Lowdown on driving permits; slim pickings for foreign products

Reader A.B. is concerned that he has been driving on an International Driving Permit and is getting mixed messages as to its legality.

“While I’m hearing from some that I need to get a Japanese driving license, others are telling me that I can drive for up to a year. Which is it? Where can I get correct information?”

The driver’s license situation is extremely complicated. I grew up in Tokyo and, while overseas, got a driver’s license that I simply brought back and traded for a Japanese license.

At that time, many Japanese traveling and living overseas were able to get “quickie” licenses. They then traded them in for Japanese licenses on their return, so side-stepping the Byzantine Japanese licensing system.

Nowadays the situation is much stricter, and in order to “trade” your foreign license for a Japanese one, you have to: have had it at least three months overseas; take an aptitude test, traffic rules test and sometimes even an actual driving test in Japan; and be able to produce a translation into Japanese of your overseas license.

Regarding the International Driving Permit, whereas you used to be able to use the license whatever your personal circumstances for the 12 months it was valid, if you take a job or otherwise become a “resident” here in these tougher times, you need to get a Japanese license.

Simply put, if you are visiting Japan you can use your IDP, but if you start working, enter school or for any other reason are required to get an alien registration card, you need to get a Japanese driver’s license.

A.B. was confused because, as often happens in Japan, the system has not been widely understood and enforced. This meant that many residents could get by with International Driving Permits. This is no longer the case.

A good place to get up-to-date information on the driving system here is at (K.J.)

Japan turning inward?

Kate was recently in Tokyu Hands in Shibuya and wonders if it is her imagination that there are fewer foreign products on sale.

“I was looking for a replacement bread bin. Simple, I thought, since I bought one in the same store several years ago. It even had the word ‘Bread’ printed across the front. This time I was offered a small plastic container that might at a stretch have accommodated half a small sliced loaf. Otherwise nothing. What’s going on?”

Kate, it’s not your imagination. Department stores in general are cutting back on stocks in the light of the economic downturn, turning their attention to Japan as their main market. I’m guessing bread bins are not regarded as Japanese enough in taste?

You may have noticed that Seibu’s flagship store in the Mullion Building in Yurakucho is no more, forced to close by brand shops at one end of the spectrum and cheaper labels like Uniqlo at the other. Many small shops selling imported clothes and accessories are also going under, due in part to currency fluctuations.

On a recent trip to the U.K., the plane was half-full in both directions. Japanese are not traveling, I was told by a cabin steward — especially young Japanese, he added.

There is an economically driven turning inwards from the world in progress here — one that requires watching with an open mind, of course, but warily. (A.J.)

Angela Jeffs is a freelance writer and writing guide ( Ken Joseph directs the Japan Helpline at and (0570) 000-911. Send queries, problems and posers to

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