Negotiating automotive red tape in Tokyo

by Danielle Tate-Stratton

For most of us living in Tokyo, the amazing transportation system gets us from point A to point B fairly cheaply and with surprising efficiency. In fact, it often takes less time to jump on the train than to drive from place to place. Walking, biking, taxis, and buses fill in most of the transportation gaps. Still, for some, having a car is either a desire you choose to fulfill or a necessity. Maybe you have kids who need shuttling from place to place, mobility issues which make hiking up and down into the subways a difficulty, or you’ve simply taken your last rush hour Yamanote Line train—no one would blame you for wanting a bit more personal space! In that case, there are some things you need to know before you jump into the driver’s seat—read on for a brief rundown.

Getting Licensed

While it used to be that you could drive indefinitely under an International Driver’s License (they were valid for three years at a time), you must now convert your license into a Japanese driver’s license after 12 months of living and driving here. You will be able to get around this regulation if you spend 93 days in your home country for every year you spend driving here. As with so many things, your home country affects the process for converting your license. For instance, if you have a valid license from certain countries you need only to complete some paperwork and an eye test to carry out the swap. However, those coming from anywhere else are required to complete the written and practical tests as well. To find out where your country stands, visit this detailed resource:

From all accounts, failing the first
time through is not unusual, hardly
surprising when the test has reportedly
failed people for chewing gum!

There are several steps involved in converting your license and it can be nearly as frustrating as sitting in traffic on the 246. Yet with due diligence and good preparation, it shouldn’t be too long before you’re out on the road. The first step is getting an official translation of your license from home. You need to get this done at a local JAF office (, which will also be able to inform you of which category your home country falls under.

Next, pay a visit to the local test center with your original license, the Japanese translation, your passport, alien registration card, a passport-sized photo, and the application fee (¥3,000). At this point, you’re ready to fill in the application form and take the eye test. Following that, you write the written test (a fairly simple ten-question true/false test), and if you pass that, then you can arrange to take the practical driving test (¥5,000)—on a different day. From all accounts, failing the first time through is not unusual (some figures put the first-time failure rate at 90 percent), hardly surprising when the test has reportedly failed people for chewing gum! The written test will be in English, but staff are likely to speak only Japanese, so if you aren’t bilingual, it’s a good idea to bring along some Japanese-speaking backup.

Luckily, there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of passing the first time. For instance, make sure to familiarize yourself with the course prior to taking the test (you should be able to walk it), and in some cases, you can even do practice driving before you book your test. In Kanagawa, you can get tips from the person who drives with you and it costs ¥8,000 per hour.

For more information about licensing regulations, the relatively simple written or much more challenging practical tests visit where you can even view a computer-simulated road test!

Obtaining a Car

So, you have your brand new, shiny license and you’re all ready to drive. Now you just need to get yourself a set of wheels. Of course, you can buy a car, and it’s easy to do so through a variety of channels, much like anywhere else—check the classifieds, chat to friends going home, visit the online auctions (buyer beware!), or buy a brand new car. Some of the dealers here in town even offer English speaking staff and support, making it easy to locate and purchase your dream car.

Mick Lay Auto Leasing ( is one such full-service English dealership. Mick is able to help you select the perfect car for your family and has a variety of new and used cars to choose from.

However, you might want to look at leasing a car—the transient nature of the expat community could make you hesitant to commit to a purchase and Japan’s strict car inspections (shaken), mandatory after your car’s third birthday, can have you making expensive car repairs whether your want to or even necessarily need to. To make this part more convenient, for ¥140,000, Mick Lay will pick up and return your car, do a detailed service, and get the shaken taken care of.

Lease Japan (, staffed by native English speakers, is a full-service leasing company which provides insurance, free maintenance checks, free road-side assistance, English Help Line support 24-hours a day, and English or Japanese GPS Navigation systems.

Lease Japan offers both new and used cars for terms of six months and longer. They are able to lease any type or make of car, but specialize in Toyota vehicles. Lease Japan also has access to Nagoya’s largest used car auction site (with over 6,000 cars on auction every week) and therefore, you can access almost every type of used vehicle to meet your needs. Most of the leases are closed-end maintenance leases, which means you can lease the car for a set term and at the end of that term you have the choice of returning the car or extending the lease for a further period of time. Lease Japan can also help organize your ETC (Electronic Toll Card) scanner, and in addition to leasing, the company will help with registration and change of ownership, insurance, car shipping, and even buying and selling cars, should you go with the more permanent—purchasing—route.

According to Mick Lay, the decision to lease is popular with those who want to be able to pay a set rate every month and then walk away from the car at the end of the term, or buy it out at a reduced rate. Of course, the convenience of knowing you can get out of it after a few
years is offset by higher financing. Those who choose to buy often prefer to own the car outright and feel confident they aren’t paying extra fees.

Reassuringly to those on a budget, older cars are not a red flag in his mind. He says that as long as the car has been serviced and relatively well looked after, it won’t take much to get it up to shaken standards. For your peace of mind, he will conduct a detailed examination of any car you are considering (¥35,000), including kilometer and repair history, and can even offer warranties on all used cars.


Once you arrive at your destination, you’ll need a place to park your ride. While some apartment blocks or houses come with parking spaces, for many people this is a large additional expense to keep in mind. You’ll need to prove that you have a parking space before you are allowed to purchase a car, so make sure to find a spot before you go shopping! If you are out and about, good luck! New parking laws have changed to eliminate the ‘chalking’ of illegally parked cars (they used to give you about an hour to move on). Now, pairs of parking attendants will give you five minutes grace (they actually stand there waiting for you to come out with your cappuccino) before they give you a ticket. This involves placing a sticker on your window and then taking a digital picture, sometimes with one mint-green attendant in the frame, showing the ticket and your license plates. Presumably, this is meant to cut down on the “but officer, I simply never saw it” excuses. It’s now illegal to park in any non-designated, non-metered zone, and an infraction comes with a ¥15,000 ticket, though no longer means points on your license. In the designated zones, meters use an infrared light to recognize your car driving into the spot and you have just a few minutes to get your ¥300 into the meter before it lights up a bright red light beckoning the meter readers over to your car! The meters last an hour, and you actually need to move as opposed to simply re-metering (the infrared light needs to be reset).

Undoubtedly, it can be an expensive challenge to work through the paperwork required to get a car in Japan, but the freedom and possibilities that come with having a car (trip to IKEA, anyone?) can certainly outweigh the initial setup issues. With companies such as Lease Japan, Japan Drivers License, Mick Lay Auto Leasing, the Japan Automobile Federation, and (a bilingual insurance company helping you to compliment your mandatory coverage), there is lots of English-language support to help get you out on the open road.

For more information:
General Information from Japan’s version of AAA can be found at:
Highways in Japan:
Basic rules of the road:
Detailed information about buying a car, including a handy pre-purchase checklist: