Foreigners Wanting to Drive in Japan

Driving in Japan legally has recently afforded new challenges to foreigners from China, Brazil and the United States. Released in November 2002 and updated in February 2003, Traffic Act Article 107-2, has begun to create many problems for foreigners.

Until June 2002, Foreigners driving in Japan (who held a valid drivers license from their home country) could apply for an international driving permit (IDP) and drive in Japan permanently. Since that time however, IDPs are only valid for one year. If a foreigner stays in Japan for more than one year and decides to reapply for an IDP, they would have to leave Japan for at least 90 days in order for the IDP to be legal upon their return.

Those visiting Japan for a short time, of course IDPs are the way to go. They are quite cheap (around $10-20). Beware however, there are many sites on the internet that offer IDPs for several hundred dollars. These are scam sites and are to be avoided at all costs.

Quite a few countries have a much easier time in obtaining a valid Japanese drivers license when compared to the United States. Citizens from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Switzerland, Canada or Germany can simply have their license translated and officiated after a minimal fee and an eye check.

Why are American citizens screwed over? You may check this link found on the US Embassy in Japan website and find out why. If you take the time to read the reasons why as well as the requirements Japan is asking for in order to overturn this new law you may very well cry, or laugh. If you don’t want to take the time to read the reasons and requirements; in short, it’s a better idea to try and take the actual Japanese driving test instead of waiting for this law to be overturned.

Let us rewind to an actual experience of mine.

Blissfully unaware that my IDP was considered invalid, (I had been living in Japan for three years at the time) I parked for a few minutes in a no parking zone (I drive a 50cc scooter, for its sheer convenience). BIG MISTAKE. I come back to find I have a parking ticket. “Oh darn, I have a parking ticket. Oh well, I may as well go pay the small fine and bite the bullet on this one”. I take my scooter to a police station and show them my passport and IDP. After much difficulty in communication it turns out that I cannot legally drive and I must go to the city’s main police office a few days later so they can have a translator explain to me exactly what needs to be done.

I return home to find out why they said I am unable to drive in Japan, and hop on the net to do some research. After a short time I come to find out that I can be fined up to 300,000 yen (about $2,800) or spend up to a year in prison. Needless to say, my eyes were bulging out of their sockets.

A few days later, I go to this police station. I am sweating bullets and to make matters worse they do NOT have a translator to explain the situation. Fortunately, I have a more then basic understanding of Japanese so I am able to understand that I cannot drive legally in Japan with an IDP. Luckily this fairly new law, that has been such a pain for foreigners, is far from being well known. I am let off with a warning and told I cannot drive until I get an actual Japanese drivers license.

Fast forward about a month.

Discovering that there is only one book in Japan that has been translated into English regarding the laws of the road in Japan, I am forced to buy it. This book is about 90% useless. There was a whole two pages about driving motorcycles/scooters in Japan. I am fortunate enough to have some Japanese friends sit me down with a Japanese language motorcycle practice test book and ask me some questions that may be on the test I was preparing for. In less than a week, I was ready to tackle this test. Or so I thought.

The Japanese scooter test is made up of 48 questions. 45 questions or more must be correct in order to pass with a time limit of 30 minutes. Let me remind you that Japan has been required to have this test in English since the changing of the law so at least that was one thing in my favor. “Piece of cake, done in 15 minutes”! Or so I thought again.

Not since Shakespeare’s time where double negatives considered a proper grammatical form for English! This test took me for so many twists and turns with its EXTREMELY poor translation and its “no” + “no” = “yes” terminology that I felt I was going to vomit. I took the entire 30 minutes to complete this test with a certainty that I was going to fail. At least I got that part right.