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Cars in Japan

Welcome! Are you thinking about getting a car in Japan? If so, this is for you.

When I first bought my car in Japan, there was a lot that I didn't understand and didn't realize. While it turned out to be a very expensive learning experience, hey, at least I can share what I've learned with you, in a hopefully concise way.


This is a very personal question. I think it's important to weigh the amount of time you'll be in Japan, how much traveling you're planning on doing, and whether or not you have a specific type of car you want.

Another factor could just be how exactly can you get a car? Is there a rental shop near you willing to rent to you? Is there a dealer willing to sell to you?

In my case, by the time I found someone willing to rent to me, I had already found a dealer willing to sell to me, and willing to work with me for a payment plan. It did take a few months before I found anyone, so don't give up and just keep talking to as many people as possible.

If you are going to only be Japan for a year, renting might be your best bet. Renting means they are in charge of shaken*, although you may be responsible for any damages or general maintenance on the car.

If you buy the car, it is all up to you, although if you are quick on the fix and stay on top of oil changes and such, it may still be worth it in the end.

*Shaken is done either every two years or every three years depending on the age of your car. It can be quite a bit of money, and the best bet you have to know what it's going to be for you, assuming you bought the car, is to ask the dealer how much the prior shaken was.


....also know as kei car versus regular car. If you want to know more about the differences between the two types of car in Japan, check out this article.

In general, kei cars are smaller and can only hold four people. They are cheaper to run, but they do come with their own cons, like not having much weight to help in the winter if you live in a snowy place, and being easily blown over by strong winds.

The few kei cars I've driven (when my big boi was in the shop) were extremely difficult to raise up to high speed, and squealed like a piglet when going up hills. Now they were rental cars, so it's more likely that they were just beat to hell, but when I've been a passenger in them as well, I've definately noticed a difference in how the engine runs.

Some kei cars will have a feature where the engine turns off when it is at a stop, to save on gas. I think there is some arguing if that actual works or not, but if you find yourself driving a car that does that, just lightly press on the gas to make sure your engine didn't actually die.

White plates are basically cars that we are used to in the States. I drive a mom van, seven seater, with a back up camera and four wheel drive because I had every intention of driving a lot to experience the life of Tohoku. I have been very thankful for my four wheel drive and size when it comes to driving snowy mountain roads, although I have cursed the exact same things when the wind is so strong off the coast that I rock back and forth on bridges.

I think a general census of JETs in northern Japan is that a white plate is the way to go, especially since the weather up here is more likely to require four wheel drive and weight to get through.


So, here's what I struggled with when buying my car. I don't regret buying a car, but I do regret the specific car I purchased. Check for everything. Everything. By some work of a gremlin, my car didn't have a jack in it, and I had no idea until I needed one. That's right. I bought a car without a jack.

It's not that the car didn't originally come with a jack -- it was that my jack was gone. There was a spot for the jack, but it was just a cool carved out section in my car under the passenger seat.

So check for everything to be in the car.

Also if you are able to get a car that comes with both sets of tires, winter and spring, that is probably your best bet. If you buy a white plate car, the tires are going to be a few hundred dollars, but they will last you for a few years (most likely the entire time you own the car).

I went with a cheaper car, that didn't' have winter tires because I, stupidly, believed that I would be saving a little bit of money. Nope.


If I had bought the more expensive car I would have saved money, but oh well.

When you buy a car, you are automatically enrolled in the national Japan car insurance program, but you can buy supplementary insurance to give you a little more protection.

Here is where the age of your car is important.

If your car is older, the supplementary insurance may cover nothing except damage to something else in the case of an accident. This includes not covering a split windshield. :(

So check the age of the car you're looking at buying, and ask about additional insurance. If it doesn't cover any damage to the car (and I mean any. Even damage that might not make it road safe), then I would recommend going for a different vehicle. Things will add up a heck of a lot faster than you expect.

Shaken also plays a big part in what to look for in a car. The closer to the date that the shaken was done, the more expensive the car. The closer to the date that the car is due for shaken, the cheaper the car.

Knowing how much, approximately, shaken is going to cost for the car will help you figure out which one is the best deal for you. If you wind up doing shaken while you own the car, the sooner to when shaken was done, the better return you get for the car.

You can ask your car dealer if they will help you with shaken. They will charge you a service fee, but if you don't speak a lot of Japanese, or aren't very confident with car Japanese, it is very much worth it. You can also ask you car shop if they will hold your seasonal tires. Many mom and pop style car shops will help you a lot with this whole process.


Yes. You will need one if you stay more than one year. No. You cannot return and get another International Driver's Permit (IDP).

It can be a bit of a pain, depending on where you are from, but best advice: get your license transferred. Try to not have to go through the whole Japanese Driver's Course.

IDPs expire one year from your arrival date. If the person at AAA tells you otherwise, smile and nod. But the date of your entrance to Japan in your passport dictates expiration more than what's on the front.

Also ignore the AAA person when they tell you that the outlets in Japan are exactly the same as America. They aren't as they don't have the grounding port.

In general, if you are an American, you will need to go at least two days (maybe more) to get your Japanese license. It's best to bring an interpreter your first trip, as it is an interview to determine your eligibility to transfer your license, unless you speak a fair amount of Japanese. The second day you go will be your test day, and you might have to take the test more than once, if you don't prepare enough.

If you buy a car, you will want to get your license sooner rather than later. It can take over a month for the whole process, so start as soon as you can.

Do you have any other questions about cars in Japan? Do you have any advice you would want to share with other non-Japanese driver's in Japan?

Love always, Laura Ann

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