For anyone planning to move to Japan, one of the most recommended preparation points is to arrive as a legal driver. Japan is famous for its public transport and for good reason, but most of the country’s area is not reachable on foot via mass transit and the vast majority is so much more accessible by car than by train or bus. Even in Tokyo, where many have the oxymoronic view of “nobody drives in Tokyo because there is too much traffic”, there is benefit in driving over train transport in some situations. Even if you are 100% sure you will not want to drive, unless you have lived a long time in the country, your view is likely to change. Your trip to Tokyo for a month or year of study at a Japanese university will not properly prepare you for the change of mindset that you have when settling down and working as a normal member of society. Whether wanting the option to buy a car when realizing it makes your lifestyle more convenient and cheaper, or just wanting to pick up a parking lot rental for a few hours to make a run to CostCo, many people realize too late that the ability to drive is more of a benefit than expected. Given the incredible difference in effort to be a legal driver in Japan if preparing before arriving and after arriving, one of the biggest regrets I have seen for people moving to Japan has been the realization of difficulties that came due to lack of preparation.
Before coming to Japan, citizens of most countries holding a local driving license can apply for an international driving permit. This allows driving in Japan for up to one year after either the license issue date or arrival date in Japan, whichever is earlier. For this reason paying more money for a license valid for more than one year is pointless. The international license may be obtained at your local auto federation, such as AAA in the US, the AA in the UK, or the state driving associations of Australia. It is usually very easy (taking minutes) and inexpensive (usually the equivalent of US$10-30) to do so in person. If already in Japan or otherwise abroad, you should be able to apply by mail, but the time and cost to do so increase much greater and may require a person to act on your behalf.
Your international driver’s license becomes invalid after you have been in Japan for one year. Even if you applied for your international license after you arrived, it still expires one year from your first day in Japan, so do not apply for one if already in Japan for one year or if you have less than 6 months’ time passed after leaving Japan. Please check when your international driver’s license expires. To continue driving in Japan after your first year, you must convert your driver’s license to a Japanese one. It is only possible to obtain another international permit if leaving Japan for at least 6 months in the meantime.
To convert your international license into a Japanese license, you first need to get your present license translated into Japanese. If your driver’s license doesn’t include an issuing date, you will need to contact your issuing authority to send you a driving record or license with the issuing date on it. Translating costs 3,000 yen and can be done at the JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) or by mail (paid via revenue stamp only). All licenses translated into Japanese must have the issuing date written on it. Please check the JAF (Japan automobile Federation) for more details about converting you driver’s license.
To test for the license, take the license translation, your driver’s license, your international driving permit (if you have one; results tend to be more positive with one), a photo (3 cm x 2.4 cm but perhaps 2 copies to be safe), residence card, and passport to the prefecture license office. Please check what time you have to be there as there is a small window for test applications for foreigners. There is a written and driving test, but some countries are exempt from these tests. The United States is the most notable example of a nation not exempt. Because of the difficulty involved for the citizens of some countries to get a Japanese license, it is highly recommended to prepare to take the driving test as soon as possible even if a lot of time is left on the international permit’s validity.
Attaining a Japanese license is important for several reasons. Primarily, it is a requirement for driving in Japan in the long term. Secondarily, it is a more respected form of identification than a foreigner’s residence card and can aid in major purchases by having a foreign credit card accepted by a suspicious store clerk as it shows an intention to live in the country. One more reason to attain a Japanese license as early as possible is that if holding a license for 5 years with no accident or traffic infraction, your license is classified as “gold” and you can also receive a “safe driver” card. This card provides various discounts in places like movie theaters, fast food establishments, etc. It’s usually the same as the discount provided for being a JAF member. JAF membership is recommended for car owners, but if not owning a car and only a paper driver or occasional rental car user, the safe driver card may eventually cover the initial costs of the license and this in itself is a reason for some people living in Japan for the long term to attain a Japanese license.
Attaining a Japanese Driver’s License
If you have held a driver’s in your home country for three months before your first day in Japan, you can apply for a Japanese driver’s license. The process is fairly simple for most foreigners and very complex for others including Americans. In either case, please prepare as early as you can and several months in advance if possible.
First you will need to get your license officially translated into Japanese. This is explained at the following JAF website address: http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm
In order to obtain a Japanese driver's license you must have:
- Your foreign license
- Your passport
- Your residence card
- A translation of your foreign license (done by mail through the JAF)
- Proof of holding your foreign license for 3 continuous months before entering Japan (explained a bit better later)
- Clear notice on the license and translation for manual transmission clearance if you wish to take the test for a manual transmission license (which is more expensive, much more difficult, and strongly recommended NOT to do unless REALLY needing to drive a manual transmission car in Japan, which is rare and more expensive than automatic transmission cars)
- A bit over 5000 yen for fees, lunch and vending machine drinks, and more for transport to the license center (if needed). Bring 10,000 yen to be safe.
- Two passport sized photos (which can be made in photo shops near most centers for 1000 yen or less, or you can bring your own appropriate pictures that can be resized for free by the license center staff, and this is recommended if possible)
- Appropriate paperwork filled out in Japanese (at the test site, which takes about 5 minutes if you read and write Japanese well). Most license centers are fine for a foreigner to bring a Japanese friend to translate (other than during a road test) or help fill out paperwork.
- To help the process, it is recommended that you bring any other legal driving documents, such as an international license.
- An arrival between 9 and 9:30 AM weekdays to give yourself enough time to complete applications, and if you need a parking space, you may want to give yourself even more time to be safe. The center offers free parking if you can get a ride or if you are able to drive with an international license. Otherwise taking a bus from Mito station leaving between 8 and 9 is best. If you can't get a bus by 9:20 it isn't even worth attempting the trip as you won't get everything turned in on time, and you'll lose 1000 yen and 2 hours or more in the trip.
If you don't have everything absolutely perfectly prepared, expect some obstacles in your path. Over a few months I took four trips to get my license and came back empty-handed three times. The main reason is that, like most people, I thought I was doing myself a favor and being safe by renewing my license right before coming to Japan. If your license does not have an old enough test date printed and translatable by JAF, you will have to show proof in other ways. Someone I met on my last day there was from Boston, and his license had the original test date in tiny print on the back. This was not accepted. The center prefers an older driver's license or an official driving record from your state. My home state of Georgia requires a notarized request for a record, and since I could find no notary willing to confirm English documents I did the best that I could. (Later I found that services are offered by the US embassy but for a high cost.) The following is a recount of my trips:
- I don't take things very seriously, and go to the center with an old car insurance bill thinking it will be taken as proof. It isn’t, as it cannot be confirmed as a credible source.
- I have my original license mailed to me, and am saddened to find out that it is a learner's permit. I decide that I should try and see if it is acceptable anyway. However, while at the center and filling out paperwork, my wallet is stolen. Since all my money, passport, license, and ID cards are inside, there is pretty much no way to apply to take the test. The wallet issue was soon resolved with the police. I went to try again a week later.
- The learner's permit is not accepted.
- I have an internet company send a driving record to me by way of my old insurance company for double confirmation. This time, things got through. The center asked me questions about it for 20 minutes, and decided that the combination of that, my learner's permit, and insurance bill would combine for acceptable proof. Incidentally, the Bostonian I mentioned earlier tried a week later to apply using an internet company's driving record. He was refused. The moral of the story is that if your license does not have a date listed within the acceptable time frame, you should order a driving record from your home municipality as early as possible.
At this point, most non-US citizens could take an eye test and get a Japanese license shortly afterward. If you are a not applicable, please read on.
Now that I finally had an application in, I could test. Due to treaty issues between the US and Japan I had to take a special "foreigner test", consisting of a written test and a driving test. Luckily I had prepared much more for the tests than the application.
The written test does NOT need any advance study as far as the content goes. Ten statements are given with "true" and "false" boxes, with the taker circling the appropriate choice. The questions are excruciatingly easy and you can miss three and still pass. One issue is that the English on the tests is unbelievably bad, and I found myself just reading the Japanese portions instead. I can seriously see how someone not able to understand Japanese might fail the test because the language is too confusing. (An example: “It is sometimes not OK to drink alcohol for just a little amount and still be OK to drive a car or bike.”) However, anyone taking the test seriously, paying attention to the text and pictures, should have no problem.
With that out of the way, I waited for the driving portion. Six of us were herded into the area next to the course and we were told the hard truth that less than one-quarter of tests are passed and that more than 95% fail their first time. Japanese citizens must attend an expensive driving school to take the driving test, and they want to make sure that foreigners holding licenses have 300,000+ yen worth of driving ability. You must pass with a score of at least 90%, and there are many infractions (some fairly minor) that carry a penalty of more than 10%.
Out of the six of us, I was the only first-timer. The rest had tried at least three times before, and one woman had tried eight times. Personally, I think it might have had something to do with the tattoos of spiders encircling her neck, which make less than a perfect impression to a retired police officer administering a government test. In the end, two of us passed, the other person being someone making his fifth attempt. He was also the only one in a suit, which ideally should not make a difference but very well may have.
I'd studied online about how to pass the test, picking up bits and pieces, as well as thinking of different things I could do to help myself out. Here is what I learned and came up with, which allowed me to pass on my first try.
The first important part is considered before you even apply. Tests are taken in the order in which applications are received, and so it is to your benefit to go as late as possible. The person to next take the test always sits in the back seat of the person taking it, so there is a big disadvantage to going first. Also, you want to watch other people drive the course, and see the mistakes that pop up frequently. Try to wait until a few people have applied to take the test that day before submitting your own application, and if possible try to be the last person submitting an application. There is also the possibility that a strict tester who feels he has failed “enough” people for the day will be a little easier on those testing afterward.
Before the test itself began, I showed a lot of enthusiasm and humor to the tester. He's dealing with lots of scared and possibly scary foreigners and it is important to be likable. After describing the test, he allowed us time to ask questions. I was the only one who did. I asked a few questions that seemed important but also showed I had already researched a bit into the process.
In the car, I kept the friendliness going, by making small comments and doing little things like making sure the tester's seat belt was buckled. Then, I mentioned that I like to speak out loud to myself when focusing my thoughts, and asked if that would be OK. He said it was fine. I used that as a way to show the tester my thoughts, by saying things like "OK, that way is clear", or "nobody behind me", or "go slow and smooth". After the test, he mentioned twice that he knew I had no fault in my driving because I'd shown that I thought about every bit of it. Any Japanese language being said should be done only if you have confidence in being understood; it would be better not to complicate things if you are unsure.
Also, of course, I made no mistakes on the course. There are two courses used in most centers labeled “A” and “B”. Mostly course A is used, although both are similar and change with different placement of cones to change one route on the course.
If you passed, the tester will get out of the car and hand you a form. If not, he'll call you to the window and tell you what you did wrong. However, by this time you should know if you have failed. If you must receive corrective instruction while driving or are told the same command twice, you can be confident that you did not pass.
After everyone tests, those that pass go together as a group to take a vision test. Basic Japanese is necessary (up, down, blue, etc.). Passing this, as a group you are taken to pay for your license, and then are taken to have your license photo taken. Then, you wait and get your license. While waiting, there is a strong likelihood you will collectively watch a drivers safety video.
Upon getting the license, you are shown the important parts of it, and if you are considered a novice driver, you will be told to purchase an appropriate magnet for your bumper. Follow this direction to avoid fines should the police stop you.
Lastly, it should be noted that the process takes an entire day, so be prepared to combat boredom. For most centers, here is how your day will go if you are lucky and all goes well:
- Before 10AM: All application materials submitted. You are then told to wait.
- About 11AM: You are called to the window to discuss parts of your application or to be told all is well.
- Noon: One hour lunch break.
- About 1:30PM: You are called to take the written test.
- 2PM-3:30PM: Driving tests followed by eye test.
- 4PM: You are called to have your picture taken.
- 5PM: Distribution of licenses.
And that's it! Hopefully you are now a legal driver!
If you cannot pass the test, you must wait before trying again and you must pay some of the fees again. Passing the test gets easier as you take it more and more. Some of this is due to being more familiar with the course and the car, and some of it is the tester being more confident that you have “paid your dues” to get the license. Many centers allow you (or require you) to reserve a date in the future to test again.
There are some companies online that offer internet “courses” to prepare foreigners to pass the test in your first attempt. They are mostly made up of a list of commands describing what to do in all parts of the driving course with some pictures added for a visual aid, and e-mail counseling with a driving school employee. I personally feel that they are not worth the thousands of yen that they charge, and many free guides are online for the driving center in most prefectures, but if you find that you just can’t pass the test, you could look into them for help. Most prefectures also have driving practice courses that allow driving with no license, available at various rates and qualities, but you must supply your own car and cannot rent one without a license. It’s a Catch-22 unless you know someone with a car who can drive you to one.