Japan is known for its convenient, extensive public transport systems. But sometimes driving a car becomes necessary, for instance, carrying heavy items or traveling in the countryside. If you want to start driving 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, you can take two paths: 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 school. Read on to explore the details of each option!
The minimum driving age is 18 for cars and 16 for two-wheeled vehicles like mopeds and motorcycles. You also need adequate sight (corrected vision with contacts, glasses, etc is accepted) and hearing (hearing aids also accepted) and to be able to distinguish red, blue, and yellow and operate a steering wheel.
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 unless you choose an English-speaking school (more on that below).
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 a "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 Residence 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.
You enter a driving school that provides you with lectures (with textbooks) and practical lessons. You can make the classes fit your schedule; for example, evening classes are for those working or at 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 camp fees are all-inclusive (transportation/food/accommodation). The typical fee for commute training is about ¥300,000.
If you do not have the proper motivation or the discipline to attend classes regularly, your training period will drag on.
During busy seasons (summer/spring vacation), it may be challenging to book classes due to higher demand.
Training camps may be an option if you are looking for a quicker, surer way to obtain a license. You go with a group of people to a nearby suburban area. You will stay there for at least two 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. The training camps' typical fee is about ¥200,000 (usually including transport, food, and 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.
It would be best if you had a long-term holiday, which may not be possible for working people.
The camps tend to cater to young university students; if you are not around their age, you may feel oddly left out.
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 expensive training, just taking the test is perfectly acceptable. You can go to a driving test facility (a few only offer English tests). Remember that the passing rates tend to be lower compared to training schools; therefore, you might have to take the test multiple times. Unless you have private land where you can practice driving, it may not be worth it.
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 are unsatisfied with any of the above options, don't forget that deciding to go without a car is also perfectly feasible in Japan!