Getting around Japan’s urban metropolises is notoriously easy thanks to one of the world’s best and most efficient public transportation systems. Outside of the urban areas, however, getting around Japan may require some form of personal transportation - whether that’s a car, van, motorcycle, or scooter.
While buying a car anywhere can be a pain, armed with the right information the process of getting wheels in Japan can be pretty straightforward. This guide will walk you through where to find a car, the buying process, how to register the car once you have it, and some of the other duties and special driving laws in Japan.
The actual shipping of a car to Japan is possible and can be pretty cost effective, especially depending on the value of your car. If you happen to live on the west coast of the US, the cost to ship should be around $2000 USD. Additionally, when shipping from elsewhere in the US, the cost shouldn’t rise above $3000, and shipping from Europe is about the same - between €2000 and €3000.
If you do decide to ship your car, however, be prepared for lots of paperwork, insurance and import tax, and the cost of having your car declared roadworthy once it gets to Japan. Having your car declared roadworthy runs about ¥444,626 ($4000 USD), while road tax will cost you another ¥222,313 ($2000 USD). All in all, the process isn’t cheap.
So, long story short-- it's possible to bring your car to Japan, but unless it’s a car you’re really attached to, it may be better for your wallet to sell your old vehicle and buy a new one.
- Start on the web. While there are some car brands in Japan that are found around the world, there are plenty of cars that are unique to Asia. It’s difficult to begin the buying process if you haven’t researched what’s out there, so doing some online research is a good place to start.
- Narrow it down to a couple of cars. In general, getting to the dealership won’t be all that convenient if you don’t already have a car. As such, it’s a good idea to know what you want in advance so you’re not wasting a lot of time driving around, visiting different dealerships.
- Hire a translator or bring a friend who’s fluent in Japanese. While someone at the dealership will probably speak at least a little English, buying a car isn't a process you want to get lost in translation.
- Pick a car and negotiate. Typically this will be done over tea. Not negotiating at all is seen as very uncommon in Japan.
- Fill out the paperwork. If you’re purchasing your car from a reputable dealer, regardless of whether it’s used or new, the dealer will help you get your car registered.
- Get your parking certificate. Without a parking certificate, you won’t be able to bring your new car home - as all cars must have a registered parking space and parking on the roadside is prohibited.
- Pay taxes and go!
The price of a car in Japan varies based on type, but can be broken down into a couple of averages. Cars in Japan are either white plate or yellow plate. White plate cars are the types of vehicles we’re used to seeing around the world - safe, spacious, and able to traverse long distances and move at high speeds. Yellow plate cars are considered “around town” cars, and are usually less safe, unable to meet highway speeds, and don’t have much trunk or leg space.
A used white plate car should cost between ¥240,000 and ¥300,000, while a new white plate car will usually cost ¥1,000,000 or more. A used yellow plate car runs between ¥160,000 and ¥220,000, while a new yellow plate car can range anywhere up to ¥1,000,000.
Once you’ve purchased the car, you’ll need to pay for your shaken (roadworthiness inspection) which can cost ¥120,000 or more (but includes third-party insurance), automobile tax at 5% of the cost of the car, tonnage tax around ¥75,000, and a name change fee between ¥10,000 and ¥25,000.
Other costs include liability insurance (~ ¥30,000), auto tax (¥30,000 - ¥50,000), gas (~ ¥110 per liter), and your parking space (~ ¥20,000 in the city).
Where to find a car will depend on whether you’re hoping to purchase your vehicle used or new. For new cars, you’re always best off going directly to the dealership. If you’re looking for a used car, however, the following sites are a good place to start:
Paying for the initial deposit of a car in Japan is usually done by credit or debit card. The following monthly payments can either also be paid by card or by direct transfer.
If you’re planning to finance your car from your bank account back home, using TransferWise can help ensure you get the mid-market exchange rate and avoid huge international bank transfer fees. Many banks may advertise 0 fees, but will add a markup to the rate they offer. With TransferWise you can always be certain you’ll receive the real rate - the one you’d find on Google - as well as only be charged a fair fee, stated upfront.
Driving a car and the laws surrounding transportation vary a little by country. The following point will address some of the things you need to know about driving in Japan.
The most important thing to remember when driving in Japan is that cars drive on the left side of the road, and the driver’s seat is on the right side of the car. While this may be familiar to drivers from the UK and Australia, it can take some time getting used to for drivers from the US and Europe.
There is zero tolerance for drunk driving in Japan. The legal limit is 0.03%, however if you get stopped by the police you can still get fined even if you have not exceeded the limit. This may happen if the police decide you are too intoxicated to drive safely. If you exceed the 0.03% limit, you can face up to 5 years in prison or a fine of around ¥1,000,000. They will also likely confiscate your driver’s licence. Since Japan is very community-oriented, other passengers in the car will also be fined and prosecuted for having aided and abetted the driver to get behind the wheel when under the influence. So it’s always best to avoid having any alcoholic beverages when you need to drive.
If you’re from Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Sweden, Switzerland, or Taiwan and your driver’s licence was issued there, you can legally drive in Japan with your licence and an official copy translated into Japanese for up to a year. You can get the translated copy from the Japan Automobile Federation or from your country’s embassy or consulate in Japan.
However, if you’re licence was issued in a different country, you’ll likely need an International Driving Permit (IDP). Make sure to take your licence alongside your IDP with you to Japan, as an IDP on it’s own is not valid and it’s also not issued in Japan. You’ll need to get it ahead of time from your home country. Even though your IDP may have an expiry date beyond 365 days, you won't legally be allowed to drive with it in Japan after a year is up. You’ll then need to get a Japanese licence or go back to your home country for 3 months, get a new IDP and return to Japan.
To legally drive in Japan, you’ll need a single item: a warning smoking marker. If you’re driving on the highway, however, you’ll want to add a warning triangle to that list.
There are lots of roadside assistance and towing services you can use in Japan, and it’s best to research one in your local area. That being said, many expat driver use Japan Assist International for roadside assistance in English and other major languages.
Not knowing Japanese can make finding, buying, and driving a car a little more difficult. While learning a language in it’s entirety takes a long time, it’s a good idea to at least know a few words or phrases, like the following:
|Car and Driving Vocabulary||Japanese Translation|
|Car accident||交通事故 (kotsu jiko)|
|Car dealership||カーディーラー (kadira)|
|Speed limit||制限速度 (seigen sokudo)|
Buying a car in Japan is a pretty straightforward process, and you may even find it a lot more pleasant than you would elsewhere in the world. Between salespeople who are trained to let you take your time and look around without disturbing you, negotiations that are done over a cup of tea, and a wide range of selection, you’re sure to be on the road in no time.
Good luck buying your car in Japan!