Japan Data

Toward Safer Roads for Foreign Rental Car Drivers


The number of foreigners renting cars in Japan has surged in recent years. With the number of accidents involving foreign drivers increasing in popular tourist destinations, the Japanese government has set its sights on trying to curb car accidents.

More Foreign Drivers on the Road

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (MLIT), around 179,000 foreigners rented cars in Japan in 2011. By 2015, this number had nearly quadrupled to 705,000. The number of automobile-related fatalities for foreigners driving rental cars almost tripled over the two-year span from 2014 to 2016, from 28 to 81 cases.

When foreign visitors drive in Japan, they are required to carry an international driving permit issued under the guidelines of the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, accompanied by a valid driver’s license from their home country. Alternately, they can carry a driver’s license issued in their home country along with a Japanese translation of that license—though this option is only available to those hailing from certain countries, such as Germany, France, and Taiwan. As China is not a party to the Geneva Convention, Chinese tourists are not able to drive rental cars in Japan.

Foreign Visitors to Japan Cars Rented by Foreigners
2011 6.21 million 179,000
2012 8.35 million 267,000
2013 10.36 million 345,000
2014 13.41 million 501,000
2015 19.73 million 705,000
2016 24.03 million Data not available

Tourist numbers from National Tourist Bureau of Japan; rental numbers from MLIT study.

According to a study conducted by the Rental Car Association of Okinawa Prefecture, accidents involving foreign rental car drivers in Okinawa numbered approximately 9,600 cases in 2016. One rental car company employee in Okinawa notes that most of these drivers are from countries like South Korea and Taiwan, where people drive on the right side of the road. In Japan, they find themselves driving on the opposite side, in addition to being unfamiliar with the local rules of the road. “This could be a factor behind many non-injury accidents and other minor crashes.”

Putting Real-Time Data to Work

MLIT projects that the number of accidents caused by foreign rental car drivers will continue to increase in the future, and is working to pinpoint aspects of motoring likely to lead to accidents involving drivers not accustomed to operating vehicles in Japan. The ministry has decided to implement safety measures such as installing signs with pictograms and warning signs in multiple languages in locations where they may contribute to lower accident rates. Five entryways to Japan with high volumes of foreign rental car drivers will be first to implement these safety measures: Naha Airport (Okinawa), Fukuoka Airport, Kansai International Airport (Osaka), Shin-Chitose Airport (Hokkaidō), and Chūbu International Airport (Aichi).

The government is also using ETC2.0, the next-generation automatic expressway toll payment system installed in some rental cars, to collect data in real time when foreign drivers brake suddenly. According to MLIT, there are already 36 rental cars in Okinawa equipped with ETC2.0, and another 50 rental cars on the island of Kyūshū feature drive recorders that collect braking data.

Analysis of this data, along with information obtained from rental car companies on when accidents occurred, has pinpointed some spots that have a high accident risk. The authorities plan to use this insight to plan and implement further safety measures.

The Promise of Multilingual Tech

Rental car companies in Okinawa and Hokkaidō have also come up with magnetic decals that read “Foreigner driving” in Japanese. They are recommending that foreign visitors affix these to their rental vehicles to indicate to other drivers that they may be less familiar with the rules of the road and the Japanese driving environment. The companies hope that people driving behind cars labeled this way will give them plenty of space and generally be more cautious when driving close to them.

Rental firms have also started to install navigation systems with English, Chinese, and Korean language support in cars at their agencies that see large numbers of foreign customers, such as those in Okinawa and Hokkaidō. These systems offer voice guidance in foreign languages in addition to displaying multilingual menus. As this technology spreads, it is sure to be a big help to drivers who do not understand the language.

(Original article in Japanese by Nippon.com editor Ishii Masato. Banner photo: A magnetic decal produced by the Tokyo Car Rental Association targeted at foreign drivers, on display at the Nippon Rent-A-Car office in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.)

tourism Hokkaidō Okinawa transportation