Your Guide to Owning a Car in Japan

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Living in Japan and thinking about owning a car? One the one hand, this can be great! It opens up many doors, allowing convenience and efficiency. But buyer beware: Owning a car in Japan is expensive! More so if you live in the city than the countryside though; car ownership is generally not recommended for city-dwellers. The trains are just way too convenient.

However, if you intend to take the leap and get the car of your dreams or just one to get you from point A to point B, here is our guide to the good, bad, and ugly of auto ownership in Japan.

The Good

With a personal vehicle, you have the convenience of being able to go wherever you want, whenever you want, in comfort. No worries about catching the last train or riding the crowded trains during long holidays, for that matter. You can go nuts at the grocery store and stock up without worrying about how to carry the groceries home.

And face it, Japan has beautiful landscapes that should be experienced through a car window; with friends, family or alone. You can pull over, take a picture and continue on your journey. Trains are nice, but nothing beats a good drive. Also, there is no other way to experience the Japanese highway service areas than by car or bus. Some of the service areas are just amazing. Think convenience stores but 100x better.

Despite the narrow roads, tight corners, and different rules, having your own car is another level of freedom that will give life in Japan more depth. But know that it will come at a cost.

The Bad

You are probably excited and ready to settle on that little hatchback, rugged SUV or dare I say, sporty K car with the turbo. I should warn you about a few things: Toll roads are everywhere; Neither parking nor gas is cheap.

On any trip, toll fees, parking, and gas are always on my mind. It is nice to explore new places and drive around, but depending on the distance and location, a weekend getaway can cost more than the accommodations alone. Almost all express routes in Japan are toll roads. I have yet to encounter free parking aside from hotels and malls.

Furthermore, (at the time of writing this article) gasoline costs about ¥150/ L (USD 6/ Gallon). A 3-4 hour return trip using the highway can be costly. You can always negate the cost of the highway tolls by using local roads, but it can be physically taxing. If you absolutely must use toll roads, an ETC card is definitely something you should get. There are many discounts available for ETC card users. Even after all of this, you may still be thinking: “It’s not about the money, it’s about the memories”. Sorry to burst the bliss bubble, but the car fee frenzy doesn’t stop there.

The Ugly

Hopefully, the reality of owning a car is starting to settle in. I didn’t want to start with the nitty-gritty details because I feel that this might turn you off completely. And rest assured, once you know what you’re in for, and weigh it against the benefits, owning a car will indeed be worth your while. With that said, it is time for the harsh reality of car ownership. Let’s start with the taxes! Deep breath.

Depending on the size of your engine and the type of car you drive, the amount of tax you pay will change. The annual automobile tax can cost anywhere from ¥5,000 for a Kei car to ¥66,000 for something with a bigger beefier engine. FYI, Kei cars are the little cars you see with the yellow license plates. They are generally cheaper to drive but much slower, have smaller engines, and have a limited crumple zone. Generally, Kei cars are ideal for light drivers. Unless you get the sporty types. Those are just fun.

Next, is the shaken, pronounced ShAh-Ken. This is the mandatory maintenance cost for car ownership. It is basically to ensure that your vehicle is working and not creating more pollution than allowed. Once again, Kei cars will cost you less; roughly ¥70,000 to ¥100,000. Vehicles with a white license plate will cost anywhere from ¥80,00 and up. Also, shaken needs to be renewed every 2 years. If your car is brand new out of the dealership, shaken is due for renewal on the third year after the car was manufactured. So, remember to put a little bit of cash away every month, so you aren’t in a tight spot when the wonderful day of shaken arrives!

I always thought it was strange that the price does not relate to the actual state of your vehicle. Or the overall condition. Minus your repair costs, it seems to be a standardized amount. But, I digress.

You also need to pay for insurance. How could I forget! Starting at ¥20,000/ year for Kei car owners. This amount can increase depending on several factors: Your car, driving history, age, …etc. There are many different insurance companies around that offer different packages, so be sure to shop around. This is where knowing Japanese or having a good Japanese friend really comes in handy.

Next on the list of costs, is maintenance. “But wait!” you say. “I thought shaken was maintenance!”. Unfortunately, shaken is not maintenance. So, you should definitely prepare for it. This would include, oil changes, cleaning, repairs and anything else that happens in the time between shaken. A properly maintained car will most likely have a lower shaken cost. It will also break down a lot less. You don’t want your car to break down. Do you?

Last but not least and probably the most important thing to note: Before a dealer will let you drive off the lot in your new car and obtain ownership, you must prove that you have a place to put the vehicle. This means having a parking space. Depending on where you live, the price of parking can be free or upwards of¥20,000! You usually need to have the space ready and the police will come and inspect it to see if it is suitable for your vehicle. If you don’t have a parking space already, then you will need to look for one. You may even have to pay the first two months of rent for the parking space as well.

Conclusion

That is about all you should know about owning a car in Japan. As you can see, it is very costly and you should definitely consider these things before you buy or lease your vehicle. I say all this not to discourage you though, but to prepare you for he realities. Before you take the plunge, be sure to do your homework. Find the kind of car that fits your needs. If you have the luxury, find the place to live that best fits your car.

As mentioned, if you live out in the country, car ownership is a huge benefit and worth the investment. I have had my car for about 4 years and drive as much as I can because I love driving. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and there are millions of others just like me living here. Cars are a great tool and give you an added level of independence in Japan. Just remember, independence can be pricy, so be smart, plan ahead, and get ready to enjoy the freedom of the open road!

Images for this article were provided by the MUSUBI Staff. Cover image by Hiroyoshi Urushima on Unsplash

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Adam Daniel

From Canada.
Has lived in Japan for over 11 years. Loves Osaka!