How to use your driver’s license in Japan

It is becoming more common, especially among experienced travelers willing to go off the beaten track, to try renting a car in Japan during their travels. Even though the nation’s train network is wide and ensures ease of access to all Japanese regions, covering the vast majority of touristy destinations, some countryside locations can be hard to access without a car.

Spurred by the increase of tourists in Japan, English-speaking GPS systems have become widespread and are available for renting. However, some advance preparation is needed before driving a car on the archipelago. For example, it is wise to learn some Japanese words and expressions to cope with some possible unpleasant situations.

International driver’s license

Japan has two rules on driving as a tourist. Some foreigners who possess a valid international driving permit are able to rent a car and drive on Japanese roads; however, foreigners from certain countries will have to translate their own driver’s license in a Japanese entity allowed by law.

Here is some more information on the designations of each country regarding driver’s licenses:

Valid International Driving Permit (IDP)

Foreigners can drive in Japan for a maximum of one year if they have a valid international driving permit. This cannot be requested or passed in Japan; it must be done in the home country in advance. It can be issued by the home country’s automobile federation for a fee. This was made possible thanks to the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, and it is valid for travelers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, India, Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong for example.

Translating a driver’s license to Japanese

However, citizens of some countries will be required to provide a translation of their driver’s licenses to the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF), an entity specified by law. These countries are France, Switzerland, Belgium, Monaco, Germany, Estonia, and Taiwan.

It is impossible to rent a car without this document, which is only available through the JAF. It is not very complicated, but citizens from these countries are required to observe the following process:

  1. print and fill out the application form (using instructions);
  2. head to one of 50 JAF Translation Office in Japan (here is the complete map; they are open from Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.);
  3. pay ¥3,000 (~US$ 27.60);
  4. present the original home country’s driver’s license and wait for about 10 to 15 minutes.

Some offices do not offer to do the translation and can only receive the document. You will have to wait about one week to get the translated document.

It is also possible to process the translation of a driver’s license via postal mail, but a Japanese address is required. The JAF does not send to foreign addresses and also does not receive mail from foreign countries. For this process, you will need to add:

  • a proper photocopy recto-verso of the original driver’s license to be translated;
  • ¥3,000 in cash (issuance fee);
  • a postal envelope with ¥500 (~US$ 4.60) for the return.

You will likely receive your translated driver’s license one to two weeks after the JAF receives your application form. This process is impossible to do by email.

Converting your country's license or passing the driver’s license test in Japan

For some expatriates, it is possible to convert the home country’s license into a Japanese license (外面切り替え gaimen kirikae). For this, along with documents the applicant must provide, the applicant must pass several necessary tests, depending on the home country, to test the following: skills, traffic laws, and, eventually, driving. The general opinion is that the whole process does not seem very complicated, except maybe the driving exam, which depends on the examiner.

Obtaining a real Japanese driving license involves a higher level of difficulty compared to the other methods described earlier. It is rare to obtain it on the first try. Reserved for +18 years old, it requires at least 31 hours of driving in automatic cars and 33 hours in manual cars, with sessions of two to three hours maximum for each. Applicants can only drive on a specific circuit before the first driving and traffic laws exam. Passing this exam is rewarded with a temporary license (仮免許 kari-menkyo), which gives the right to continue training on the road. Even after passing the final driving exam, the applicant must still take the traffic laws exam, which must be done in the residency prefecture as some details can vary from one prefecture to another.

The Japanese driver’s license works on a system of points, and after a first-year probational period, it is valid for three years before requiring renewal. If all points are taken, the traffic laws exam must be passed again, and if the applicant fails, his or her license will be revoked. After five years of driving without any traffic offenses, it is possible to obtain a golden sticker on the permit, which gives a discount on insurance. Japanese people must renew their licenses every three years, but this does not seem to be very strict, as suggested by the numerous car accidents linked to elderly drivers.

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Main illustration: Navion-kun, the mascot of the JAF application

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