways. Speaking of speed, Japanese drivers tend to zoom faster than the limit, even in cities, and run to make yellow lights. Always look both ways at intersections and keep up with the flow of traffic on highways.

You should carefuly comprehend Japanese street so that you drive safely
[image source]

Drinking and Driving:

Japan also has absolutely zero tolerance for drinking and driving. While in the US, we can legally have a blood alcohol content level below 0.08% (roughly one drink), this doesn’t apply to Japan. If you’re committed to driving for that day, you’re committed to not drinking any alcohol until you’ve finished driving. Don’t put yourself and others at risk, especially in a foreign country where driving will take a bit more concentration and care.

Little nuggets of knowledge that I wish I knew before:

As it might not come as a surprise to you, the streets of Japan are very, very narrow. And sometimes, these narrow streets are even considered two way streets! I got caught through some in the camper van when we first tried to get out of Tokyo, and though we made it out without any dents and scratches, it still left my palms sweaty with worry. You won’t find many streets with roads big enough for tractors, even between rice fields. Most cars here are more compact than back home, and many streets match that ideal. Remember to always feel out the size of your vehicle, and keep this narrow (street) mindset even when you get out into the countryside.

Have you ever had to change your mind last minute to take a turn, and quickly turn on your blinkers? Well I had to do this while driving in Tokyo or going fast on the expressways. And every time, I ended up spewing water and turning on the windshield wipers on instead of my blinkers! With the territory of driving on the opposite side in the car comes some difference in the signal handles, too. Be sure you pay close attention to where all your signals are so that you don’t come off as a driver who doesn’t use your blinker, or can’t turn on the headlights through dark tunnels (oh yes, that was a scary one).

Speaking of expressways, they are so expensive! I’ve driven cross country in the US without ever coming across a single highway where I had to pay. Personally, the only place I’ve used a toll fee was the Seattle 520 bridge, which is no more than $5. Most expressway tolls I saw here going from Tokyo to Chiba were between ¥800 and ¥3000 (wowza). The best way to cut down on expressway costs is to take alternative routes whenever possible, or to apply for an ETC card. This cuts tolls by 50%, but keep in mind that the application can be a bit rigorous and only available to residents of Japan with a Japanese banking system.

camper van adventures
Driving through the windy roads in the countryside

Getting a Japanese License:

After my little test drive weekend, I feel more confident in Japan driving. Since I’m living here for a few years, getting a Japanese license seems like a reasonable next step! If you’re in the same boat, and if you are an American too, just remember that the process will be a bit tougher. Unlike residents from countries with the bilateral agreement, us Americans have to retake the practical driving exam along with the written exam. And don’t jump the gun on car hunting before the exams are done, because Japan has a brutal average pass rate of 35% (20% in Nagoya). These exams and don’t come at a cheap cost, either, so be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars. ~Wish me luck and see you on the road!


Helpful Resources:

US Government – Driving and Road Safety Abroad

Resources and information from the American Embassy in Japan

For help and guidance with the license paperwork, visit Japanese Automobile Federation

For more information on the Japanese license exam process click here.

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