Foreigners planning on spending more than a year in Japan will probably find it necessary to procure a Japanese driver's license at some point in their stay. It used to be no big deal as long as one had a valid license from their own country, but in the last few years, the procedures have been tighten up considerably. The following dialog between two foreign researchers should be helpful to those faced with the prospects of driving in Japan. The information is unedited, and so not everything will necessarily apply to your situation. I checked with the local police to verify some of the information, which will be summarized at the end of the article.
Experience of Andrew D. Schmitz in getting a Japanese license:
As there seems to be considerable confusion about the process of getting a Japanese driver's license, I want to summarize my experience.
First, you get in the back seat and the officer drives the test course. The course is very short and you make lots of turns. Memorize where he/she goes. You don't have much time for questions when you drive the course. The officer drives pretty quickly. However, you can go very slowly and still pass. I watched one guy pass the test driving at turtle-speed. Since you are making so many turns, it is very wise to drive slowly.
When its your turn to drive, make sure you adjust the seat and rear-view mirror, check the pedals, and fasten your seat belt. If the officer doesn't fasten his, you must ask him to. They will watch for you to do all of these things. Exaggerate your gestures!
You have all types of intersections (stop sign, stop light, uncontrolled). You have to move to the correct lane and signal (winker in Nihongo) well in advance. You MUST check for cross traffic very carefully before entering the intersection. Exaggerate it so they notice. (Most likely, there will be no cross traffic on the test course, but use your imagination.)
Also, lane changes, serpentine, and shifting. At the end, you have to drive at 50 km/h around the perimeter of the course. I did not have any backing-up, parking or starting on a hill maneuvers on my test. I guess these are reserved for people who never had a driver's license before. Always check your mirrors, blind spot and use the winker. Never touch the stop line (at intersections) or the center line. This is automatic failure. The exam officers are very, very meticulous. It is very easy to fail the test. The first try should be regarded as practice. You are likely to fail.
Just one more note. You can pay to practice driving on a test course in your area through a private driving instruction agency. With certain agencies in Sapporo, you can even practice on the actual test course. It isn't cheap, but may be worth it.
Good luck. Andrew D. Schmitz, Ph.D. STA Research Fellow Hokkaido National Industrial Research Institute
Question by Andrew Schmitz for getting an International Driving Permit, and the response by Peter Hacke:
I didn't get an international driving permit in the US before I came to Japan. Does anybody know, is it still possible to get one from the US by mail?
I called the Dept. of Transportation in Pennsylvania where I was living before coming to Japan. I had a great deal of difficulty getting through to an agent. Finally, I was first told to get the international driving permit in Japan. I insisted that that was wrong. Then, I was told to contact AAA Auto Club for questions and issuance of international driving permits. Having lived in PA, I know the DOT driver's licensing and auto registration systems are antiquated and confusing. However, I don't think the info I was given was accurate. Can anybody help?
Here are the steps I took in this similar situation.
Peter Hacke STA Fellow Electrotechnical Laboratory
Summary of information provided by the Tsukuba Police Department: Concerning Mr. Schmitz' understanding of who must take the behind-the-wheel driver's test, I was told that persons from countries with similar driving conditions to Japan, i.e. driving on the left and with similar road signs, are exempt from this test. While the U.K. fits this description, countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Holland that he mentions would not. Has anybody out there from these countries (or others which drive on the right) been exempted from the test? Write in and let the Alien Times know.
As for the practically automatic failure the first time through, the police spokesman didn't want to quite put it in those terms, but that would appear to be the likely outcome �Ethe reasoning being that foreigners taking the test should be on the same playing field as the Japanese who are getting their licenses for the first time. (So much for special gaijin privileges!) Thus, if you fail to execute even one point in the check list according to the proscribed procedures, then you have to repeat the test.
International driver's licenses are good for one year from issuance, and so if you get one just before you come to Japan, you can drive for up to a year on that without going through the hassle and expense described above. I checked with the police about whether it is possible to simply renew your international license and was told that was no problem. As long as you have a valid international license from a country that has such an agreement with Japan (abiding by some sort of international standards), you can continue to drive for up to one year from when it was issued. There likewise is no limit on how many times you get a new international license. Whether you can do that without having to physically be in your home country to do that, however, is a different matter. If you have any experiences or information related to that, please send it to the Alien Times.
It should be mentioned that while you can get a Japanese license renewed at the Tsukuba police station, to get one issued for the first time, you have to go to the main office in Mito. Long-term foreign residents of Japan who have a Japanese license but who no longer have a vaild foreign license can get an international license issued in Japan to use when traveling in other countries. You are, however, required to go to Mito and also to have at least one year left on your Japanese license (if not, you will have to renew your Japanese license early).
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