Owning a Vehicle

Many foreign folk will find that having a car affords more freedom, even if it makes saving boatloads of cash just a little bit more difficult. Some things don’t change no matter where you live in the world, and having and keeping a car is one of them. For those considering the option, the info below should prove very useful, and hopefully allay any panic you may have about owning a car.

Jump to a specific category: Vehicle Types | Shaken | Insurance | Parking | Taxes | Drunk Driving | Daiko | Accident/Ticket Procedures | Miscellaneous Driving Tips | Scooters and Motorcyles

Vehicle Types

Unlike most countries, Japan has 2 types of cars; standard (white number plate), and “Kei” (yellow number plate). White-plate cars are the same kind of cars you are probably familiar with from your home countries; full-size sedans, SUVs, vans, etc. White-plate cars are great for carrying passengers and luggage, and offer a lot of protection in the event of an accident.

Kei cars are compact with small engines, so they are less expensive to run on a day-to-day basis, and the yearly tax is much cheaper. They are also much easier to maneuver on narrow Japanese roads. However, their size makes them very light, they have less powerful engines (so getting uphill in the mountains might be a struggle), and they offer little to no protection in the event of an accident.

You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each type on your own and decide what is best for you. Many ALTs choose kei cars for their low cost, but plenty of others opt for white-plates as well.


Shaken is the mandatory vehicle inspection. Cars are inspected when they are three years old and then every two years after that. The price of Shaken varies based on the size and the age of the car. Should your vehicle require repairs to pass inspection, the cost of these repairs will also be reflected in the price of shaken. As such, shaken can vary widely from person to person.

Your vehicle should have a sticker in the windshield which says when your shaken is due. You must take your vehicle in for inspection BY that date, though we recommend going in early in case any lengthy repairs are required.


There are two types of vehicle insurance.

  • 自動車損害賠償責任保険 Jidousha songai baishou sekinin hoken (automobile liability insurance, also called “jibaiseki hoken”) is compulsory third party car insurance, and covers the bare minimum of damage to someone else. This is included in your shaken and lasts for two years.
  • 任意保険 Nin-i hoken (voluntary insurance) provides extra coverage for yourself, other drivers, etc. This must be applied for separately, and the length of term varies by company, but is generally 1 or two years. If you get into an accident, or injure or kill someone while driving, and do not have this insurance, you could find yourself hundreds of thousands of yen in debt.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR ALTs: While voluntary insurance is not required to drive in Japan, as government employees ALTs are required to have it, or else you will not be allowed to drive to or from your schools or business trips. You could get into very serious trouble should you have an accident on the way to or from work and don’t have this coverage. When you buy a car, please ask your supervisor to help you arrange coverage–the Japan Teachers’ Mutual Aid Co-operative Society offers an insurance program specifically to teachers.


You may need to submit proof of having a place to park your vehicle (shako shomeisho) to the police before you can purchase a vehicle. Parking may cost up to several thousand yen a month depending on your area.


Vehicle taxes are paid annually. You will receive a bill in April and must pay by May 31. A stamped auto tax receipt is required for your bi-annual shaken inspection, so do not lose it.

  • 自動車税 ”jidousha-zei” (vehical tax) This tax is applied to white-plate cars and is calculated based on engine capacity. This tax is levied by the prefecture.
  • 軽自動車税 ”kei jidousha-zei” (light vehicle tax) This tax is applied to Kei cars, mopeds (under 50cc), small bikes (under 600cc), and mini-cars. This tax is levied by municipalities, rather than the prefecture.

Weight tax 

  • 重量税 ”juryou-zei” (weight tax) This tax is based on the wight of your vehicle. It is paid biannually as part of your shaken cost.

A more complete guide to the vehicle tax system, including projected costs, can be found here.

Drunk Driving

There is ZERO TOLERANCE for drunk driving in Japan. If you get caught driving after having had any alcohol (even just half a glass of beer, say), you can be fired, lose your license, thrown in jail, and forced to pay huge fines. You can also be held responsible if you are a passenger in a vehicle or if you let someone who has been drinking drive. Don’t risk it.


For those who feel the commute home from the bars would prove too tiresome, and ultimately inconvenient without a vehicle, the “Daiko” system in Japan offers drivers a safe, legal means of returning home after a night of drinking.

“Daiko” involves a hired driver who will drive you home in your car. A second car will follow behind to collect the driver once you have arrived at your destination. Thus, personally driving your own vehicle somewhere for a night on the town does not require leaving your vehicle parked overnight, thanks to this service.

All you need do is request an employee at the establishment you’ve been drinking at call for “Daiko,” and you’ll have an efficient means home. The cost is slightly higher than simply calling for a taxi and can vary from place to place, but it’s better than risking a drunken drive home!

Accident/Ticket Procedures

If you are involved in an accident, call the police immediately (110), and an ambulance if necessary (119). Also contact your insurance company. You will need to have your license, proof of ownership, shaken form, and passport or residence card.

If you incur a traffic violation, the police officer may ask you to accompany them to the nearest koban (police box), where they will explain the reason for the ticket and what to do after. They should have a book with English translations to help.

If you have an accident or get a ticket of any kind, please report it to your Supervisor (and Vice Principal for high school ALTs) as soon as possible. They will find out whether you tell them or not, so it is best that they find out from you first.

Miscellaneous Driving Tips

  • Speed Limits in Japan are probably lower than your home country.
  • Roads may be much narrower than you are used to.
  • Many roads have ditches along the edge that are just the right size for a tire to fall into.
  • Watch out for drivers running red lights (a Miyazaki specialty).
  • 満タンお願いします “mantan onegai shimasu” means “Fill it up, please”
  • #円ぶんお願いします “#yen bun onegai shimasu” means “#yen’s worth, please.”
  • 現金   “gen kin” means “Cash”


Scooters and Motorcycles

Mopeds that are 50cc and under can be driven with a regular automobile driver’s license. Be sure you study the traffic rules, as scooters follow a different procedure for making right turns at large intersections.

To ride a motorcycle over 50cc capacity, you will need a motorcycle driver’s license. If your international driving permit does not cover motorcycles, you will not be able to drive one legally.

Helmets are mandatory.