Miyagi AJET - Newcomers' Info - Driving






Driving in Japan


If you’re considering driving in Japan, the first thing you need to do is get your supervisor’s approval.  In accordance with your contract, he is empowered to make the decision as to if you can drive on and off work time.… Should your supervisor give you the okay hanko on the driving issue, consider the following:


Driving in Japan can be quite a harrowing experience!!!  The roads are often more narrow than driveways back home, with big ruts and poor grading (not to mention the fact that many native drivers have an aversion to parking lots - preferring to park in the middle of the street with their blinkers on while they run their errands).  Life-size Tonka trucks whip along at insane speeds while pedestrians, bicyclists and ojisans (gramps) on mopeds compete to see who can weave in and out of traffic the quickest   Highways are non-existent, unless you want to pay tolls large enough to compete with many home equity loans.  And, for most JETS,  the signs are completely incomprehensible, providing no help at all in finding one's way through the mazes of streets with no names that were built around already existing houses and businesses (which,  I may add, are numbered by when they were erected instead of where they lay on the winding streets!).  Add to this that drivers must stop at every corner to adhere to horizontal replicas of the traffic lights back home! (It seems the government cut an excellent quantity deal on these, hanging them in the most unsuspecting places where drivers must stop the single-lane traffic at white lines painted meters in front of the actual traffic lights in order to give room for trucks to make too-wide turns on too-narrow streets)  And, gasoline prices are astronomical. Often, they run 4 times that of current U.S. prices (of course, this inflation in prices is only to balance the expenses of the Give-New-Meaning-To-The-Word-"Full"-Full-Service-Gas-Stations) where teams of young people in matching uniforms flag you in give you incredible service, including window-washing and ashtray-emptying if so desired, before running out into the street to stop traffic and wave you out. Whereupon, you proceed back into the harrowing traffic laden with your new Gas Station Gimmick Gift.  Maybe it's a basket of apples that sell at the local supermarket for ¥15O each. Or perhaps it's 2 months worth of toilet paper. Whatever it is, it's meant to ensure that you keep driving...and keep patronizing the same over-priced gas station!


All that aside, driving in Japan can also be quite a rewarding experience, too.  For those JETs in far-and-out places where public transport is inaccessible (or stops at some outrageously early hour), driving ensures contact with the outside world.  It gives them the freedom to see friends, explore the region, get to the store and generally stay sane by expanding their radius of easy-access places to go, shop, party, sight see and of course, to hide from the ubiquitous eyes and ears of the town that seems to catalogue their every move!


So, if you’re like me, you opt to drive instead of being driven insane by limited access. So if you've procured your supervisor's approval, here are some of the technicalities you'll need to deal with:




Enlist your supervisor's help in this. Most likely, he will be more than happy to help you find a car, if only to ensure it is a safe one. Also, spread the word that you're looking for a car.  In Japan, car owners must actually pay to get rid of their cars.  They'll often "give" an old car to you at a minimal price if you offer to pay them back for a percentage of their insurance and shaken (explained a little later).  If these venues fail and you must resort to a used car dealer, be sure to exercise the same caution and judgement as you would in your home country.




To buy a car you will need an official name stamp that is registered at your town office (hanko or inkan), a guaranteed parking space (shako shomei) and Japanese Car Insurance (hoken) - not to mention nerves of steel for driving and a large wad of yen for car expenses!




Of course, you need a license to drive a car in Japan. The easiest way to be licensed is to procure an "International License" (good for one year) before leaving your home country. A much more expensive and time consuming option is to obtain a Japanese license.  Either way, be sure to ask your supervisor about all relevant regulations.




It's expensive (up to ¥100,000), but worth it!  Get as much of it as your supervisor suggests.  We found out the hard way (after hitting a parked town-owned car trying to maneuver a tight spot) that car insurance insures peace-of-mind in Japan. Where folks back home might beat you with a steel pipe for so much as putting a slight scratch in their paint, the Japanese will often let scratches, bumps and dents pass with a laugh, saying, “that's why we have insurance!” (Of course, not all Japanese are so nonchalant when you injure "their babies," so I don't advise playing bumper cars just for the heck of it!).




“Inspection and service.” It is also expensive (between ¥100,000 and ¥150,000) and is mandatory bi-annually for cars under 10 years old and annually for cars over 10 years old.  Be sure to find out when your current shaken expires and shop around for the best deal for renewing it.




Parking in Japan can be quite a challenge.  Spaces are often very small and few-and-far-between.  They can also be expensive (¥400 an hour or more).  Parking citations and towing are not uncommon and must be dealt with immediately.  However, common sense and a watchful eye can help you find free (if not a bit illegal) parking.  Large stores usually have free parking for the hours that they are open.  Hotels can be a good place to park overnight, if you're sure they don't register guests' cars at the front desk.  Pachinko parlors and out-of-the-way-lots are another possibility.  Be creative.  Be careful. Ask local friends where it's "okay" (not necessarily legal!) to park!


GASOLINE (petrol)


Gas is very expensive in Japan!  It is not uncommon to spend upwards of ¥12,000 a month for gas with minimal local driving. Road trips and the inevitable "I'm lost!" excursions only serve to up this figure. Many service stations offer  "Point Cards," though.  Find a local service station, get a  Point Card" and use it.  That way, in exchange for the unmerciful amount of yen you spend each month on gas, you can earn fun prizes (umbrellas, tissue, bookstore certificates, Disney paraphernalia, etc.)  Also, you'll earn brownie points so that in the case that you wake up some brisk morning to find your car won't start, they'll be happy to help you (experience speaking!)!  




If you are used to “all-weather” tires in your home country - BEWARE!  You may find your car unable to get up even the smallest incline on a cold, snowy day.  Snow tires or chains are imperative for winter driving in Japan!




The speed limit on most roads is lower than you'd expect.  Thus, most people speed on country roads, while the police drive around with flashing lights to remind them to slow down.  If you’re among these speeders, highly unlikely that you'll actua1ly be pulled over and ticketed.  Just slow down and you should be okay.  The reason that police don't pull over and ticket you is because they prefer to meet their quotas with rather obvious seasonal speed traps. These are usually placed in the most blatant of places and manage to snare the majority of drivers in spite of this.  It's been my experience that if you buckle up, slow down and drive by with a big smile and respectful nod, you should be able to pass through with your wallet left unscathed. I can't promise this, though. So if you're flagged down, stop and do your best impression of “The Dumb Gaijin!”




Unless you're longing to go home on a permanent vacation leaving all the JETs after you without the option to drive - DON'T DO IT!!! The consequences just aren't worth the chances you'll be taking! Japan has very strict laws on drinking and driving and they enforce them. In addition to the legal dangers, being busted for drinking and driving  does irreparable damage to your reputation. You are a guest, a teacher (and therefore role model) and you could kill somebody (like one of your students).




If there's another JET in your area who you see very often, sharing a car is not such a bad idea!  As long as you work out the details of "expense sharing" from the start,  it really cuts down on them (especially the BIG ones like hoken, shaken and gas!).


So there you have it! The observations. The facts. Everything you need to make an informed decision: Do you want to drive or be driven insane? (Many JETs opt for the former. And, we thank ourselves and our supervisor every time we escape the town limits!!!)



This page was last updated: 02/14/00

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