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
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
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
http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-drive.html 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
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
So, to all the American citizens living in Japan and wanting to
drive or currently driving illegally, I would suggest taking the
driving test in Japanese instead of English. You will likely
score higher. S.B.