As my first year in Japan drew to a close, there were about a million different administrative issues I needed to deal with, from taxes to getting a Japanese credit card. But at the very top there was a task I faced with dread – getting a Japanese drivers’ license.
For foreigners living in Japan there’s a one year window during which you can drive with a license from your home country, so long as you have an international driving permit (IDP). These are super easy to get, require nothing but a fee and a trip to your local AAA, and are an absolute life saver if you are traveling (they’re good in most countries). Sadly, after one year of use (or, in Japan, one year from your arrival in the country) they are no longer valid, and you must go through the not-so-fun process of converting your foreign license to a Japanese one.
Now, this process isn’t so bad for everyone. If you’re from Australia, Canada or the UK, it’s a pretty straightforward process. You make an appointment with the Japanese equivalent of the DMV, show them that your license was valid for at least three months back in your home country, watch a video about driving safety and boom! You have a new license.
Sadly, Americans don’t have it so easy. Because each of our 50 states has different driving laws and tests, the Japanese government has not developed any agreements for licenses, and we must take a modified driving test, in addition to answering lots and lots of questions about our driving history. The whole process took about a month, start to finish, and I was lucky, since I passed the test on my first try. But basically, this is what you have to do:
Have your license translated. This is done by JAF, the Japanese equivalent of AAA. All you have to do is mail an application, a copy of your foreign license, and a $30 fee to the nearest JAF. If you’re in a big city you can do this in person, but that wasn’t really an option for me. One thing you have to be careful of when doing this is to check your license and make sure it lists all the required information. A Missouri license, for example, does not have a date of issuance, which is required here. Because of this, I had to send in a copy of my driving record, which my mom was kind enough to pick up for me from the local DMV and send to me. Thanks mom!
Gather all of your documents. In addition to your translated license you will also need your passport, residence card, two ID photos, and your foreign drivers’ license. None of these are especially difficult to get. The license translation only takes a few days, but the JAF website suggests allowing two weeks.
Make an appointment to drop off your documents and have an “interview.” This was probably one of the most confusing bits. In Miyazaki, all foreigners have to go into Miyazaki City for this, which is a bit annoying (that’s an hour’s drive for me). My supervisor was nice enough to call and set this up for me, but it was a bit of a bureaucratic headache.
The department that handles interviews is only open in the afternoons, and they claimed they could only handle one scheduled interview a day, despite telling us that the interviews never take more than two hours. This was pretty ridiculous, especially because my neighbor and I were hoping to go in together. They also require that you bring a Japanese speaker along with you, for translation. Of course the office is only open during the week, so finding someone who would be willing to take an afternoon off to do this was looking like an impossible mission. On top of this, my friend’s supervisor called and found out that all but one appointment had been taken for the entire month of June! We were a bit panicked, since we needed to take the actual test before the end of July, or we’d both be saddled with cars we couldn’t drive.
In the end we convinced them to see us both at once, due to the time constraints, and my friend’s supervisor was given permission to treat this as a business trip and come with us. Crisis averted!
Go to your “interview.” After all of that headache setting the interview up, it was a total breeze. You show up, give them your documents, and they give you another form to fill out. It’s in English and Japanese, so it’s easy to understand, but they ask that you fill certain sections out in Japanese. But honestly, I found the Japanese translator to be unnecessary, since most things were pretty easy. They asked all kinds of strange questions about the engine size of my car in America, how many questions the written driving test had, whether I had taken the practical test on a course or the open road, how much my license cost. Again, lots of bureaucratic silliness. It was over quickly and we were told that we could come back any time after a week and take the practical driving test, no appointment needed.
Take a driving lesson (optional). While a lesson is not required to get a license or even to take the practical test, I have never heard of anyone passing without it. This is because the test foreigners take (which is a modified, shorter version of what Japanese people do) is essentially a choreographed route. It’s on a course at the DMV, and there are two possible routes you will be asked to drive. The test administrators do not speak English, so while they will tell you when to turn, it’s pretty much expected that you memorize both routes. It’s possible to do this with just the map, but the test is set up in such a way that small errors will lead to failure. A driving lesson will allow you to go out onto the course for two hours and practice exactly when to use your turn signal, because it really, really matters.
With that said, the driving lesson will likely be incredibly frustrating. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so stupid in my life. Though I have nearly ten years of driving experience, this course is not designed to test how you drive on an actual road, it’s set up to see how well you can follow arbitrary rules. The whole thing is done at a crawl, and points are docked for putting your turn signal on too late, not turning into the correct side of the lane (no, not wrong lane or side of the road, side of the lane, because you have to set yourself up for your next turn). I couldn’t believe all of the nonsense involved. I left the lesson feeling like a worse driver, and on the drive home I found that nothing I was taught was applicable to a real world scenario. Regardless, driving the actual course was invaluable, and having the instructor tell me every rule and how strictly it would be enforced was completely necessary.
Take the driving test. Once you’ve memorized the course, taken your lessons and prayed to whatever you think will help you, it’s time to take the plunge! You’re expected to arrive around 8:30am to the Driving Center, and of course you’ll do a lot of sitting and waiting. First they’ll have you fill out some paperwork, pay a fee, and then take the written test. It’s only 10 questions, and the content is not particularly difficult, but the language is designed to be confusing in Japanese, which makes it nearly unintelligible in English. The pictures often don’t seem to match the words. I got this question about small motor vehicles with a picture of a bicycle. So confusing! But in the end my friend and I both passed, and they told us to go downstairs for the driving portion.
When we got downstairs we learned which of the two routes we would drive (they choose one each day) and were then allowed to go out and walk the course. This was surprisingly useful, and made us both feel a lot more confident as we walked around and narrated what we would do at each point. Then it was back inside to receive instructions (all in Japanese, none of which I understood) and wait until our name was called. My friend went first, and when she came back in she had passed! She told me that we were in luck, today the only English speaking instructor was there, and he would be driving with me as well. I got into the car and went through all of the carefully choreographed motions, making sure to do all of my checks in the right order, to never drive faster than 20mph, and to narrate everything I did. It was super nerve-wracking, but when we reached the building, he said I passed.
Get license! After the test, the worst is over. They send you back inside to wait again. You get paperwork from about four different desks, pay another fee, and then have your picture taken. After the photo you wait a bit more, and then your get your license. It’s good for three years, and you are free!
In the end, I had to take two full days off of work, spend close to $300, and probably lose a fair amount of sleep over this whole affair. But now I have a Japanese license, and the country is my oyster (so long as my car can handle it). I celebrated with my friend over burgers, and since she drove that day I even treated myself to a fancy Hawaiian beer.