Driving Illegally

June 21st, 2012By Category: Culture

Driving in 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
drivers license

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 US 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
www.JapanDriversLicense.com an informative website that will make the process simpler for you.

Author of this article


GaijinPot is an online community for foreigners living in Japan, providing information on everything you need to know about enjoying life here, from finding a job and accommodation to having fun.

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  • Matteo says:

    I have had a Japanese drivers lic for many years. I must go to the EU to take care of my mother and the EU country requires me to give them my Japanese driv lic in exchange for this country EU driver license. I don’t want to give up my Japanese driv lic but not sure what to do as the EU country says they must take it. Should I ask Japan for a second driv lic so I can come back and give one to the EU country and have another for Japan? Say I lost it (I dont want to make problems) and get a new Japanese driv lic and then give the EU my “lost one” with cert trans etc?

  • The art of frightening foreigners even if they drive 100 times better…for no common sense reason.
    Typical Japanese behaviour of thinking Japan is unique and residing on a different planet than Earth…