Obtaining a Japanese Drivers License
This is where the fun (read: tears, sweat, blood) begins. If you are just in Japan on vacation you, thankfully, don't have to worry about this at all.
To obtain a Japanese driver's license you must either go to driving school and start from scratch (like most Japanese people do) or convert your current license to a Japanese one. I would HIGHLY recommend converting your license as driving school usually takes months and can cost thousands of dollars.
Converting your license is not a painless process, however, especially if you are an American. The process consists of an application, written exam, driving road test, and eye exam. Several countries have treaties with Japan that allow their nationals to skip the written and driving road test, but not America (due mainly to the fact that each State issues their own licenses and there is not a uniform national license). Countries that do not have to take the tests are currently: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Korea.
Driver's licenses are issued by the prefectural driver's license examination office (jidosha unten menkyo shiken jo). There is usually only one office in each prefecture, but some of the larger cities have several. Before you even THINK about going to the prefectural office you need to do several things.
Make sure your current license shows BOTH issue AND expiration dates. If it does not you need to contact the office that ISSUED your license (your home Department of Motor Vehicles in America) and obtain a copy of your driving record.
a) Make sure that your license was valid and you were in the country that issued your license for AT LEAST three months after you got your license.
b) If you renewed your license while in Japan you obtain a copy of your driving record from your home country.
c) If you home license has expired you can either start from scratch and go to driving school in Japan, take the full (hideously difficult, Japanese only, you-are-almost-guaranteed-to-fail) driving test, or renew your home license.
You must obtain an OFFICAL TRANSLATION of your driver's license. The local Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) office will do this for you for around 3000 yen while you wait (takes them about 20 minutes) or by post. I also recommend that you pick up a copy of the "Rules of the Road" (1000 yen) that the JAF publishes in several languages including English.
If you needed to obtain your driving record it will also have to be translated (for an additional fee).
It is possible to translate your license yourself, but it requires special paper and usually a trip to your embassy (which are often unhelpful) so I would just use the JAF service.
(having fun yet?)
Go get your picture taken. You will need at least one (two or more if you fail the test - one each attempt) picture measuring 3cm x 2.4cm with a white background. There are usually kiosks outside train stations (and sometimes in the prefectural driving center). The picture has to have been taken in the last six months.
So now we have collected all the paperwork and you can start to think about visiting the prefectural driving center. You will need to bring:
- Your passport (it should show the date you left your home country and be valid for at least six months into the future.)
- Your alien registration card
- Your valid original driver's license (showing both issue and expiration dates)
- Your TRANSLATED driving record if your driver's license does not show the proper dates or if you renewed your license while in Japan
- The official translation of your driver's license
- The picture that you had taken in the last six months
- Cash (around 5000 yen, check before going)
When you have assembled all everything you need it is a good idea to check with the local prefectural driving center to:
- Make sure that is the correct center for where you live.
- Find out how much money you will need (or just bring extra).
- Find out when the window for converting foreign licenses is open.
- Get directions to the center, etc.
Once you get this far you need to understand how things at the prefectural driving center work. It can be summed up in a word: SLOWLY. This part of the process is going to take you the better part of at least one day. To start with these offices keep hours similar to a bank, ie. 8:30-3:00 M-F. Secondly the window for converting foreign licenses is likely to be open only once or twice a day. In Chiba the window is open from 8:30-9:00am and from 1:00-1:30pm. That's right, one hour a day. So you will want to arrive early so you can stand in line and wait. The good news is that they will usually process everyone in line, even past the 'open' time. Once you get to the counter if you can speak Japanese you can tell them you want to convert your license otherwise just show them you foreign license and other paperwork and they will get the idea. They will give you a form to fill out (the form is in Japanese, but there are usually examples posted around). The form basically just asks for name, address, passport number, and things like that. Take the from over to the desk that is provided and fill it out. They will continue to process people while you fill out this form, but once you are done with it go back to the window (you shouldn't have to wait in line again) and hand it to them. The will probably ask for the rest of your paperwork at this point then tell you to have a seat and wait, and wait, and wait.
As far as I can tell, they gather everyone's information THEN start to process it instead of processing it as it comes in; welcome to Japan. They will go through all of your information to determine if you are eligible to convert your license and may do a background check on you to see if you have been arrested, gotten any tickets, etc. There are stories of people being denied licenses for these reasons.
If everything checks out ok you should get everything handed back to you except for the application form and photo and told to pay the application fee. You will probably have to go to another counter that sells revenue stamps. Once you get the stamps DO NOT PUT THEM ON YOUR APPLICATION! Take the stamps back to the conversion window and give them to the clerk you were dealing with; let them put the stamps on. At this point you will be probably be told to wait some more so you can take the written test.
The written test consists of ten multiple choice questions about driving in Japan. The written test can be taken in a number of languages including English, but it isn't the best English in the world. However, if you have looked at the "Rules of the Road" the JAF publishes you should have no problem with this test. The questions aren't really tricky and can be downright silly like, "It's ok to drive home after drinking if it's very late at night. T / F."
Assuming you pass the test you will be scheduled for the practical driving test. This test is neither practical nor does it really test your driving skills. Depending on the driving center you may be able to take this test following the written test or you may have to schedule it for sometime in the future. If you have to schedule the test there is usually around a two week wait.
The practical driving test takes place on a course at the driving center not the open road. There may be other cars on the course, but they will all be either students or people taking tests. The course is designed to test certain skills such as turning, stopping, breaking, stoplights, railroad tracks, moving in a confined space, backing up, signaling, etc.
The examiner will explain the course using a chart on the wall (in Japanese, but if you can see the chart you don't really have to worry about understanding everything). Then you will probably ride in the back seat of the car as someone else takes their test so you can get a feel of the course (and someone will ride with you when you take the test). To convert your license you don't have to memorize the course as the Japanese drivers do and the examiner will give you directions as you go.
The important thing to remember during this test is that they are looking for specific things do be done in a specific order at a specific time. For example, when making a turn across traffic you should check your rear-view mirror, check you right side mirror, turn on your turn signal, break, check your mirrors again, look across the street, check your blind spot, turn, check your mirrors again. Do you actually drive this way? Probably not, but that's the sort of thing they are looking for. You will also be required to drive through a S curve and a sharp right and left corner. There are barricades hanging and if any part of your car touches them you automatically fail (or if you touch the curb). Remember to drive on the left, stop at stop signs, etc, and you will probably be ok.
Most people, however, fail this test on their first try (I did). If you do fail you must reschedule the driving test and try it again (and pay the fee again). Many driving schools in Japan have programs that allow students to practice taking the driving test without enrolling in a full course. These cost about 10,000 yen an hour, but they can give you helpful feedback on what you are doing wrong.
Once you pass the driving test you will probably have to wait until everyone is finished for the day. This can be a long wait; I waited 3 hours or so. Then you will take an eye exam that consists of basically answering which way the line is pointing. After that you wait a while longer and then get your picture taken. This is the official picture that will appear on your license and as such you are not allowed to smile. Once all of that is done guess what you get to do? That's right! wait some more. So it's approaching 4:30 in the afternoon and you've been waiting forever. It seems that all of the licenses for that day are made at the same time once everyone is finished with the tests. At the end of the day they are all handed out (one at a time). Once you have your shiny new Japanese Driver's License you can run away, free of the infernal waiting room, and drive in Japan of course. Yay!
I hope this article has been helpful for anyone planning on driving in Japan. Please let me know what you think of it on the feedback page.