How to buy a car in Japan and what features to look for

This is Part 3 in a 3-Part series on 5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Car in Japan

In this section, we’ll be covering

4. What kind of car should you get?

5. Where is the best place to shop for a car?

What kind of car should you get and what features to look for

There are  two types of cars in Japan, “kei” or light cars, and standard cars.

There are pros and cons to both. A lot of people think it’s entirely a size thing and have an image of kei cars being tiny toaster-shaped Toyotas. Most of them are indeed tiny toaster-shaped Toyotas, but what matters most is how powerful the engine is! Most car websites don’t actually point out that whether a car is “standard” or “kei”, but the magic number to look for is 660 cc. If it’s above that line, you have a standard car! 

Engine power

If you’ve had a car in another country, a standard car is going to be what you’re used to. They can be identified by a white license plate. It’ll do all the things you need a car to do. A kei car is generally smaller (although not always) and has a yellow license plate. You’ll have no problems zipping around the city, but if you’re driving through mountains or the freeway, it’s going to struggle at some points. Even in those cases, you’re still probably going to get from point A to point B, but you’ll need to push the car a lot harder.

Price and convenience

The main benefit of a kei car is price and convenience. Not only are kei cars themselves, along with their shaken, much cheaper, but the process to get the keys is actually a lot faster! I didn’t know that until after I bought my standard car. I still would’ve gone with a standard one, but had I known that, I think I might’ve had more to think about…

Features: Navigation System and ETC Card System

Regardless of the type of car you decide to go with, there are two features I would consider a necessity. First is a built-in navigation system. In the United States I usually didn’t need navigation, unless I was going somewhere for the first time. When I used it, I would just use Google Maps and then put my phone somewhere facedown where it wouldn’t distract me. Google Maps directions were clear and I could easily identify where to go by street name and signs alone.

Alas, Japan apparently has not gotten the memo on street names. To be fair, I can’t really blame them, as most of their road layouts are hundreds of years old before anyone thought to design these things with logic. The reality is though, that it’s really hard to navigate here, even on freeways. Built in navigation systems here are made specifically for Japan and that is why they are so much better than Google Maps. The first time I rented a car here, I tried using Google Maps like I would in the states, and I kept making wrong turn after wrong turn. It’s much harder to determine when to turn when the direction is “turn right in 742 meters,” compared to “turn right at 2nd Street.”

Built in navigation systems are also so useful for freeway entrances and exits. All of the ones I have used have this really cool feature where it basically shows an image of exactly what the exit looks like and what lane you need to be in. You might think, “just look at the signs dummy” but if you’re driving through Tokyo you will quickly realize, it is never that simple. The complexity of Tokyo (the 23 Wards specifically, as always) freeways is something you really need to experience first hand. 

The second feature you’ll want is an ETC card system. An ETC card is a card connected to your bank account or credit card, which allows you to zip through toll stops in an instant. Tolls are charged to your account automatically. Luckily, it’s usually as simple as applying for a card with your current financial institution. It took me just a few minutes to apply with Rakuten and the card came within a week. Nothing special was required on my part. 

Once you have the ETC card though, you need a reader in your car to make use of it. The ETC reader will connect with the navigation system and give you audio and visual updates whenever a charge is coming. When I was driving through the Izu peninsula there were certain roads that didn’t take ETC at all. The stressful experience of fiddling through my coins to get the exact amount while a line of cars was waiting behind me is something I want to avoid whenever possible. 

Where to shop for a car in Japan

There are two main options! First, you can do what I did, which is look online. The two main websites I found were Goo (yes, I know, weird name) and Car Sensor. Both have websites along with phone apps. I’m pretty sure both websites basically have the same selection, so go with whichever works best for you! You’ll probably need some Japanese ability, a translator, or a friend to get the most out of the sites.

The obvious good thing about using a site is you can look at every car available and try to narrow down to find exactly what you’re looking for. I think playing with the different search functions is really useful to determine what kind of cars are available in your budget and how much money you’ll save by foregoing a certain feature, or how much more you’ll need to get that nice Bluetooth system. 

The other option, which is something I honestly wish I would’ve tried, is looking for local dealers and just going in person. I ended up inquiring on a car online, at a dealership about an hour and a half out from me. It was a great car and I indeed purchased it, but driving around my neighborhood recently, I realized how many used car dealerships were within walking distance of my apartment, and seemingly had a stock of cars in my price range far beyond what I had noticed online.

I really can’t comment on how useful being a walk-in to a dealer would have been, but it’s at least something I wish I would have considered and tried. Especially when I was first considering whether or not to buy a car in the first place, I’m sure speaking with a salesperson about the process in person would’ve simplified things. Admittedly this whole car adventure took place in Covid-world, so perhaps not going to a shop was the best choice!

I hope that these five things at least made you consider potentially buying a car! As I mentioned, it’s usually unnecessary, but if you can afford it and it makes sense for your situation, it can really improve your life. Even if you’ve decided to buy a car though and you’re starting to want to inquire, how does the entire process of buying actually work? How long does it take? What kind of paperwork are you going to do? Well, keep an eye out on our blog in the coming weeks and you can find out!


Read Part 1 here:  5 Things to Consider Before Buying a Car in Japan

Part 2 is here: Costs of car ownership in Japan


By Nathan

Nathan works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. He’s American and has lived in Japan for about three years. Read Nathan’s self-intro to find out what brought him here!


Lead photo: iStock