Fewer than five percent of all international visitors to Japan drive a rental car, and that may well be for good reason! We're going to throw a quick figure at you -- one in 140. Based upon the most recent figure available, that's the probabilty you will be in a car accident if you rent a car as a foreign driver in Japan. And by a car accident, we mean "police must be called", not a ding in a door. However, the intrepid AutoSlash team is always happy to help provide tips and tricks in our AutoSlash Guide to Driving in Japan.
We bet "Deep Purple" avoided rental cars, for other reasons not stated.
1. Consider the wisdom of the U.S. State Department
We don't always recommend listening to the U.S. State Department. They sometimes have wildly inaccurate advice, such as continuing to state liability insurance is "optional" in Mexico (it's required). Their guidance for Japan is spot on, however:
Road Conditions and Safety: Driving in Japan is complicated and expensive. Traffic moves on the left side of the road. Those who cannot read the language will have trouble understanding road signs. Highway tolls can be very high. City traffic is often very congested. A 20-mile trip in the Tokyo area may take two hours. There is virtually no legal roadside or curbside parking; however, traffic is commonly blocked or partially blocked by those illegally parked curbside. In mountainous areas, roads are often closed during the winter, and cars should be equipped with tire chains. Roads in Japan are much narrower than those in the United States.
Traffic Laws: Japanese law provides that all drivers in Japan are held liable in the event of an accident, and assesses fault in an accident on all parties. Japanese compulsory insurance (JCI) is mandatory for all automobile owners and drivers in Japan. Most short-term visitors choose not to drive in Japan. Turning on red lights is generally not permitted.
Japan has a national zero percent blood-alcohol-level standard for driving, and drivers stopped for driving under the influence of intoxicants will have their licenses confiscated. If you’re found guilty of "drunken, speeding, or blatantly careless driving resulting in injury" you are subject to up to 15 years in prison.
All passengers are required to fasten their seat belts.
So you'll spend a lot, sit in traffic on the left side of the road, pay a lot for tolls, need to know the language, must have insurance, accept that everyone in an accident is at fault, can't turn on red, won't find a parking space in the city, and need to completely abstain at that business dinner to have a BAC of precisely 0.00. Mass transit is already sounding fantastic, even if the system were subpar (and it's not).
2. If your license is in English, you'll also need an International Drivers Permit
The State Department's correct again, and AAA thanks them for the referrals.
International Driving Permits (IDPs): An international driving permit (IDP) issued in the United States by the American Automobile Association (AAA) or the American Automobile Touring Alliance (AATA) is required of short-term visitors who drive in Japan. You must obtain an IDP issued in your country of residence prior to arriving in Japan. The U.S. Embassy or its consulates do not issue IDPs. IDPs issued via the Internet and/or by other organizations are not valid in Japan.
3. There are a smoking and non-smoking rental fleet
However, the smoking vehicles are exceptionally rare and are usually sold out months in advance.
It's easier to avoid smoking cars than to book them.
4. The visitor accident rate is real
Think 1 in 140 rental car transactions resulting in an accident is a high rate? So do we but that's what happens when the figures of rental cars rented to foreign drivers (from the National Tourist Bureau of Japan) are combined with the number of accidents with foreign rental car drivers (from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism). The conjecture is that this might be due to a large number of drivers coming from countries where drivers are on the right-hand side of the road (like the United States) instead of the left as in Japan. And just think -- there will be many more visitors when Tokyo hosts the 2020 Olympics!
5. Caution ... Foreign Driver Ahead
As a result of the high accident rate (and impending Olympics), rental car companies are experimenting with signs to tell Japanese drivers that a confused foreigner is in the car ahead. Yet these stickers insulting the driving capability of visitors are intended to be more friendly than a scarlet letter. One model is included in another one of our blog posts and another example is visible here You'll want to read that blog post; we're still not certain what the sticker is supposed to connote in any language while part of us prefers the yellow stripe NASCAR requires on the bumper of rookie drivers. The yellow stripes could be put on the bumpers of tourists, rookie drivers, and those who just completed a driver improvement class. That way, the City of San Francisco wouldn't complain about easily identifiable rental cars.
6. And those tolls?
The State Department tells us they are expensive, so that's a start. Most rental cars can be equipped with an ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) device, similar to the PlatePass and E-ZPass options in the United States. Japan has also moved toward a coordinated system of toll collection and just introduced a "Japan Expressway Pass" for non-residents in October 2017. It's for foreign visitors only and available at a limited number of locations (listed on their website). The cost is 20,000 yen ($176 USD as of mid-October 2017) for 7-days or 34,000 yen ($300 USD as of mid-October 2017) for 14-days but is "unlimited" with limits.
Note that the Japan Expressway Pass pass cannot be used for expressways in Hokkaido, Sky Gate Bridge tolls (100 yen per round trip), Kanmon Tunnel, Daini Shinmei Road, Shuto Expressway, Hanshin Expressway, or expressways operated by the Honshu-Shikoku Bridge Expressway Co. or expressway public corporations.
However, it can be used on Sanriku Expressway (Sendai–Matsushima Road), Kyoto Jukan Expressway, and Bantan Road, operated by expressway public corporations.
While some New Jersey/New York commuters would happily pay $176 for a week of unlimited tolls, we just feel sorry for those individuals and are pleased that even our New York-based team members avoid that form of abuse.
Looking for even more guidance? The JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation) has a driving rules guide. Need a quote on a rental car anywhere in the world (except Antarctica)? Click below to request a quote and we'll send the best possible rates within minutes.