Recent changes in the rules concerning the use of international licenses and the obtaining of Japanese licenses has caused quite a bit of consternation in the international community. Nationals from certain countries find it quite easy to convert their driver license to Japanese, while those from other countries find it extremely difficult. One American with many years of driving experience, including several in Japan, gave up after his second unsuccessful try and decided to just save gas by bicycling. After doing everything flawlessly, at the very end after coming to the final stop, he made the mistake of turning his engine off before putting the gear into park (or was it the other way around?). Whichever it was, it was the "wrong" way, even though either way would be perfectly safe.
The following information comes from the US embassy, and should be interesting reading for those from other countries as well:
Why Do Americans Have to Take a Driving Test?
The Embassy spoke recently with the Superintendent of the License Division, Traffic Bureau, of the National Police Agency (NPA) about complaints from American citizens with valid international driver licenses who have been told they have to take a practical or road test as well as a written examination in order to obtain a Japanese driver license. The NPA confirmed that this was true.
Prior to June 2002, Japanese law had allowed foreigners bearing international driver licenses to drive indefinitely in Japan. As of June 2002, however, foreigners are only able to drive on an international driver license for up to 12 months, then have to have applied for and received a Japanese driver license. An additional requirement is that the foreigner has to have obtained the international driver license at least three months before first arriving in Japan. We have also heard from a small number of Americans who were told by the police that they could not use international licenses for even 12 months because they were "resident" in Japan.
The driving test in Japan consists of hearing, eyesight, written and practical/road test components. Citizens of 21 countries, not including the United States, are exempt from taking everything but the eye test. Some of these countries met the exemption requirement because the NPA examined their domestic traffic safety record and determined that it was at least as good as Japan's. The NPA stated that these nations also exempt Japanese license holders from taking a driving test, while some states in the United States require Japanese license holders to take a written and/or a road test before acquiring a state driver license.
The Embassy has been in communication with the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which acts as a liaison between the federal government and the states on driver licensing requirements and highway safety issues. While the federal government is unable to force individual states to change their driver licensing requirements, NHTSA is in communication with the state motor vehicle administrations regarding licensing requirements for Japanese citizens. We shared with the NPA statistics which showed that the United States had a risk value much lower than that of Japan's with respect to fatalities as a share of vehicle kilometers traveled, but were told that the Japanese police still needed to see the safety records of each individual state.
The total number of people applying for Japanese licenses who already had U.S. state driver licenses in 2001 was 5,698. Of these, 4,821 were Japanese citizens returning from work, study or travel in the United States, and 879 were Americans or third country nationals. The first-time pass rate for Americans was slightly higher than the 35 percent pass rate for Japanese returnees, but not much. On the other hand, for those who take the regular test, they have to go through an intensive (and expensive) driver education program. The first time pass rate for this group, even with the harder test, is 90 to 100 percent.
Converting to a Japanese License For Americans resident in Japan, it is possible to convert a valid U.S. driver license to a Japanese license, but it does involve a driving test. Note that the required translation of your U.S. license cannot be done at the Embassy. Follow these links for information on converting your license, including sources to help with the translation of your U.S. license. Please note that these links are to for-profit private organizations, and are provided here for your information only. Inclusion of Non-U.S. Government links or information does not imply endorsement of contents.
Japan Automobile Federation at http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm
Japan Drivers License at http://www.japandriverslicense.com
The following quote from "japandriverslicense.com" concerning why this ridiculous situation has arisen is revealing: Why has the law been changed one may ask? According to our contacts in the local authorities and from research conducted by our legal advisors, the intent of this change in law is to stop Japanese citizens, who have lost their licenses due to driving offences, from obtaining a license and international permit in a foreign country which would allow them to drive legally in Japan. It is highly unlikely that lawmakers even considered how this law change would affect the foreign business community in Japan, which is a group of approximately only 0.1% of the country's population. The Alien Times highly recommends that have a look at the Alien Times Drivers License Information page, as reported earlier.
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