Driving illegally in Japan

By Lease Japan

Lease Japan puts a lot of people behind the wheel of a new or used car every year. Recently, we have noticed an increase in the number of people who are inadvertently driving illegally in Japan with International Driver’s Permits. Many people, especially those who came to Japan before 2002, are unaware that they are driving on an invalid IDP, and are in danger of suffering fines, jail time, or even deportation if they are discovered, usually during a routine traffic stop.

It is possible to drive legally in Japan for up to one year with one of the following:

  • An International Driving Permit (IDP) issued by a signatory country of 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (there are 95 countries & 2 regions who have signed this (as of March 5, 2011); notable exceptions include Brazil, China, Mexico, Russia, and Vietnam) (Japan Traffic Act Article 107 Provision 2)
  • A driver’s license from Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, or Taiwan and a Japanese translation, issued by JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) or a foreign embassy / consulate office in Japan (Japan Traffic Act Article 39 Provision 4 & 5).

Before 2002, an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) could be renewed repeatedly and used, with a valid overseas license, instead of formally applying for a Japanese driver’s license. But, after the law changed, the use of an IDP was limited to (Japan Traffic Act Article Number 107.2)

  • 1 year maximum from first arrival in Japan
  • Drivers returning to Japan after being out of the country for at least 3 months

After your IDP expires, you must convert your foreign license to a Japanese license. You may not renew it unless you leave the country again for at least 3 months.

Though this law changed nearly 10 years ago, the information has still not completely filtered out to the foreign communities of Japan, and many people are risking penalties of up to 1 year imprisonment, and in extreme cases may also result in loss of employment or deportation every time they get behind the wheel.

2011 saw two high profile drivers arrested for driving without a license in Japan in situations involving invalid International Driving Permits (IDP).

Teenage Japanese golf star Ryo Ishikawa was the first. Ryo Ishikawa is famous in Japan and was recently named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year for promising to donate all of his golf earnings for 2011 to support relief projects related to Japan’s recent devastating tsunami.

The award and the golf pro’s notoriety did not help when he was caught driving on an invalid IDP; he was arrested and charged. Ishikawa got a United States Driver’s License, and IDP while playing in the US, but failed to notice that an IDP is only valid if the license holder has been outside of Japan for more than three months, which he was not.

The second arrest of 2011 was … “That foreign guy from the Softbank commercials with the cute dog” which is how most of us in Japan know American actor Dante Carver.

Carver, who has been in Japan since 2005, was stopped in Shibuya after making an illegal U-turn. When asked by police for his license, he produced an invalid IDP, and was arrested. Having lived in Japan since 2005, he was well beyond the legal limit for driving with an IDP. To have used an IDP legally for that amount of time, he would have had to leave the country for 3 months out of every year. It appears instead that he simply renewed his IDP and continued to use it, unintentionally breaking the law.

The law seems cut and dry on paper, but the advice provided can often be confusing.

The United Kingdom and New Zealand Embassies in Tokyo both recommend that their citizens living in Japan abide by the rules as written and utilize an IDP in for no more than their first 365 days in Japan.

The U.S. and Australian Embassies advise their citizens to us an IDP in Japan for no longer than 90 days if on a tourist visa, and not at all if you are residing in Japan.

The differing advice is related to comments by Police officials in Japan that they “prefer” an IDP be used only by visitors to Japan, rather than residents. While the rule is written clearly, it is interpreted differently throughout Japan, and drivers using an IDP run a risk that they will be swept up in the confusion.

From The U.S. Embassy Website _International Driving Permits (IDP) “Residents” are expected to convert or obtain a Japanese driver’s license. Persons using an international driver’s license who are resident in Japan can be subject to fines or arrest. The exact boundary between “resident” and “not resident” is unclear. In practice it seems to involve more than simply visa status or length of stay in Japan and is determined by the police.

We have heard from several Americans who were told by the police that using an International Driver’s License for more than a year, or using one after exiting and then returning to Japan, or using one when you are residing in Japan, or after you have obtained an Alien Registration Card, or after 90 days in Japan, or using a license obtained by mail while you are in Japan, is illegal. In two instances, following accidents, Americans were charged with driving without a license, a serious offense.

Driving without a license may also void your insurance coverage._

From The Australian Embassy Website _Japanese transport authorities advised in December 2010 that they would prefer that only tourists on the 90 day temporary visitor entry visa use an International Driver’s Permit (in conjunction with their Australian driver’s license) to drive in Japan.

Supposedly, Australians can drive in Japan on an International Driver’s Permit (in conjunction with your Australian driver’s license) up to 365 days following their initial entry into Japan. However, local authorities have advised that due to abuses of this system, they now prefer that anyone who is residing in Japan drive using a Japanese license, not an International Driver’s Permit.

We suggest that Australians residing in Japan on a visa other than the 90 day temporary visitor entry visa obtain a Japanese driver’s license after their arrival if they wish to drive in Japan._

At Lease Japan, we are concerned about the confusion surrounding the use of an IDP by residents of Japan, and recommend the safest option of converting your foreign driver’s license to a Japanese license immediately.

While the law gives you a grace period of one year, in practice you could be cited anyway. When you consider that a conviction for driving without a license will void your insurance coverage as well, driving on an IDP as a resident is simply too much risk for a reasonable person to take.

Residents should ensure that they are in full and obvious compliance with Japanese Law on the subject to protect themselves from civil and criminal liability.

For information about converting your foreign driver’s license to a Japanese driver’s license please see an informative website that will make the process simpler for you.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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I used to drive for about 3 years with an IDP, when it used to be legal. I had no idea they changed the law, until they fined a friend of mine. the driving test was a bit difficult, but I changed my license to a Japanese one

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I switched just before my US license expired, fortunately passed the driving test the 1st time. (Many other gaijin I took it with had failed multiple times) This week I have to go get an international license so that I can drive in the US under my Japanese license - fun.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I shouldn't drive when I am in japan anyways. Too much tasty beer to drink every day...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

My husband and I rented a car 2 years ago to do a big drive (3000km in 3 days) and the rental shop had no problem letting me drive under an internation permit...luckily I wasn't pulled over because I didn't know about this rule until afterwards! Now I have my Japanese license and can drive anytime I want.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Given that i'm a Puerto Rican native in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and still residing there since birth, having convicted of a first-degree homicide and served jail time as issued by court (Being the only one in my criminal record), does this mean that i ain't eligible or what?

P.S. The licence i have in the mentioned jurisdiction above is still in validity

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

About 5 years ago, I was caught for speeding and had an expired IDP at the time. Also, I had been in Japan since 1997. At that time, we could renew it as many times as we want. For many years I wasn't aware of the law change. Anyhow, they didn't arrest me or anything. They just had me come into the police station and show my passport. I just had to pay the speeding ticket. Eventually I got a Japanese drivers license but it took me 8 times before I passed the drive test. They were very strict about every little detail of the drive test. Now I have gold card!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Back in "the day," you didn't have to take a test to convert your license - you'd just attend a lecture, fill out some paperwork, and done. While there, I met a Japanese guy who had BOUGHT a license while in Bolivia (whose licenses were not afforded such consideration), then converted it to a US license (which were), and was then going for his third - all without so much as a single parallel park.

I can guess why Ishikawa elected to get his license in the US: the test is based on skill and knowledge, whereas in Japan, attendance at a private driving school (for some several hundred thousand yen) is a de facto prerequisite. My son will be going to the States for college next year, and I told him I'll have a friend of mine there teach him how to drive. That'll save the equivalent of several round-trip tickets.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Laguna, he has to stay in US at least 90 days after he gets the driving license, otherwise he can't apply for changing it to a Japanese one. And I think he doesn't need a driving test to convert a US license (or an Australian one). By the way, you don't have to attend a driving school to get a license in Japan, you can go directly for the test. I don't know if you have any idea about what they teach at a driving school in Japan, but it's much more difficult than US. both the skill and knowledge. try taking the driving test

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Timeon, you do need to take the driver test if you have an American license. It's a 10 question written test and the driving test. It was more nerve racking than difficult but I passed the first time.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I got busted 2 years ago. Was driving with and expired IDP for a few years (my US was valid) I will admit and I can't blame anyone, I know it was wrong, but I was lazy, the system being such a hassle. I had always been careful, but it just takes that one time, I got a call from a friend, didn't have my headset, answered the phone in that 2 second period, I past a Koban and yep, there were two cops sitting (bored no doubt) in the car, so they raced to catch me and I knew I was toast, they pulled me over and asked me for my license and well, when I handed them my IDP, they were NOT happy to say the least, again, I knew I brought that on myself, but boy did they treat me as if I butchered a person. Anyway, I spent the next 8 hours at the Police station, being interrogated by a bunch of pissed off cops. I was lucky, they were going to put me in jail, but one of the reasons they didn't was because I did have an American valid license, that was THE only reason for that mild consideration. Make a long story short, I had to go back 3 months later to be interrogated again and do a lot and I mean a lot of paperwork, they told me beforehand, to take the day off and prepare that I might be there for 9 hours and that they have to write up detail for detail exactly what happened on that day leading up to the arrest. I lied and told them that I didn't know, the key was never change your story, NEVER, once you do that, you are screwed. I just kept telling them, I was totally oblivious to the law, sometimes they were decent, other times, they were shouting. they had to write the report in Japanese, translate it in English and this was all done by hand!!! Then they had to type it all up and then read it to me. Then I had to wait another 2 moths to go to the judge for sentencing. That took about an hour, the judge said to me, you are going to make a Japanese license? I said, yes! Then he said, you won't do that again, right? I said, NO way! Then I had to wait another few months and they sent me the bill. A whopping ¥250.000 and 1 one year driving suspension. I had to pay 6 months later after receiving the judgment. After waiting one year. I did the right thing, signed up for driving school and did the whole driving course deal. It was a hassle and living in Fukuoka on average people fail between 3 to 6 times before passing. Once I passed and got my license, I felt a huge sigh of relief. Now, I don't have to look over my shoulder anymore. Yes, it would have costed a lot less had I done it the right way. I learned the hard way, but I think the current system in Japans driving laws and the process of changing international driving licenses need a serious overhaul and better clarification. I am advising everyone who is driving illegally, DON'T! It's not worth the hassle, BELIEVE ME! Just bite the bullet, get your license from your home country translated and just follow the rules and change it to a proper J-license, will save you a lot of money and a whole lot of mental and emotional stress.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

What was the fine that Ryo Ishikawa received, or did he get jailtime? I don't remember reading the article when it happened.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Got my license about 5 years ago, no written or driving test required in my case...Gold now. The big plus for foreigners to get a license is to use it for ID purposes. If you are a resident, even if you don't drive its great to have just for this. Its good to be able to process applications etc using a drivers license for ID just as Japanese citizens do, rather than using your ARC. I was even involved in a minor accident while riding my moutain-bike, hit by a taxi. The police required ID for their report, pulled out the Japanese license, nooo problem.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Agreed, I always proffer my Japanese driver's license for ID first and normally it is sufficient. Got my int'l license in Kanda yesterday, a short walk from Otemachi, total breeze, took 5 minutes. Going early in the day, in the middle of the week is the way to go, too. The guy seemed happy that I was a permanent resident, not sure why.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Bass4Funk: thank you for sharing that story. It must have been tough for you but I admire your honesty in fronting up and accepting your mistake.

Why do the cops scream and shout like that anyway? They did it to me once over something completely not even my fault (big 6` plus guy accusing me of attacking him! It was a joke!). It was really intimidating and especially bad as they did it right in front of my frightened children. So unprofessional.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I wonder how many gaijins driving without an international license

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The National Police Agency needs to be rapped on the knuckles for their arbitrary enforcement of non-existent laws.

"Supposedly, Australians can drive in Japan ... However, local authorities have advised that due to abuses of this system, they now prefer ..."

"Supposedly"? "Prefer"? Are these people serious? International driving is governed by agreements signed by representatives of nations across the world, with everything spelled out clearly. That's what "rule of law" means. If the law says one year, then you get to drive on your IDP for one year. If the NPA doesn't like that, then they can get the law changed. Not go around telling people, "well, the law says a year, but we might consider you unilcensed anyway, if we feel like it." Look at all those instances in the US embassy's text of the police just making up "law" on the spot. What a disgrace!

And the law preventing foreign license holders (who maintain residences in the states/countries that issue their licenses) from renewing their international permits was never about "abuses". It was about stopping Japanese people from bypassing the NPA's expensive licensing system and the near-mandatory driving schools. Go abroad, learn to drive, and pass a test that, assuming you study hard and diligently practice, you'll probably pass on the first try? Can't have that!

The Japanese law, and the NPA's capricious interpretations of it, have nothing to do with road safety and everything to do with getting people into those expensive driving schools and forcing them to repeatedly take the driving test. I wonder what they'd think if the rest of the signatories to the 1949 and 1968 conventions started making up their own arbitrary additions to these treaties and enforcing them against Japanese drivers!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Ugh. Why would anyone drive in Japan?

One of the two main reasons I came to Japan was so as NOT to have to drive.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

james cant agree more with you!!

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Sorry to say but if Japanese cops were to yell at me, I'd have to restrain myself from laughing because J-Cops are just not intimidating. American cops, now that's another story. Anyway, sorry to say, I love japan but this is really the most racist country I've ever been to and I've done some traveling. I think it's much better here on Okinawa. All these rules about driving and this country houses THE worst drivers for a civilized country. Anywho, I'm happy to say I am a properly licensed driver (Gold) and a permanent resident here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@bass4funk, it's a super old thread but on the off chance you see this: thanks for writing out that story. Were there any lasting repercussions like, problems with your insurance or otherwise?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

@bass4funk, after this incident, can you still continue renew your resident visa?

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