As a foreign resident of Japan, especially if you live in a big city, you might never own a car or even miss owning one. Trains, planes, buses, bikes and rental cars are all convenient and reasonably priced. Used cars often come with attractive price tags, but there’s a reason that Japanese cities aren’t constantly jammed with traffic—running a car of any kind is pricey.
Things to consider before buying a car in Japan
If you live in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, or another large Japanese metropolis, the costs of running a car may be much more than you realize. If you’re not lucky enough to have a parking spot attached to your house, then monthly car parking charges are around ¥30,000/month. The rental car parking business is much like the rental property business—with slightly less xenophobia—so upfront costs of acquiring a car park may be many multiples of the monthly fee. Then you have your shaken (inspection certificate) costs which are incurred every two years (for a cheaper way to get your shaken, see our guide to user shaken). Wear and tear (new tires, routine repairs, oil changes etc.) may add another ¥100,000/year. Then there’s the cost of driving your car. You might think fuel is your biggest cost here, but if you want to drive it any distance you’ll quickly rack up those highway toll charges. Separate to the cost of purchasing your car, your first year running costs may be well north of ¥600,000. To put that into context, that’s the equivalent of about 100 days of car rental!
Why to consider (or not consider) a private purchase or sale
The biggest advantage of selling or purchasing a car privately is avoiding the middleman. A used car dealer will give you next to nothing if the car you’re selling is a little older, and they’ll add a fat margin on to the car if you’re a buyer. The advantage is of course that they’ll take care of the paperwork and you’ll have easier recourse if something immediately goes wrong. However, you’re paying for this convenience and peace of mind, so if you’re not afraid of taking the risk and doing the paperwork on your own, then you can definitely save some money.
Where to buy or sell cars privately
As of early 2022, the number one place for buying and selling cars privately is Facebook—Facebook Groups specifically. If you’re in an area outside of the large metropolises, look out for an English language (or bilingual) neighborhood Facebook group. Requests to buy and sell cars are often one of the most frequently posted topics. In some areas, there are also private dealers that buy and sell through these groups. The term for “private sale” is kojin baibai (個人売買).
Prerequisites for buying a car
If you’re a temporary resident (ie. on a tourist visa) or you don’t have a Japanese driver’s license, you can’t buy a car in Japan. Even if you’re equipped with the right visa and you’ve switched your license over, you still need a couple more things. The first is relatively easy—you need a registered inkan. See our article on creating and registering a hanko if you haven’t done this yet. The second is a little more difficult—you need a permanent place to park your car. Your parking spot doesn’t have to be next to your house, but it must be within a 2km radius of your registered address. If you’re planning to park it at a cheap cabin in the mountains that you picked up, then you’ll have to switch your registered address to the cabin.
Overview of the process
Here is an overview of the process. We’ll go into more detail below.
- Agree on a price and a transfer date
- Buyer gets a parking spot
- Buyer applies for a certificate of car parking space — shakoshōmeisho (車庫証明書) at the closest police station
- Buyer obtains liability insurance for the vehicle
- Buyer receives documents needed for transfer from seller (see below) and takes posession of the car
- Buyer (sometimes accompanied by the seller) goes to the closest Transport Bureau branch of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MILT) to do the change of ownership — shoyusha-meigi-henko (所有者名義変更).
- Buyer changes number plates (required if the car is registered in a different prefecture to your residence)
1. Agreeing on a price and a transfer date
Once the price has been agreed, the seller should draw up a contract which includes the price, conditions of payment, and date of transfer of ownership. They might also include a disclaimer for any problems that happen after the ownership is transferred.
When settling on a date for transfer of ownership, don’t be too optimistic. The following steps two, three, and four may take 2 weeks or more.
At this stage, the seller should supply the buyer with a copy of the shakenshōmeisho (inspection certificate) so that they can proceed with steps two and three. The shakenshōmeisho lists the model, year, registration number, number plate information (it’s not the same as the registration number!), date of issue, current owner, as well as the width, height, and length.
2. Buyer gets a parking spot
With the shakenshōmeisho in hand, you can start looking for a parking spot (see our detailed guide to finding a monthly parking spot). If you have one attached to your property, then you can jump to step 3. If you don’t, then you need to acquire a monthly car parking spot. In Japanese, this is called a tsukigime-chushajō (月極駐車場). Disappointingly, you will soon notice that almost all the parking lots in your area are “coin parking”—temporary parking lots.
If you live in an apartment building, the first place to check is the parking attached to your building. Residents usually have priority for these, so even if it’s full, they may kick out an outsider to accommodate you if it isn’t already full with the cars of other residents.
If this isn’t an option, or it’s too expensive, you should contract with a monthly parking provider. To do this, you will typically need a copy of your driver’s license, a copy of the shakenshōmeisho, and sometimes your zairyu card (residence card) and an inkanshōmeisho (certificate of registered seal).
It’s not enough just to have a contract though, for the next step you will need either your building’s parking management company or the monthly parking company to issue a hokansho (保管書) — a certificate of safekeeping. Annoyingly, the typical cost for issuing this certificate (it should be free!) is around ¥10,000.
3. Buyer applies for a certificate of car parking space — shakoshōmeisho
Once you’ve received your hokansho, you should visit the police station that is in charge of the area where you parking space is located. This might be your closest police station, but it might not be. If you’re unsure, call the police station in advance to find out.
Issuing shakoshōmeisho is one of the main activities of most police stations, so upon entering the police station, it should be apparent where the counter is. You’ll need to present the hokansho (if you’re renting your parking space) along with a map showing the location of your residence and the location of the parking space. The map is required whether you’re renting the space or not. It’s OK to print out a map from Google for this purpose. Usually when a hokansho is issued, the parking company will also send you a printed map to use for this step.
The fee for applying for a shakoshōmeisho is ¥2,000, which can be paid for at the stamp duty counter within the police station. From application to pickup may take up to one week—or longer if New Year or Golden Week gets in the way. There is also a fee of ¥500 for the certificate which is payable at pick-up.
Not all parking spots require a shakoshōmeisho. If you’re lucky enough to live in the sparsely populated Japanese countryside, you might live in an area that doesn’t require a shakoshōmeisho.
4. Buyer obtains liability insurance for the vehicle
This is a relatively straight forward step—as long as you can read Japanese or you have someone to help you. This can all be done online. Typical costs for a regular car for the first year (you usually get a discount if you pay upfront for the whole year) are between ¥70,000 and ¥100,000 depending on the options you choose. A good place to compare insurance providers and apply for multiple quotes at once is kakaku.com.
When your insurance has been approved, you will receive an insurance certificate in the mail. This is called a jidoushahokenshōken (自動車保険証券). You’ll need to send a copy of this to your parking provider, and you’ll also need it for step 6.
5. Buyer receives needed documents from seller
The documents needed from the seller can be divided into three categories. New documents that must be created, essential existing documents for the transfer of ownership, and non-essential (but important) documents that should go along with the car.
New documents to be created
- Transfer certificate — jotoshomeisho (譲渡証明書) [sample here]
- Power of attorney — ininjō (委任状) [sample here]
Existing documents needed for the transfer
- Original shakoshōmeisho (provided by the buyer)
- Inkanshōmeisho x 2 (one from buyer and one from seller)
- Residence certificate — jūminhyō (only needed if the seller’s address on the shakoshōmeisho differs from that on the inkanshōmeisho)
Non-essential but important documents
- Vehicle recycle certificate — jidousharisaikuruken (自動車リサイクル券). All cars later than 2006 have had the cost of their disposal and recycling prepaid. If you need to send your car to the wreckers, you need this certificate so the costs are covered.
- Vehicle tax payment receipt — jidoushanōzeishōmeisho (自動車納税証明書). This shows that the previous owner has paid the most recently levied vehicle tax.
The physical handover can happen now, or if the seller is accompanying the buyer in step 6, then the handover can wait until the change in registered owner happens.
6. Buyer registers change of ownership
Once you’ve collected all the required documents together, you need to fill out the actual application for change of registered owner and take it with you along with the required documents to your closest Transport Bureau branch of the MILT—the same place you go when applying for a Japanese driver’s license for the first time. They match up with the areas shown on number plates. If you’re a resident of Tokyo, you’ll be familiar with these—Shinagawa (near Samezu Station), Tama, Nerima, Adachi, and Hachioji. There’s a full list of branches for the Kanto area here. The stamp duty fee for registering the change of ownership varies depending on the vehicle type, but it’s generally around ¥500.
For more about the ownership change process, see the MILT’s website.
7. Change of Number Plates
As mentioned, changing the number plates is only required if the current registration of your car is in a prefecture different to your official registered address. It also requires you to take the vehicle to the transport bureau. If you’re not changing the plates, you can do all the ownership changes without actually taking the car to the center.
After the paperwork is done, you’ll be directed to the number plate change section, who will point you to a rack of screwdrivers. You should grab both a Phillips screwdriver and a flathead screwdriver. You need to remove your old plates and bring them to the desk along with your paperwork. You need the flathead screwdriver because there is a tamper-proof cap over one of screws on the rear plate. You can use the flathead screwdriver to destructively break through the cap. Once you’ve handed your old plates over, you’ll be given brand new shiny plates to attach to your car. The fee for new plates is around ¥1,450.
Once the new plates have been attached, an official will check under your hood to make sure the number on the engine block matches the registered number. If everything is OK, they’ll affix the tamper-proof cap to the rear number plate and you’re done!
Some more things to do with your new (used) car
Most of the insurance companies offer roadside assistance as a paid add-on, but you can join the biggest roadside assistance provider instead for a reasonable fee. The annual membership fee for the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) is ¥5,500. This includes roadside assistance as well as lots of other discounts and benefits.
Even if your car has a satnav system, you’ll probably want to use your phone. Places like AUTOBACS have a wide choice of smartphone mounts for your car, or you can get one on Amazon.
If you’ve bought an older car that isn’t equipped with bluetooth, you can also pick up an in-car bluetooth adapter that will pair with your phone and connect to your stereo via your FM tuner.