Driving Basics

To Drive or Not to Drive

Most rural JETs end up buying cars. While most ALTs live close to their base schools, they often have visiting schools that may be located far away. Often, there will be sparse or inconvenient buses (or none at all!) to those locations. JETs may live far from grocery stores or other conveniences, as well as far from other JETs and things to do. For these people, having a car makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, a significant number of JETs are located in Kumamoto city or other urban areas that are serviced with frequent trains and buses. It will not be necessary to use a car to get to work, although it can still be nice to have one for the added freedom it gives to explore Kyushu and Kumamoto.

That said, in rare cases JETs don’t have a choice. Some COs have rules on driving, so discussing that with your CO and other area JETs will be your first step. Some places don’t allow driving to work, but allow you to have a car for private purposes. Others may give you a car, but limit it to work-related driving. Others may allow driving to work, but request that you use public transportation to go to business trips such as the Skill Development Conference. Chances are any rules will be written in your contract, so read it thoroughly and be sure to clarify any questions that you may have.

What to Drive

Most driving JETs will drive cars, but it is not the only option. Also, there seem to be hundreds of types of cars! What the heck is a “white plate”? Or a “kei car”? The following chart gives an introduction to the most common options.

Scooter (原付, gentsuki)Under 50ccSlow, but good for short trips and in urban areas. Cannot be driven with an international driving permit, but it is easy to get a license, as you don’t need to take a course.
Small motorcycles50cc to 125ccMore expensive than scooters. International permits don’t cover motorcycles, and an automobile or motorcycle licensing course is required.  If you take the test on a motorcycle this size you cannot drive a standard sized motorcycle.
Motorcycles126cc and overMore expensive than scooters. International permits don’t cover motorcycles. Requires an automobile or motorcycle licensing course.
Light car (軽自動車,keijidousha), commonly known as yellowplates or kei cars.Engine displacement under 660ccLess powerful than an average car, so can be slow on steep hills or when carrying a heavy load. Gas, taxes and tolls are cheaper than for white plate cars. Footprint is small, so easy to maneuver.
Normal car (普通自動車,futsujidosha), commonly known as white plates.Average sized car, vans, etc.Easier to handle on hills and mountains or when loaded with things or people. Can be bulky and hard to maneuver on narrow country roads, but are sturdier and safer. Taxes can get expensive.

For a cheaper option, many JETs go with kei cars. White plate cars are safer, roomier, and more powerful but significantly more expensive, both when initially buying and when time comes in April to pay the yearly tax. They are also faster, but given the generally low speed limits in Japan kei cars can usually keep up easily.

In the city, a scooter might be useful and is much, much cheaper than a car. There are JETs who prefer to use scooters even in rural areas. You will often see high school students coming home from school with them, since the driving age for scooters is 16, two years earlier than for cars.