If your idea of driving in Japan has been wholly influenced by Initial D and Fast and Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, you're in for quite a shock. Even JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) enthusiasts who do not base their views of wider Japanese driving culture on such Western media representations often do not realise that while driving in Japan can be extremely fun and rewarding, the reality is on a day to day basis it's mostly boring and kinda just... sucks.
1. Getting a License is HARD
Assuming you are not from a location (most Commonwealth nations) where your country has a reciprocal agreement with Japan (Britain, Australia, Canada, etc), then there are two ways to get a license in Japan—you can convert your license if you hold a recognised foreign drivers' license, or you can go to driving school. Driving school, of course, is what the majority of Japanese people have to do, save for some "returnees" who learned to drive in a country where they were previously living. Driving school is expensive, around $3000 or so. The upside of going to driving school is that they don't just teach you how to drive, they teach you how specifically to drive in order to pass the licensing examination.
There's a ton of paperwork, just get used to that. And Kami-sama (God) forbid you have anything out of the ordinary in regards to your foreign license which doesn't match up with the photocopies they have in their allowed conversion books. I was delayed three months while I tried to get the Texas Department of Public Safety to write a letter (and then have it translated into Japanese and notarised) that although my license had a corner clipped off (which referred to the fact I was in the process of obtaining a new Texas license—itself not so easy when 7000 miles away) it remained valid until my new license arrived. You will need extra documentation if your license does not have the issue date of your license. The new Texas licenses have an issue date (for that card, I think, not for your actual original issue date, which was July 2000 for me), but the one from six years ago did not. That means ANOTHER DPS document notarised and translated into Japanese. Not fun and not cheap (although now you can get some of these forms online, I think?).
And the driving test? It has two parts and it's hard. Really hard. The written test in Japanese for those who choose the driving school is quite difficult. It's very long and it's in Japanese. It comes from a place of assuming that you previously have no driving experience, so it is significantly harder than the license conversion test. The license conversion test comes in multiple languages, including English, and is very easy. Many expatriates get a bit cocky after seeing the written conversion test. If you were even half awake during your own drivers education, even if it was 15 years ago, you can't fail this. It's got questions like, "if you see this sign (picture of stop sign), should you stop?" If you fail this test, you should not only be refused a Japanese license, you should lose your original license.
Then there's the actual road test. This is the same for both license conversion and new license acquisition. And this is where shit gets real. Although most Japanese do pass the test the first time, this is only because of driving school, which meant hours and hours and hours practicing specifically for this test. They've failed it many times before and been corrected by instructors. You, most likely, will not have had this practice. Even if you've driven in Japan with an international license from AAA or something. You will fail. Oh, and did I mention you have to choose between automatic and manual (Japan does not recognise this as the same skill set, and there are two different licenses), and that the manual test is even harder than the automatic test? I took the automatic test and failed three times. My total cost (since you have to pay each time) was about $700. Better than $3000, but still not cheap. My friend Chris who took the manual test? Seven failures.
Oh, and once you get your license, do you want to convert it to manual? Great! $700 more for a short course, and then you get to take the manual test. Which you will no doubt fail multiple times for even more money. And don't you ever, ever, EVER let that thing expire, even if you've stopped driving, or you'll have to go through the entire process again. You really don't want to do that.
2. Owning a Car is Expensive
Oh, so now you want to buy a car, since you have that shiny new Japanese drivers license, right? Stop there. If driving is not your passion, consider one of two other options: usage of a company car and/or leasing a car. I've only just decided to purchase my first vehicle since moving to Japan. Cars are cheap and plentiful, you won't have a problem finding one you want. However, that's only for the car itself—the rest of the expenses all add up. If you will only be in Japan temporarily, I suggest not buying your own vehicle. If you can have your company loan you a car (which I have done for the last several months) or lease you a car (at a rate which would be exorbitant if confused with a car payment, but not when you add up all the other expenses), you should do that. If not, there are small car leases which are relatively inexpensive. One of the best is on the Daihatsu Mira. Enthusiast or not, if you're here temporarily, getting a nice car (especially one of the JDM fever dreams like a Skyline GT-R or a Silvia s15 or a WRX etc) just isn't worth the hassle.
Otherwise look at paying for shaken, or inspection, which is due every two years and costs quite a bit. Usually between $1000 and $2000. It depends, of course, on the car. Then there are the prefectural taxes paid every year. This is about $400 and fluctuates based on the age of car. The categories are under thirteen years, between thirteen years and eighteen years, and over eighteen years. The older the car, the more you pay. And although insurance comes with shaken, it is only the base level liability. So if you have a very nice car, you should probably get more insurance.
Then you need to prove you have a place to put it, so you have to pay for parking registration at your local police station before you can even get ahold of the vehicle. If this doesn't come with your apartment, you will need to find parking. With most apartments, this is probably going to cost you between $20 and $30 in most suburban areas. I pay 2200 yen a month for my parking spot. The closer you are to the center of a major city or to a major station, the higher your parking space cost. I've seen people regularly pay about $100 for a parking space a few blocks from their apartment in an area where parking was scarce. It's best to just factor this into your idea of rent payment when you search for a place. Take your parking contract and drawn description of the space to the police, pay a fee, and get a registration sticker. If you have multiple parking spaces, you need only register one. Even if they are in entirely different areas.
If you have any expectation of driving long distances at the highway speeds you're used to using elsewhere, then you'll be in for a shock. The only place to drive that long at such speeds is on very expensive tollways. An hour on the tollway could be around $30. And be very careful about prefectural borders. Just this past weekend I missed an exit and the next exit was across the border. This jumped my total up by about $16. Prefectural changes are always ridiculously expensive. However, the tollways are pretty much the only real place where you can drive very quickly, and do so on a nice, long, flat, wide surface. Oh, and generally unless you're being very overtly stupid, there are no police officers to tell you to slow down. Everyone speeds twenty, thirty, sometimes fifty kilometers over the speed limit.
Be be careful of how far you go and how fast you drive, since... Oh, yeah, gas is about $4 a gallon here, just so you know.
3. Tiny roads
I haven't yet been able to figure out if eminent domain just doesn't exist in Japan, or if its highly restricted, or if it just isn't all that used. Most roads snake around property lines long since established with very little attempt to create straight, wide lanes. In most residential areas you'll be lucky if you can fit your kei car around the corners, and driving in some of the oldest quarters in Japan (such as a hot springs town I recently visited) pretty much reduces me to tears. There are open gutters, ditches, concrete block walls, things sticking out into intersections, and pedestrians that just decide to wander in front of you seemingly for the hell of it. Not to mention bicycles, scooters, and motorbikes darting at insane speeds around corners and through traffic. They're not nearly as bad as the two wheel operators I saw living in Seoul, South Korea, but then Korean roads are new, wide, flat, and long. Japanese roads? Not so much. I love driving on open rural roads with little traffic, but I pretty much hate driving the minute I am anywhere near an even remotely urban area.
Like any developed nation with a very high per capita rate of car ownership, Japan's traffic is awful. I won't even drive in Osaka or Kyoto after one really terrible experience. Tokyo? Ha. Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahaha. No. Never. I chose my apartment because it is five minutes by foot from a station on a major line that gets me into central Tokyo in just about an hour. So how's my commute to work, which is through a bunch of suburban bedroom communities on the Saitama/Gunma border? Pretty awful. The roads are actually pretty decent, we're far enough out for that, but everyone owns a car, and I swear to God, every single one of them is on the road between the hours of 7AM and 9AM each weekday morning. And I am always floored, even after six years, at the level of traffic midday on a Saturday or Sunday. Prepare to be bored and annoyed in your 300hp JDM demon.
So let's recap, shall we? Driving in Japan can be a lot of fun. Especially if you like mountain driving or like going to the tracks for drifting or drag racing. Plenty of tracks to drive. However, getting your license is really hard and really expensive. Buying a car is a pain in the ass and maintaining its legal status is really, really expensive. Parking is a total shit-show. Driving anywhere of any major distance at any relatively quick speed means using very costly tolls, and you need to watch your prefectural changes with an eagle eye. And of course most of your time in your daily driver (and you will only have one car, because multiple cars in Japan? You're mad. Totally out to lunch) will be spent crawling along in slow traffic along too small roads, and when you're not doing that, you'll be trying to meander your car through tiny residential streets that don't seem to be designed for your vehicle because they weren't.
And yet, you're going to go buy that Mitsubishi Evo anyway, aren't you?
Image via Shutterstock.
Kat Callahan is a writer for Jezebel and currently the LGBT editor at Jezebel's LGBT+ subpage ROYGBIV. She can be reached @JezebelKat on Twitter. She likes Japanese and German cars, with her loyalties being to Honda and BMW. She currently drives a JDM 2000 Honda Logo Sportic TS (GA5) and lives on the Saitama/Gunma Prefectural border in the Tokyo Regional Area of Japan.