Japan is a wonderful country to visit for business travel. But it might be a good one to take public transportation in since driving can be difficult. While many business travelers to Japan will take public transportation (their trains are incredible), some may want to rent a car. But before you rent a car in Japan, it's useful to understand some of the rules.
Specifically, unlike many European countries, American drivers will need to have an International Drivers Permit (note: it's sometimes called an International Driving License) to drive in Japan. If you're caught driving in Japan without one, you risk fines, arrest, or possible deportation. In other words, they're serious about it.
Keep in mind, that an International Drivers Permit needs to be used in conjunction with a valid United States license. It's basically a translation of your existing driver's license into different languages and provides some identifying information (photo, address, etc.). There's not that much to them, but they can be important if you need one. In the U.S., an International Drivers Permit can be obtained at AAA offices.
Considerations When Driving in Japan
It's also important to note that driving in Japan can be very different from driving in the United States. Unless you can read Japanese, road signs can be difficult to understand. Highway tolls are expensive, traffic can be extremely bad, and there's little roadside parking. Roads may also be narrower and traffic flows on the left.
Another issue with driving in Japan is insurance. In many cases, U.S. auto insurance will not provide coverage for Japan. Yet Japan requires insurance for all drivers, so you need to make sure you have the proper insurance.
Extended Stays and Driving Tips
If you're going to be staying for over 12 months in Japan, you will need to apply for a Japanese driver's license. You may be required to take a written driving test, a hearing test, an eyesight test, and a road test. It's best to consult the U.S. Embassy or the Japanese government for current requirements.
For additional driving tips for Japan, the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo has some helpful hints for driving in Japan that are worth consulting.
The Japan National Tourist board is also a good resource for business travelers to Japan. Their website provides information on Japanese driving permits, insurance and more.
Don't pay too much for an international drivers permit (or IDP)! There are many online outlets selling international driving permits for greatly inflated prices. For more information, read my article on International Drivers Permits scams.