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Traffic Rules and Regulations in Japan

When thinking of driving in Japan, most of you might imagine congested highways in the megacities. While generalizations have to be taken with a grain of salt, this is actually a fairly accurate image of traffic in Japan. Read our guide to get a good idea of what driving a car in Japan is all about.
These giant expressway intersections and viaducts look impressive, but can also be confusing for foreign drivers.

Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

Obtaining your license in Japan is not an easy feat. The basic requirement is that you must be at least 18 years of age if you wish to drive in Japan.

Using an international driving permit is only allowed if it was issued by a signatory country of the Geneva Convention (~96 countries). It can be used for the maximum period of one year and can’t be renewed within Japan but only at the issuing country itself. .

If your driver’s license was issued in one of the following countries:

  • Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco
  • Slovenia, Switzerland or Taiwan

and if you are not a Japanese resident, you are allowed to drive in Japan for a maximum period of one year. All you need to do is always carry your original driver’s license as well as its Japanese translation with you. The Japanese translation can be prepared by the JAF or your local embassy for example.

After one year a local Japanese driver’s license must be obtained.

If you are lucky enough to have a license from one of the following countries, you can simply exchange your overseas permit for a local one. You need to go to a license center with your original license, an official translation, recent pictures, and several other documents, especially proof of residence. After taking an aptitude test, which includes measurement of eyesight and other basic aptitudes, and paying a fee, you will receive your license immediately.

The license exchange agreement applies to permits issued in these countries:

  • Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark
  • Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg
  • The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal
  • South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK.

Driving Tests in Japan

If you do not come from one of the countries listed above, you have to take a written and practical test, in addition to the aptitude test. These are considered to be rather difficult, so be sure to practice beforehand and inform yourself about the procedure. It is not uncommon for people to retake the test several times.

The written test consists of ten true or false questions which need to be answered in ten minutes. You need to get at least seven of the ten answers right in order to pass. The test is also available in several foreign languages, e.g. English, Korean, or Chinese.

The driving test takes place with an instructor on a special driving course created for this purpose. Be sure to bring enough money with you, as you are expected to pay for the test, the car, and, if you pass, the license.

The above procedure is for people who possess a foreign license. If you have no license and would like to take the driving test as the Japanese do, you should visit a licensed driving school in advance. You will have to register for the tests at the prefecture where you are registered as a resident. The written test consists of 50–90 questions and is only available in English in selected larger cities. The instructors for the driving test scrutinize your driving habits much more carefully, and the test may take place in actual traffic.

It is generally recommended to be able to speak and read Japanese in order to facilitate your taking the driving test, especially because the instructors testing you rarely speak anything other than Japanese. In addition, road signs are mainly in Japanese, especially outside of urban areas.

The Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) offers a comprehensive informational pdf on any questions foreigners may have on driver’s licenses in Japan.

Rules of the Road

Once you have successfully passed the tests, you are now ready to hit the road with your newly acquired license — or with your international driver’s permit. Be sure to pay attention to the following rules before you enter Japanese traffic.

  • Japan has a zero tolerance policy, meaning no alcohol whatsoever may be tolerated. Usually, the blood alcohol content required to charge you with drunk driving must be between 0.03 and 0.05 percent. However, if the police consider you “impaired” due to alcohol consumption, even a lower percentage may have consequences. If you are caught with any percentage of alcohol in your blood, in addition to a substantial fine, you might face a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
  • Japanese motorists drive on the left and the cars have the steering wheel on the right-hand side.
  • The speed limit is 40–50 km/h in cities and 100 km/h on divided national highways and expressways.
  • Seatbelts are required for all passengers within the car, and children must use proper child restraints.
  • The use of cellular phones while you are driving, whether they are handheld or not, is absolutely forbidden in Japan.
  • Be very wary of bicyclists and motorcyclists in Japan’s cities, as they have absolutely no regard for traffic rules.

When you are actually driving in Japan, it will occur to you that many Japanese drivers do not abide by all of the above rules. It is imperative that you, however, do so: Disobedience of traffic rules may result in deportation if the police catch you.

 

We do our best to keep this article up to date. However, we cannot guarantee that the information provided is always current or complete. 

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