From train to car

Thanks to Japan’s well-organized urban infrastructure, it may be easy enough for you to get around the city by public transport, but the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic might have given you second thoughts about using it.

For better or worse, Tokyo’s notoriously crowded trains are seeing fewer passengers compared to pre-pandemic daily life as more people opt for private transportation. Even during the country’s midsummer Bon holiday period, when trains are busy each year with people heading to their hometowns, the number of Japan Railways passengers dropped by 76 percent compared to a year before, the lowest since 1990.

Meanwhile, the demand for private cars seems to be on the rise. According to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association, sales of used cars had been declining for eight months until June, when sales increased 6.1 percent compared to the same time last year.

This shift in mobility is also seen among the country’s international residents. Keita Ueno, the president of Kiki Driving School in Tokyo, which offers driving lessons for people from overseas, says that “the number of international customers coming to my school more than just doubled, but probably tripled compared to the same time last year.” The move presumably reflects the fear of using public transport where keeping an appropriate physical distance is often impossible.

For anyone who is seeking to legally drive a car in Japan, here is what you will need to know before you hit the road.

International Driving Permit

If you are only planning a short-term stay in Japan, it’s a good idea to get an International Driving Permit (IDP), which allows you to drive in Japan up to a year from issuance. The IDP must be issued in your home country in advance, so don’t forget to apply for it from the appropriate local authority before packing your bags.

Regulations, however, are slightly different for people coming from Germany, France, Estonia, Switzerland, Monaco, Belgium or Taiwan. These countries follow the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, while Japan is affiliated with the Geneva Convention. People from these seven countries can drive with their foreign license and an official translation of it issued by authorized bodies.

License transfer

If your stay is long term and you have a residential permit, consider switching your driver’s license to a Japanese license. You can apply for the license transfer, which costs around ¥4,600, at your prefecture’s driver’s license center. The transfer process includes a review of your application documents, a series of aptitude tests (checking eyesight, hearing and color recognition), a 10-question test on traffic knowledge and, in some cases, a practical driving exam.

However, you can skip the above two examinations if your license is issued from one of 29 exam-exempt countries and regions. And before you get all your documentation together, make sure your original driver’s license is still valid and at least three months have passed since its issuance.

Driving practice

While the transfer procedure itself sounds simple, the driving skill tests may not be.

Travis Duerstock, 30, an engineer from Ohio who tried to convert his license in Saitama Prefecture three years ago says that he passed the written test but failed the driving test during his first attempt. According to him, some of his colleagues had to try the road test seven times before passing. Their experiences are more common than you’d think.

According to Ueno, “it’s almost impossible to pass the driving skill test without any practice for those coming from outside Japan.” He points out that the problem is not just whether or not you can drive, but how the examiner will judge your driving ability. For those who want to practice before the road test, Kiki Driving School offers an optional 40- or 60-minute practical lesson in English. A number of authorized driving schools across the country also offer driving practices for a foreign license transfer.

No license? No problem!

If you don’t have a license at all, there are several ways to get a license from scratch. One option is to take a long-term commuting course at a designated driving school. The school provides lectures on traffic rules (26 hours) and practical skill training (31 hours), which may take a few months to complete. Tuition is around ¥300,000, but while the time and money you need may sound like a great inconvenience, about 98 percent of Japanese people who obtained a license in 2019 were graduates from this type of school. In Kanto, all-English courses are available at Koyama Driving School and Musashi-sakai Driving School.

For those looking for a cheaper and quicker way to get a license, another option is a so-called stay-in program. You stay on-site for about two weeks for intensive study and driving practice, which costs about ¥200,000 including accommodation, food and the tuition fee. Although English textbooks are available at some schools, the lectures themselves are in Japanese, which means a good amount of Japanese-language ability is required to participate.

If you have some driving know-how already, you can try and take the examination (which will cost ¥26,300) at the driver’s license center in your prefecture right away. However, only a small percentage of test takers pass this way.

Renting a car

As the number of overseas tourists to Japan increased in the past decade, car rentals have also risen. The total number of foreign visitors who rented a car in Japan grew eightfold between 2011 and 2017, reaching about 1.4 million.

A rental car is a handy option in terms of accessibility to the countryside and cost, which generally falls between ¥4,000 to ¥10,000 for half a day. Major car rental companies, such as Toyota Rent a Car, Nissan Rent a Car, Times Car Rental and more, have English-language websites, so it’s possible to make a reservation online in English.

When picking up your rented car at the dealership, bring both your passport and IDP, transferred Japanese license or, for those from the listed seven countries above, foreign license and its official translation. At the end of your trip, be sure to fill up the car with gas — either regular, high-octane or diesel, depending on the vehicle — for the next user.

The process of converting and taking a driving license may be a bit of a hassle, and you may find driving in a country where you are not familiar with the rules of the road to be a daunting experience, but it will certainly help you travel. Whenever you drive, always keep safety in mind and enjoy your experience behind the wheel.

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