I remember growing up in rural Ohio and thinking that having a driver's license was like a rite of passage. When you got your license and your accompanying car, you had finally become a man, and if you were one of the first to do so, you had become the man. You were the guy that could drive to lunch (we had open campus at our school), drive to school without your parents or a school bus, and just cruise.
That was all fine and dandy in rural Ohio, but when I moved to the big city, Chicago. I could care less about having an automobile. It cost a lot of money to maintain a car and there was public transit that I could use. I mean seeing people getting arrested on the 'L' once a month wasn't so bad, was it?
But, then I moved to Japan and really had zero need for a license. I guess I'm not in Kansas anymore. It's great to have a solid public transportation system where people aren't getting arrested on a regular basis and there is actually, not even a need for transit cops. Who knew such things could exist?
So, Why in the World would you Want a Japanese Driver's License?
Well, that's an excellent question. I can think of a few reasons why you might want a driver's license in Japan. One good reason is that you have better access to big box stores. Believe it or not, Japan does have large supermarkets and discount home furnishing stores that are roughly American-sized (minus the excessively large parking lot that never gets used.)
Another reason is that driving comes in handy when you are on vacation in Japan. There are a lot of places, especially hiking trails and camping sites, that are not easily accessible by bus or train. That's actually one of the advantages of those places. There aren't many people around so you can enjoy the peace and quiet.
But, the main reason why I want one now is that I've just recently gotten married. So, I want to be able to help my wife out and be able to do some simple things like drive her to the hospital in case of some kind of emergency.
And, let's face it, it conjures up those memories of high school when having a driver's license was cool. Because chances are if you get your driver's license you'll be one of the few of your friends that has one, and that means you can go cruising in Japan. Ohhhh yeah!
Let's Get Started Already
So enough with why, let's talk about the process of getting your license. Now, this process differs depending on what country you are coming from. For instance, if you are from Canada and Australia apparently all you have to do is get it translated and walk into the driving center and get a Japanese license. I always knew being Canadian had it's benefits.
But, if you are from the great United States of America you have the distinct privilege of going through the process of 'converting' your license into a Japanese one. This involves a variety of different things, namely going through a festival of paperwork, a short 'easy' written test, and then a disproportionately difficult driving test. After that, you get a driver's license.
On a side note, you may be wondering why oh why do Americans get the special privilege of going through all this rigamarole. Well, apparently it comes down to the fact that in order for Japan to agree to do a simple conversion of the license, America does too. Unfortunately, driver's licenses are handled at the state level, so all 50 states would have to submit traffic safety reports, and offer simple conversion for Japanese licenses. That's obviously a lot of paperwork that some DMVs would rather not spend time doing, much to our dismay.
I should note that this procedure seems to vary a lot from place to place and when converting from different countries, so try to treat my experience/advice as a general guide and be sure to read up on what the exact procedures you'll need to be doing.
Step 1 – Getting a Translation of your Driver's License
To start this process you must have a Japanese translation of your American driver's license. Actually, if you are getting a license converted from any country, this is always going to be the first step.
The best place to do that is through JAF, Japan Automobile Federation, which is basically like the AAA of Japan. They can translate your license for 3000 Yen at one of their offices or for a little more if you prefer to do it by mail. I chose to do it by mail because there really weren't any convenient JAF offices nearby to go to.
When you get your license translated, JAF will hopefully provide you with a packet of information that will tell you exactly what you need to do to get your license converted including where the closest driving center is.
Step 2 – Setup an appointment and get all your 'stuff' together
For my driving center here in Kyoto, I had to make an appointment to take the test. I'm not exactly sure why, but it's required nonetheless. For me, I had to call between 4pm and 5pm to schedule an appointment for sometime between 8:30am-10am on a weekday. Talk about crazy rules and restrictions!
Anyway, after you make the appointment for a time of their choosing (in my case it was for the following month), you need to get your paperwork in order. You'll need the following:
- Japanese translation of your driver's license
- Your original driver's license
- Your Alien Registration Card – Make sure this is up-to-date. Don't be like me and forget to put your visa extension on it. Oops!
- Your passport
- One 3cm X 2.4cm photograph – NOTE: This is for their paperwork to keep track of you and be able to recognize you during the tests, not for the actual license.
- Your inkan or name seal if you have one, otherwise you can just sign the documents over and over again.
- Money (about 5000 Yen, but it can vary from place to place, check the packet from JAF)
Armed with all that, you can now go to your local driving center that JAF probably recommended to you in their packet of goodies they sent you or handed to you.
Step 3 – Showing Up and doing the Easy Written Test
Driving centers in Japan aren't like the ones back home. They aren't going to be a small little store in a strip mall. Yours is most likely going to be a large concrete structure that roughly resembles your typical Japanese elementary or junior high school. The only difference is that the driving center has what looks to be a go cart track from hell in it's backyard.
When you made the appointment they probably asked you to go to a specific window at your appointment time. Be sure to be there on time and prepared with your paperwork. Don't expect anybody to be friendly or to speak any English. Don't worry to much though if you don't know that much Japanese. If you have your paperwork and your letter from JAF, they will most likely know what to do with it.
After filling out a short questionnaire (about your driving history in Japan) with some horrendous English translations on it, they will begin to process your paperwork. I'm assuming they need to verify that you have everything up-to-date and are ready to go. This took about 30 minutes for me.
After that, they will call you up and conduct a short informal interview about your driving experience in the states. They might ask when you first got your license, did you take public or private driving classes, and how often you renewed your license. This is where having a Japanese speaking friend might come in handy. I sometimes couldn't catch some of the things the clerk was asking and my wife had to translate a few bits.
Step 4 – Paying for and Taking the Test
After they give you the thumbs up on your paperwork and driving experience, you need to go to the cashier to pay for the test. All government agencies in Japan (that I've dealt with anyway) deal in revenue stamps. I'm guessing this is because they want all the cash to be in one place. Anyway, you need to get some stamps for your application. It cost me about 2400Y, but of course that might vary from place to place.
They'll put the stamps on the application and then you must either sign them or stamp them with your inkan. Be sure to have your seal or signature half on the stamp and half on the application that they are attached to. You need to sign/seal each stamp. In my case, I had to sign 4 stamps.
Then, after paying for the stamps and signing them, return to the original window and they will take you to the testing area. The test is available in English and is true/false. There are only 10 questions and all of them are pretty easy.
One thing to remember though is that unlike the US, you can not turn left on red EVER. In the states you can turn right on red if you stop and check, but that is not the case in Japan. Also, you should carefully stop at all railroad crossings no matter what and slowly proceed through the crossing. Those were the only two questions I wondered about. The rest are pretty much dummy questions like 'You've been working all day and are completely exhausted. You aren't sure you can operate the vehicle safely. Should you drive home by yourself?'
After passing the written test, they will give you instructions on how to take the driving test along with a packet of information that goes over the basic rules of the road that are specific to Japan.
That's Part 1
Sorry I'm going to cut it off here and write a separate post about the driving test. Why? Well, I haven't passed the driving portion of the test yet. I'm hoping to soon and I'll try to give you pointers about that part of the test in a later post.
In the meantime, if you have any questions about getting a driver's license in Japan, I'd love to hear them. Leave me a comment below and I'll be sure to get back to you.
Photo by James Buck