Originally Posted to lisarisablog, a personal blog about living and working in Japan on April 14, 2016.
Richard (Dick) the Car, the shiniest he's ever been
Since moving to the countryside and starting my job, having a car was essential. I've been driving since fifteen, but only have about a year of experience having "my own car" in the states; a somewhat reliable 1993 Infiniti J30 4-door sedan on its way out. Lately I've been learning quite a bit more about car ownership, licensing, and maintenance, so I thought I'd share a little of my knowledge here.
K-Cars and White Plated Full-Sized Cars
This is Bob, the loaner K-car I drove while Betty was having shaken. Posed together with the smallest roll of bubble wrap I could find for taking gifts overseas.
When I first arrived, I was set up with a long-term rental agreement for "Betty", the green K-car (2006 Daihatsu Move). However, you might ask "what is a K-Car"? The most basic way to determine whether a car is a full sized or K-Car is to look at what color license plate it has.
(Update: You can now pay to change the color of your license plate.)
K-Cars normally have yellow license plates, and therefore are often called "yellow-plates". In reality, K-Cars are small cars with half-sized engines (in comparison to normal-sized cars). Due to the smaller engine, they are not designed for long distance use and do not have as much power. Also, although the car is more compact, surprisingly most K-cars (depending on the model/maker) are quite roomy despite looking like boxes. I've heard that the reason for this is reduced padding in the body of the car, so take that with a grain of salt and some research.
Another plus to K-cars is that they have lower tolls on the interchange but trying to drive them at full speed on the highway takes some courage (you can tell they aren't designed for speed when the whole car is shaking trying to keep up with the normal cars).
As of 2022, many newer K-cars have a "power" functionality which allows you to press a button and accelerate faster for this purpose, at the cost of fuel efficiency. This is also very helpful to use when climbing hills.
Generally for a starter car, Betty served me well for getting around town to visit all the preschools. Side note: the little white trucks in some of my driving videos I call "K-trucks" because as far as I notice they have minimal power compared to normal-sized trucks and the chassis is similar in size.
Richard, on the other hand, is a full-sized car. The previous user used to often speak in high esteem of Richard's power despite his age, but the change to a full-sized car has had its ups and downs. Firstly, I did notice the difference in power almost immediately when first driving out into town. Sometimes I had to be careful because speed can really pick up when going down hills or cruising through small roads between the rice fields! However, compared with renting, where everything was taken care of, granted I drive 2 hours south to the shop, with greater power comes... greater responsibility.
Compared to renting, today I won't go into boring detail but there is a lot more documentation to be done to be ready to drive such as setting up car insurance and ownership. On the minor end of things, I've managed to have my battery die twice mostly to my negligence of checking to see if I turned off my lights since there's no chime (although the battery was a bit worn so I ended up replacing it). Main differences I've noticed are the color of the plate, the power of the engine, slight price shift in tolls, more gas required, and somewhat unrelated to the difference in classification but it's harder for me to gauge backing into parking and parallel parking after driving basically a rectangular box.
Ten-ken and Sha-ken
On the front windshield of all Japanese cars, you can always find two stickers. One in the middle has a big number signifying the month and a year (Japanese calendar year) in smaller numbers above it. This means the "sha-ken" deadline is this specific month. In Japan, your car begins to need "sha-ken" or a government-mandated emissions and general vehicle inspection within a couple years to within the year from when you buy it depending on its age.
I know very little to none about the intricacies of this particular inspection, only that it costs more and more every year the car ages. Unlike the ideology that most Americans have about used cars being cheaper and more economically efficient, it seems that in Japan it is almost opposite. New K-cars can cost around $10,000 USD new and if you have to pay $1000 USD with a possible exponential increase on shaken for your used car every 1-2 years, eventually it will make sense to trade out the old for new.
Betty had to be taken in for this particular inspection, but since she is a rental, I didn't have to pay any fees. The second sticker you'll find is a round sticker with a series of shapes and numbers that kind of look like a dial on an old self-timer. The meaning is that the pinpointed year (Japanese calendar year) and month are the deadline for the car to have a normal "ten-ken" or general maintenance check. I thought this was like sha-ken but apparently it's only a guideline, as according to friends and the mechanic who worked on Richard the other day.
In 2022, we own a new K-car which we bought new. New cars have a longer grace period for shaken (up to three years), so we haven't put it through sha-ken yet. However, it has been through ten-ken twice. As expected, the more you drive your car, the more the maintenance costs will add up (oil changes, battery replacements, etc.), so its best to plan accordingly.
Buying Your Own Car in Japan
When I first moved to Nagano, I needed a car quickly for work, so as I mentioned before, I was paired with "Betty". Fortunately, at this time, I was able to rent Betty from a local dealership that had experience working with foreign clients. This dealership has a special deal for monthly rental of a K-car for 25000 yen (around $250 USD) including car insurance and maintenance (if you drove and waited at that particular dealership). Depending on the area, you may be able to find a rental car, but in most cases, I've heard that renting can be quite expensive for long term. In this case, it is most economical to purchase your own vehicle.
One way to find a car for purchase is to look in your neighborhood. When you arrive and meet other people in your community, you are likely to be connected to local groups on social media where other locals sell their unwanted items. These groups usually also include posts about selling used cars. Of course, just like in the states, you'll want to do your research fully as details about the car may not be fully disclosed by the owner. In 2015, I was able to purchase my Suzuki Wagon R from a local dealership down the road from my house. My friend had used her local neighborhood connections to connect me to the dealership, and since the receptionist was a parent of my student, she was also willing to help me get a good deal and set up a payment plan. Personally, I have found that regardless of country of residence, asking local connections seems to be one of the safest and most reliable ways to find good deals on cars in working condition.
When you decide you would like to purchase a car, you are most likely going to need at least these items to start:
Down Payment or Payment in Full - will be decided in the deal you make
Hanko - your personal stamp you use in Japan for all official business transactions
Residence Card - your visa to show you are a resident of Japan
Proof of Residence Certificate from your local city hall
Payment for Shaken Renewal (must be renewed if it is a used car)
Other required identification documents for completion of sale and car registration
When buying from a dealership, they are most likely to do all the car registration and shaken preparation for you. If you are buying from a local resident, then you may have to do the registration work yourself or with a translator. In my case, the Wagon R needed shaken renewal. Together, the price came around under 300000yen (~$3000). Once you buy the car, you will have more options to spend your hard-earned money.
Highway Fees and ETC - if you happen to have a Japanese credit card, you can apply to also receive a corresponding card that works with the Japanese ETC interchange system. Using the ETC system means that you have a IC chip card that you can mount in an onboard ETC reader in your car and saves you time passing through interchange gates by using scanning technology for nonstop entrance and exit. In the past, using ETC also meant that you get significant discounts on travel using the ETC card rather than cash, but nowadays, it seems that the discounts are diminishing. If your car doesn't have a built-in reader and you would like to use ETC, be prepared to fork out up to 15000 yen for a reader and reader registration plus a 300 yen yearly fee for the card.
Ten-ken - yearly maintenance checks, see above. My dealership charges around 10000 yen with free windshield wiper replacement, tire change, and light washing of the inside and outside of the car (no carpets, just a clean sweep with a disinfected rag).
Seasonal Tires and Tire Changes - if you live in a snowy climate and drive often, you will need to purchase extra winter-grade tires and pay someone to change them if you don't have your own tools or expertise. Tire prices depend on brand and size/model of car. When you buy a car, extra seasonal tires will most likely be included in the package deal.
JAF Membership - 6000 yen for the first year, 4000 yen per year consecutive renewal. Same as AAA in the states, JAF provides roadside assistance and shopping discounts at certain venues. If you live alone and you have battery trouble like Richard the car did, JAF was a lifesaver and saved me a huge sum I would have paid otherwise (Without JAF, battery jumping service usually costs around 10000yen).
Gas - depending on the area, the level of octane, and the station or service you get (full service costs more than pumping yourself), you can expect to pay different prices for gas per liter. As of writing this post, the gas price locally has been running around 117yen/liter for regular octane gasoline.
Parking - if you rent an apartment, usually you are provided 1-2 parking spaces with the rent of your room. Outside your house, parking may be limited and you can expect to pay for parking at parks, larger train stations, events, and in urban areas.
Other costs that are not optional are:
Car Insurance - Depending on your license color, your age, the level of coverage, and the model of your car, you can expect to be charged from 20000-120000yen a year in insurance. Generally speaking, you will pay more if you have a green license (beginners color, everyone gets green even if they've had their license for years in their home country, see example drivers license here), you are under 26 years old, your car is a white plate, if your car is older, and/or if you have certain models of cars that cost higher premiums. You can apply for car insurance from dealerships (usually they have a representative available), calling a company directly, or using the internet to shop prices. I was able to cut my car insurance more than half by shopping prices this year.
Yearly Car Tax - Every year, car owners are expected to pay taxes on their car to the local government. You will receive a bill in the mail. The cost depends on whether the car is a yellow or white plate and the age of the car. I bought the Wagon after tax season last year so I don't know yet what I will pay this year, but for Richard, I paid around 40000yen.
Sha-ken - Read more about this above. In most situations, you will need to find an automotive shop to do this service for you. Electric car owners will need to do their own research.
Although maintaining and using a car in Japan seems to be a hefty price proposition, if you live in the countryside like me, I'd definitely recommend having a car. Just like where I lived in the states, having a car has provided me a great deal of freedom and since my area has limited public transportation, I am able to travel, go to work at up to eleven schools, and do local errands all year around.
I hope that this revised article has helped you understand more about cars in Japan and as always, thank you for reading!