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Getting A Japanese Driver's License

Author: Andrew Schmitz, Issue: May 1997, Topic: Cars

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.

  • Unless you have a license from a Western European country (UK, Germany, France, Italy, Holland, etc.), you must take three exams to get a Japanese driver's license: 1) vision test, 2) written driving knowledge test, and 3) behind-the-wheel driving test. Apparently, Western European countries have as much bureaucracy associated with driver's licensing as Japan does, so their licenses are acceptable. They only have to take an eye exam and do some paperwork. Americans, Canadians, and all other countries get the full battery of tests. (Ed's note: Canadians no longer need to take the test.)
  • I had a valid license from Pennsylvania. It is important that the issue date (typed on the front of the license) is at least 90 days prior to the date you apply for the Japanese driver's license. If you just renewed your US license, wait until the 90 day requirement is met before you do anything.
  • Take your license to a JAF (Japan Auto Federation) office for translation. This is required. The fee is about 3000 yen. You can also get an English version book describing Japanese driving regulations, "Rules of the Road," at the JAF office. Try to get one from a friend. It costs about 3500 yen and isn't worth it. However, you should find some resource to learn road signs and other driving/parking rules.
  • Take your passport, alien registration card, US license and about 2100 yen to the driving test center (unten shiken-jo). In Sapporo, we have to go halfway across Hokkaido to the center in Teine. It was very crowded and nobody spoke English. The agent did most of the paperwork and helped me when I needed it. They practically took me by the hand and led me around (I needed it!). So, you don't need to have a Japanese friend go with you if you can find the center on your own. You also need a passport-type photo. Almost everybody uses the 500 yen service they have at the center for this photo, so you don't need to bring one. The eye exam was simple. The written exam consisted of 10 questions, in English, whose answers were very obvious. It is important to review road signs, markings on the road, and hand signals.
  • I passed the eye and written tests, then waited (You know, "Chotto matte kudasai," means wait at least 1 hour) until the agent called me. She then helped me to make an appointment for the behind-the-wheel driving test. You must specify automatic or manual transmission. If you pass the test for manual transmission, you can drive both types of cars. They will not let you take all tests on one day. You must go back about 1 week later for the driving test.
  • I practiced driving Japanese-style for about 15 minutes in an empty parking lot, went to take the test (manual tranny), and failed. Reschedule a new test.
  • I practiced driving quite a bit on unpopulated side roads (we have these in Sapporo), and passed the test on my second try. I paid the approx. 2300 yen fee for my second shot at the driving test. Again, I had to pass the vision exam. As with the first time, the exam officer spoke no English. I told him, in Japanese, that I understood migi, hidari, massagu, ichiban, niban, etc. That helped. I found the officers to be very nice and friendly.

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.

  • I did my best to understand the officers criticisms of my driving. There will always be some! Then I went back inside the building. After about 15 minutes, I was called to have my license photo taken (different photo than the one taken at the time of the written-test). I waited about 3.5 hours for my license. Fortunately, the center has 3 restaurants/coffee shops.

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:

Dear colleagues,

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.

  • Use WWW (World Wide Web) to find an AAA office in the state where your driving license is issued.
  • Call the AAA office, explaining in your most charming voice that you are in Japan and you find yourself in need of an international drivers license. Ask them to send you an application, check the cost, and verify that a copy of your US (or other) license will be acceptable for the application, and ask about any other application material that may be required.
  • Send them the completed application and a ($US) check for the fee. That's it.

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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