Japan is known for its extensive public transport, such as the complex subway systems. However, times may come up when driving a car becomes necessary, for instance, carrying heavy items or travelling in the countryside. If you want to drive in Japan, there are a few options for you. First, if you already have a valid International Driving Permit, or a driver’s license in your home country, you can use this directly or convert it easily to a Japanese license. If you need to learn how to drive, there are two paths you can take; you can either take long term commute courses from private driving schools, or join a short term driving camp. Finally, you can also take the driving test without going to driving schools. Read on to explore the details of each!
Who can apply for a driving license?
For a regular two-wheeled vehicle, those above 16 years old are eligible. For regular cars, you need to be over 18 years old. You also need adequate sight, which can vary. You may also need your personal stamp (inkan / hanko) during the application process (this stamp is necessary for many other official procedures in Japan, such as opening a bank account!)
Though it is not compulsory, some level of Japanese skills will be useful as many road signs and other information are in Japanese. The examiners / teachers will most likely not speak English either.
Option 1: Driving with an International Driving Permit or switching from a valid driver’s license in your home country
If you already have a valid driver’s license that you obtained in your home country, there are two ways you can drive in Japan.
One way is by having a valid International Driving Permit (IDP) issued in your home country. However, keep in mind that this should only be a temporary solution. If you are a “resident” in Japan (not “tourist”), it is illegal for you to continue driving with an International Driving Permit. For example, if you are staying in Japan for an extended period (more than 12 months), or if you received your Alien Registration Card, you are considered a resident; therefore, you must obtain a proper Japanese driving license.
The second way is to convert your foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one. You can do this by submitting an application form to a Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) office. This will be followed by several tests to check your eligibility. More information can be found on the JAF’s website (http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm).
If you do not have a valid driver’s license in your home country, you need to go through training like regular Japanese applicants. By joining driving schools, you are exempted from the practical test, but you must pass the written test provided by the government.
Option 2: Long term commute training
You enter a driving school which provides you with lectures (with textbooks) and practical lessons. You can make the classes fit your schedule; for example, there are evening classes for those who have work or school during the day. You need around 60 hours of lectures and practicals combined to graduate.
You can go to classes in your spare time, even if you have other plans throughout the week.
You can experience driving in the area that you are accustomed to.
You can learn at your own pace (whereas you may feel pressured in a camp).
You can focus solely on driving.
If you schedule classes regularly, you can graduate in about one month minimum.
Commute training can be more expensive, considering that camps’ fees are all-inclusive (transportation / food / accommodation). Typical fee for commute training is about ¥300,000.
If you do not have proper motivation or the discipline to attend classes regularly, your training period will drag on.
During busy seasons (summer / spring vacation), it may be difficult to book classes due to higher demand.
Option 3: Short term training camps
If you are looking for a quicker, surer way to obtain a license, training camps may be an option. You go with a group of people to a nearby sub-urban area. You will stay there for minimum of 2 weeks, or until you pass the test. This method is popular as you can get a “holiday” feeling while you obtain your license.
The fee is cheaper than commute training. Typical fee for training camps are about ¥200,000 (usually including transport, food, accommodation).
While you are in the camp, you usually take lessons for the whole day, but you may be given days off when you can travel and go sightseeing around the area.
You can make friends with your course-mates through the camp.
Your training period will not drag on, as the term is fixed and some schools have policies that do not let you go home until you pass.
You need a long term holiday, which may not be possible for working people.
The camps tend to cater towards young university students; if you are not around their age, you may feel oddly left out.
Option 4: Taking the test without training
This method is not recommended for those without any prior experience driving. However, if you have driven before (perhaps in another country) and want a license without going through the expensive training, just taking the test is perfectly acceptable. You can go to a driving test facility (English tests are only offered by a few). Keep in mind that the passing rates tend to be lower compared to training schools; therefore, you might end up having to take the test multiple times. Unless you have a private land where you can practice driving, it may not be worth it.
Some driving schools in Tokyo for foreigners
Koyama Driving School
FCA Driving School
Kiki Driving School
Have you found your ideal path to driving in Japan yet? If you haven’t, don’t worry! Japanese cities have extensive public transport from subways to buses, so you can practically get anywhere without having to drive. Cycling is also an eco-friendly way to get around the city. So, if you were not satisfied with any of the above options, don’t forget that deciding to go without a car is perfectly feasible in Japan as well!