I've just bought a car. It's a 2005 Nissan Cube. Very Japanese.

If you are living in Japan outside of a big city you will probably need some mode of transport. I just used a bike for the first 18 months in my town, but my girlfriend and I quickly got bored of bumming lifts off people and not being able to take decent day-trips (our city has what is known as "the slowest train in Japan" for a reason).

Long story short, we got there in the end. Here are the steps you must take if you want to buy:

1. Ask your employer if it is okay for you to drive to work, if you intend to.

  • Yes, it sounds ridiculous.

2. Get a Japanese or International driving licence if you don't already have one (duh).

3. Find a parking space within a 2km radius of your house.
  • You will need to register this with the police and pay for it before you can have your car. Full guide here.

4. Register your hanko/inkan to your gainjin card.
  • You need an inkanshoume, or proof of the validity of your inkan, from your employer.This is necessary for buying something as big as a car, but nothing else (other than real-estate) it seems. Guide here.

5. Find a car.
  • I used a combination of local dealerships, carsensor.net, and goo-net.com. If you want a specific model you may find yourself looking much further afield than you would back home. In the end I had to drive a 600km round-trip to view and buy my lovely Cube. But if you aren't picky you shouldn't have any problems.
  • It's also possible to buy from a previous teacher in your area. Often leaving gaijin will be in a hurry to sell off their belongings and a real bargain can be found. But beware of the potential shaken (MOT) cost (see below)! A regional mailing list is a good place to look for this.
  • NB: Choosing a car can be tough, made more so by Japanese tax laws. Tax varies depending on the power of your vehicle. Yellow-plate, or K-cars have been designed to fit into the lowest tax bracket. They are cheaper all-round, but at 660cc aren't the best choice if you think you'll do a lot of highway driving.

    The price the dealer will initially show you often does not include many taxes and fees. Sometimes it won't even include the shaken. A good rule of thumb is to predict a cost of 200,000 more than the price in the window. Sometimes it's 50,000, sometimes even more than 250,000.

6. Haggle a bit.
  • Pretty similar to Western countries. If you're lucky you can knock a few man off the price. Try for updated GPS software if it comes with a machine, and always ask for a full tank of gas. Do this last point when you have virtually agreed to buy. My friend bought a Mazda ZX8 from a reputable dealer which turned up with an empty tank.
To pay in installments you will either need a credit card which will allow you to borrow the full amount and pay up front, or a Japanese guarantor. The latter is not easy to come by.

7. Fill out all the paperwork.
  • Aside from what you will fill out and stamp at the dealership, they will need your inkanshoume and your parking certification returned to them before you can hope to receive your car.
  • Getting the parking certificate sorted will take about a week. From purchase to delivery will be something in the region of 2 weeks depending on how fast you can get your share of the paperwork processed.

8. Vehicle name change and registration.
  • The car you're buying will need to be registered under your name, of course. It may also need to be registered to your prefecture if it isn't already. There will be a particular city the car will need to be taken to and dealt with. Try to get this included in the price.

9. Get it delivered.
  • This is the easiest option, especially if they are doing the name change etc for you. It can cost 20,000-50,000 or more depending on where the car is coming from, but it's well worth it unless you love paperwork and wasting your time (and holiday days) traveling to one-horse towns.

Things to check on prospective cars:

  • Shaken/MOT.
    This is basically a certificate of being road-worthy. All cars must be shakened every 2 years (a new one gets 3 initially). A K-car should be able to pass this for 100-150,000 yen if there are no problems. A white-plate would be more like 150-250,000. You can save a ton of money doing the shaken yourself, but will need a lot of patience and decent Japanese. A future post will cover this process.
  • Accident history.
    Vehicles that have previosly had to be repaired will be considerably cheaper, but carry various risks along with that. Who knows how it will hold up in regular use, or what would happen to it in another accident. But hey, if it passed the shaken...
  • Mileage.
    Japanese people tend to consider a "high mileage" to be 100,000km, and will usually scrap the vehicle not long after that. Of course, you and I know that 100,000km is no reason to scrap anything, and real bargains can be picked up here. Bear in mind you may have to replace the timing belt (about 50,000yen) at some point.
  • Kilometres per litre.
    If you can only think in miles per galon then here's a handy converter. Anything over 15 km/l is pretty fair in my book.

Additional costs:

  • Annual tax
    I pay around 50,000yen for my 1400cc white plate.
  • Parking
    If you don't have a garden or driveway to park in, expect to pay anything from 2,000 to 100,000 per month depending on your location.
  • Optional insurance
    Although this is called "optional" it is pretty much essential. If you knock over and kill someone on the road you will have to pay 1.5 million pounds (2.5 million dollars). The compulasory insurance will only pay out a maximum of 3 million yen.
    The price ranges from 70,000yen per year for basic cover on a K-car up to 240,000yen per year for full coverage on a high-class white plate.
  • Snow tires
    If, like mine, your prefecture gets a lot of snow you will need to buy snow tires (スタードレスタイアー), or chains. Snow tires should cost around 10,000 each, chains will be less than half that.
  • ETC machine
    An ETC machine is a little box which uses your ETC card to automatically pay highway tolls as you drive through the gate. It is much cheaper than not using one. The machine and installation will cost you under 20,000yen, and you should be able to get an ETC card if you can get a Japanese credit card. You can also hire a card, but the deposit is massive. If you're intending to drive on the highway, one of these is a must.

Miss anything? Let me know in the comments.

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