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Drivers Licenses: What You Need To Know

Author:Joe Kern,Melanie Neault, Issue: July 2003, Topic: Cars

You are legal to drive in Japan with an international drivers license for 1 year. After this, you must get a Japanese license. I would suggest making your first attempt at getting your license several months before your international license expires, so that you don't have to drive illegally if you fail. You must wait a month to re-take the test after every failure.

I understand that for some its really too much of a pain to get your Japanese license. It's even possible to get away with it if you are stopped: the police might not know that there is a new law or might not want to bother to try to figure out if your current international license is valid. However, if you get in an accident, it seems more likely that the facts will come out. If you are in an accident without a legally valid drivers license, your insurance policy may be automatically void and you will be liable for damages, which can be very expensive. Although I've already heard one story of a guy who'd been in Japan for 8 years and whose insurance still came through with only his international license. So the choice is yours.

Here's some information about getting your Japanese license if you already hold a valid license from your home country (prices from September 2002 and subject to change):

First step is to get an official translation of your home country's license. You can do this by post, or maybe in person (but best check by phoning Ibaraki JAF beforehand on 029-244-7211). To get a translation by post, photocopy your home country license, front and back, and mail it together with your name, address and phone number and 3,700 yen (cash) in a special envelope called a 'genkin kakitome', which you get at your post office to: JAF Ibaraki branch, 24757 Senbacho, Mito-shi, Postal code 130-0851. They say it takes 7-10 days, but mine took 2.

Once you have received your translation, you have to go in person to change your license over to a Japanese one. In Ibaraki, you do this through the licensing bureau in Mito. Their address is: Ibaraki-machi Nagaoka Yagashira 3783-3 "Licensing centre", Tel: 0292 93 8811. You can get a bus there (Kanto tetsudo bus, labelled 'to the Licensing office' from the North exit of Mito station.) Or you can just drive to the center. Its near the Ibaraki-machi Higashi I.C. from the Kita Kanto Expressway on prefectural route 50. There is plenty of parking, and the three times I was there I never saw a policeman or other official in the parking lot checking for valid licenses. But again, the risk is up to you.

The foreigner's drivers license window at JAF is only open until 10:00 am Monday through Friday. Get there before 9:00 on your first try to be safe. On subsequent visits, should you need them, be there before 10:00. You must take the following with you:

  • your original home country license
  • the official translation of you home country license (see above)
  • your passport
  • 2 passport photos
  • your alien card
  • your hanko seal
  • 2400 yen the first time and every subsequent time you take the test
  • 1750 when you pass

If you have to take the road test (US and other countries), here's the scoop on that:

From Joe:

On my third try, I passed the driving test. I could have supplied material for 4 apocalypses, 2 World Wars and a holocaust from all of the violence I imagined befalling the Japan Drivers License Center during the hours they made me sit there and the months between tests, not to mention the needless failures. Although, if I can honestly say its the worst thing I've had to go through in Japan (and I can), then I guess my life isn't too bad. Note: you do not need to take a driving school course in order to take the test. This is true even if you fail, you do not need to attend any classes. Just come back and take the test, however many times it takes to pass.

First and foremost, let me say that, in spite of my preceding invective, it is highly possible to pass the test on the first try and therefore have a much better experience than me. I failed on the first time only because I didn't have this information that I'm giving to all of you. I failed on the second time only due to a very stupid mistake right at the end (more on that later). Otherwise I was nearly perfect. So don't let my experience be a discouragement, let it be instructive. And any other time you wish me to lay myself down upon the pyre of experience to be consumed by a fire of gross ineptitude for your edification, please, just gimme a call.

The test is pedantic, involving what are, in my opinion, arcane driving rules with little relation to actual driving, which is probably to be expected of any driving test anywhere in the world, but I think even more so in Japan. The important thing is to know what is expected of you, partly to prepare mentally beforehand, and partly because your Japanese language might not be up to understanding it when the instructor gives the group instruction before the test.

The test takes place on a course, not on the real road, and in a test car, which is manual or automatic depending on which you choose. The car is about the size of a taxi.

Joe's list of reminders:

  • Before you get in the car, walk to the front and back of the vehicle to check the tires.
  • When you get in the car, adjust all your mirrors and fasten your seatbelt before you start driving. This one is probably obvious, but I thought I'd throw it in as a reminder.
  • You are expected to drive in the far left lane of any road with two lanes of traffic going the same way. The right lane is only for passing (and right turns), which you will have to utilize at least once for that purpose, though only in passing some cones, not in overtaking a moving vehicle.
  • An important thing to remember is that if you are using a manual transmission, you must keep both hands on the wheel between shifts. This may be harder than it sounds, because the distances on the driving course are very short and you have to do a lot of shifting up and down. But it is in your best interest to make a show of putting your left hand back on the wheel between shifts.
  • The top speed on the course is 40 km/h. Around the corners, you must go much slower. Much slower, I might add, than seems necessary. The instructor pretty much mocked me after my test for slowing 'only' to 25 km/h (I am a bit of a wild one when you get a few milks in me) while we coasted around this vast, expansive corner that anyone would take at 40 on a normal road. I may be embellishing a little, but I know for a fact that it behooves you to slow down to a much slower speed than seems necessary. Try 10 km/h.
  • There is a hill on the course, and this part was really confusing to me because I wasn't (and still am not) sure what situation it was supposed to represent. Anyway, I know what you're supposed to do. The instructor will ask you to stop in the middle of your ascent. You must put on your parking brake. Then, when he tells you to go, take the parking brake off, HONK THE HORN (I think this is to warn anyone on the other side of the hill), and proceed. This will involve the difficult task of taking off on a hill with an unfamiliar clutch for manual test takers.
  • When making a right turn, look left, right, then left again, and vice-versa.
  • One common way to fail that I saw is to make a right turn into the oncoming traffic lane. I did it my second time (the aforementioned fatal mistake) and the guy who tested right before me did it, too. When he did it, I secretly called him an idiot, but my attitude changed after I did the exact same thing. Apparently its an easier mistake to make than it seems. At any rate, I did right after I saw another guy do it. In North America we paint the center lane yellow so we can tell the difference between the two sides. In Japan they like to confuse things and paint everything white. Since there is virtually no other traffic, my usual keen intuitive sense to not drive toward a pair of headlights was useless.

Melanie's list of reminders:

You can lose up to a total of ten points. More than ten points fails you and some mistakes are worth more points than others. If you fail, they won't tell you how many points you lost for each mistake you made. Just try not to make any mistakes!

Before you start driving

  • Don't wear sandals or high-heeled shoes.
  • Before you open the car door, look back to make sure no cars or pedestrians will run into the door.
  • When you are in the car, lock the door, adjust the seat and mirrors, put on your seatbelt and make sure everybody else puts theirs on before you start the engine.

When you are driving

  • Keep both hands on the steering wheel and grip the wheel without wrapping your thumbs around it. Your thumbs should be pointing inward towards each other. It sounds anal but they will deduct points if they don't like the way you hold the steering wheel!
  • Keep a good posture. They deduct points for bad posture as well.
  • Be overdramatic when you look left and right before making turns or crossing intersections. (One of the reasons why I was failed my first time was because although I looked left when making a left turn, the driving test administrator felt that I was not sincere when I looked left.
  • When turning/changing lanes you will need to put on your blinker for 30 meters/ 3 seconds, but sooner is better.
  • When making a left turn, you must look, blinker, look, move you car a little bit more to the left of the lane and have about 50 cm between your wheel and the white line on side of the road, then turn.
  • When making a right turn, you must look, blinker, look, move into the right lane, look blinker, look move your car closer to the center line, leaving 30 cm between your wheel and the center line, then turn. (They will deduct points for not getting close enough to the center line before turning right!)
  • Keep left! This has two meanings.
    1. Stay in the left lane at all times except for when passing and changing lanes.
    2. Stay closer to the left portion of the lane you are in. In Japan the roads are narrow and this is to prevent head on collisions.
  • Don't ignore a yellow traffic signal. Slow down! Don't speed up to beat the red.
  • There is a narrow z and an s shaped road you will have to drive on as part of your test. If your wheel goes off the edge and you continue to drive, you will lose 5 points. However, if you back up to get your wheel back on the road and then proceed again, they won't deduct points (if they feel like being nice). Just go very slow and you will be OK.
  • When you see a triangle shaped slow down sign. Go below 10 km/hr. Go about 8km/hr to play it safe.

From Joe:

About the course. It consists of several very wide 2-4 lane roads and several tiny curvy Japanese style roads crisscrossing in between. The tiny roads are kind of hard, and I believe you will fail if you fall off the edge. For some of the other things there is a margin of error. You won't automatically fail for just any mistake. There are few cars on the course at any one time, so you thankfully don't have to worry much about responding to other traffic. There is a traffic light and some slow down signs. As mentioned, you will be driving one of the licensing center's cars with the person doing the testing in the passenger seat, and another passenger in the back seat. They are on deck to take the test next. In fact, before you take the test you will be riding in the back as the person before you takes the test. This should help you immensely with remembering what to do.

I arrived at 8:40, finished the paperwork by 9:00 (go to window 12, then to the pay window for 2400 yen in stamps, then to window 14), took a written test at 10:00, and at 10:30 was told to come back at 1:00 for the driving test. So it can be an all day affair.

There is no English help, except for on the written test. My Japanese isn't too hot, and it was only able to get me through all the administrative procedures, but not comprehension of the driving test. If you're Japanese is really poor, bring someone to help.

The written test is really easy. 8 true and false questions drawn from a pool of 24. It is in Japanese English, but comprehensible. At first I was afraid they were trick questions, but it was easy once I figured out that they aren't. Even if you didn't know the answer before, the questions are pretty leading in indicating the correct answer. (This is how I, for example, learned that you are expected to only drive in the left-most lane).

If you fail, you will be told to return at 10 am on a specific date approxiamtely one month later. The re-take involves only the re-doing the driving course if thats all that you fail. Even though you may not do the test until 2pm, you have to register by 10 am, so it can be an all day thing.

When you do pass, after waiting for hours for your turn to take the driving test, the good news is.....you get to wait a few more hours to get your license. They processed the gaijin after everyone else. I passed my test at 1:20, but didn't walk out with a license until 5:00 pm. (violence violence crashing burning reigning terror knives explosions.....sorry got lost in my thoughts there for a second). The last hurdle, besides the wait, is the eye test, which is easy if you can see. You have to know the Japanese words for up down left right (ue, shita, hidari, migi) and red, blue, yellow and green (aka, ao, kiiro, midori). It was at this point that it was really driven home to me how disgruntled our test-meister, was, as a Brazilian man was having trouble with the terminology and the guy giving the test was acting like most people would only imagine acting toward people who frustrate them. Without the violence, at least. Dismissive and rude, is how I would describe it.

More from Melanie:

Those lovely employees at the driver's license center seem to enjoy failing people for any reason they can think of. And even if you do a flawless performance and there is no reason to fail you, they'll make one up and fail you just because they can (from Joe: the man administering the test said she did everything right but that she didn't seem 'confident'). Well at least that was my experience the first time I took the driving test. Anyhow, it is very easy to fail the test numerous times and you have to wait one month between each test. This means if you fail 3 times it will take you 3-months to get your license. If you wait until the last minute and fail your test, you risk being unable to drive if your international license is no longer legal. That happened to a friend of mine.

Now that you have decided you want to jump on the ball and get a Japanese drivers license ASAP, here is some advice to help minimize your chances of being failed on the test. Before you take the behind the wheel driving test, you will need to pass a written examination. This is a very simple exam and almost everybody passes it their first time. Just read up on Japan's road rules and you will be fine. Next is the behind the wheel test. You can choose manual or automatic for this test. I have spoken with some gaikokujin who have taken the test, people at my BOE and a traffic police officer/ driving instructor about the driving test. They gave me some of this helpful info that I have passed on to you.

<< Science Projects for Big Kids: July 2003 | Master Index | Conseils de lecture: July 2003 >>

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