National | Regional Voices: Okinawa

Okinawa car rental agencies wary of Chinese tourists with improperly obtained licenses

The Okinawa Times

Believing it would be convenient to get around by car in Okinawa, a 30-something Chinese woman decided to access a major online shopping site before her 2016 trip to obtain a driving permit that would be valid in Japan, since Chinese licenses aren’t permitted in Japan.

The license was issued in the Philippines and obtained through an agent listed on the website for about ¥40,000.

The woman was worried about the legality of the process, but she was reassured by her friend that she wouldn’t have any issues.

After sending her photo and a copy of her Chinese driver’s license to the agent, an international driving permit was sent by mail about a month later to the woman’s accommodations in Okinawa in December 2016. With the permit, she rented a sports car and drove around the prefecture’s main island, where public transportation services are scarce.

But she realized she should no longer use the permit after seeing Japanese media reports in January that highlighted the problem of international licenses obtained by Chinese tourists in a similar fashion.

Chinese driver’s licenses cannot be used here because, unlike Japan, China is not a party to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic. The treaty is designed to facilitate international road traffic and increase road safety by establishing standard rules among the signatories.

Japan’s road traffic law states that foreign drivers need to have: a license issued in Japan, or an international driving permit based on the Geneva Convention or a license from countries or regions recognized by Tokyo to have similar systems for driving permits, such as Germany, Switzerland and Taiwan. The Philippines is a party to the convention.

Holders of forged licenses could be charged with driving without a permit, according to police. Such license dealers couldn’t be found when a reporter from the Okinawa Times searched the Chinese online shopping website on May 18 for agents offering international driving permits issued in the Philippines.

A Chinese tourism industry worker in Okinawa said the number of such dealers sharply dropped after the January media reports.

According to a fiscal 2016 survey on foreign tourists conducted by Okinawa Prefecture, 11.1 percent of 349 Chinese visitors surveyed said in a multiple-choice question that they traveled around by rental car.

Car rental companies in the prefecture have been concerned that international driving permits presented by Chinese tourists could have been illegally obtained online. But they say it is difficult to find out about those licenses because Chinese drivers can legitimately acquire international permits if they stay in countries that are parties to the Geneva pact, including South Korea and the Philippines.

The National Police Agency said it is aware of the problem and has been investigating the situation in cooperation with other central government agencies and the All Japan Rent-a-Car Association.

At an outlet of Luft Travel Rent-a-Car Co. near Naha airport, several Chinese customers have presented international driving permits issued in the Philippines since last September, but the company has refused to rent cars to them. When staff asked whether they have been to the Philippines, some gave answers that couldn’t be understood and others said they did not directly go through procedures to obtain the licenses. Others appeared to be shocked to learn they were deceived, according to the company.

Times Mobility Networks Co., which runs Times Car Rental offices across Japan, enhanced its system in late April to check for licenses obtained improperly, requiring staff to confirm whether holders of international driving permits issued in countries different from theirs have actually traveled to the place of issuance.

In March, the Okinawa Rent-a-Car Association distributed leaflets to member companies that state they could refuse to rent cars to customers if international driving permits are suspected to have been obtained illegally.

But an official of the association said, “There is no way we can verify the authenticity of (international) licenses.”

As some Chinese passport holders may have legitimately obtained local and international driving permits during their stays in Geneva Convention member countries, the official said the association cannot tell companies to question all Chinese customers about how they obtained their permits.

An official of the All Japan Rent-a-Car Association also said companies are not required to make a judgment on the authenticity of international driving permits.

Yasushi Nakamura, vice president of Okinawa Tourist Service Inc., a major travel agency in the prefecture, suggested that Japan and China sign a bilateral accord to allow Chinese tourists to drive rented cars in Japan.

But he added, “We will aim to set up an environment in which tourists can enjoy Okinawa without renting cars,” noting that more traffic jams and crashes could occur if there are more drivers of rental cars on the road.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major daily in the prefecture. The original article was published on May 19.