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Japanese License:

Process at a Glance


WRITTEN BY: Patrick Bickford





Use of an IDP is a common courtesy that most countries extend to temporary foreign visitors, allowing them to drive relatively hassle-free during their short visits. However, most countries naturally want long-term foreign residents to enter their own national licensing systems after some time.  Now, it would be quite unfair to make licensed drivers go through the entire initial training and testing process again just to join a new national licensing system, especially in a foreign language.  So, the Japanese government has created a painless/painful process (depending on who you talk to) that allows you to "convert or transfer" your home country's license over to an official Japanese one.  The whole idea of the thing is based on the fact that you already have a license and driving experience in your home country, and therefore should be an easy write-in candidate for a Japanese license.  BTW, rest easy because home country license is a separate legal entity that is not affected by this "conversion".


Here's the process in short...


First, you must show documented proof that you have had a valid license from your home country for at least three months.  VERY IMPORTANT: DON'T RENEW YOUR LICENSE THREE MONTHS BEFORE COMING TO JAPAN.  If you do renew it within the final three months before coming, it will make your license look like you've been driving for less than three months in your home country.  The impact to this is that you'll also have to bring an official copy of your driving record to Japan and somehow translate it into Japanese because the company here in Japan (JAL) who you must pay to translate your home country's license into Japanese DOES NOT translate driving records, only driver's licenses.


Second, you will take two exams.  The first is a short 10-20 question written exam on driving rules here in Japan.  The test is pretty simple - an ape with an IQ below plant life could pass it.  However, the challenging part is reading the often times bad English translation of the questions.  Before you get your knickers in a bunch, relax because I have never heard of anyone failing it.  But, if you do so happen to fail it email me so I can tell people I know someone.  The second exam is the eye test.  Unlike English-speaking countries, Japan doesn't use the alphabet or numbers.  They simply use the letter "C" facing different directions and you must say: right, left, up or down.  I had a brain fart when I took it the test because I said, "backwards C...upwards C...downward C."  I think the person conducting the test thought I was mentally handicapped.  If you are from one of the following 22 countries - Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland or United Kingdom - you only have to take the eye exam and not the written exam to be issued your Japanese driver's license.


Third, if you're not lucky be from one of the above countries you will also be required to take a driving test.  The specifics for this test will be outlined later on.


The Paperwork



The first order of business is to get your paperwork together.  You will need:


  • Your country's original license - the license must show a date of issue of at least three months prior to arrival in Japan, and an official translation (2 copies) from JAL, which I believe is the only company here in Japan that will translate your home country's license.  THIS LINK is your one-stop-shop to getting your license translated.
  • Passport
  • One photo of yourself taken within the last six months (3cm × 2.4cm).  Your best bet is to have your picture taken at a sit-n-snap picture booth, which are located practically everywhere in Japan but don't confuse them with the puri-kura picture booths.  The sit-n-snap booths can usually found outside of a department store or your local shopping center.

      In regards to your home country's license, the Japanese government wants to see that you received your original license in your home country and were present in that country for at least three contiguous months after acquiring the license.  For most of you, this shouldn't be a problem because the dates on your license and the entry/exit stamps in your passport will leave the necessary paper trail.  However, if you...


      ...renewed your home country's license within three months before coming to Japan, make sure you bring an official copy of your driving record to prove you have been driving longer than three months and make sure the official copy is dated.  The pain of having to bring an official copy of your driving record is that you will need to find some way to have it translated into Japanese because the Japanese company (JAL) that translates foreign licenses does not offer the service of translating driving records.

      ...renewed your passport within three months of coming to Japan, make sure you bring your old hole-punched passport to Japan.  You will most likely need it to show proof of something during the licensing process.  Sometimes the licensing center officials do not ask about old passports, but if they do inquire about the possibility of you having any previous passports, and you acknowledge their existence, then you had better have them with you (plus photocopies), or else the entire process will abruptly come to an immediate halt until you are able to produce them.  Best be safe than sorry!




      The Appointment



      Since 2007, I believe every Licensing Center in every prefecture has succussfully made the licensing process one step more frustrating.  Now, the first time you make the trip to the Licensing Center it is merely for a preliminary document check.  I don't know what moron thought of this excellent idea because some people live 3-4 hours away from the closest Center, but you must go to the center in person so they can confirm that you have all the proper documents in order. It is not necessary to make an appointment for the preliminary document check, and if all your documents check out they will then make the appointment for your actual test date.


      The licensing hours are extremely strict so check your prefectural Center's times for more details.  Also, keep in mind a lot of officials are pretty anal about time.  If you show up even five minutes late, it has been known that some officials won't even look at your paperwork, much less give you an appointment for the test so you'll be forced to come back another day for the preliminary document check.




      • Also, be advised there will most likely be no English speaker available to help you.  If your documents are in order this may not be a big problem.  But, if there are issues with your paperwork, you fear the risk running into the ass-of-an-official who helped me, who despite trying my best in Japanese, was told not to return to the Center again without someone who spoke fluent Japanese.  To alleviate any potential problem, I would suggest bringing someone who is J-capable with you.
      • Speaking of anal retention, double and triple check your documents before you make your trek.  If you show up with incorrect or insufficient documentation, the first error they come to will most likely conclude the checking of your documents and you'll most likely get your ass sent home to fix the mistake.  They most likely will NOT look over the rest of your documents once they find a mistake, so if they should find another mistake the next time you could make the trek to the Licensing Center 3-4 times.  So, check your documents thoroughly before you go!
      • Also, I would suggest preparing at least two photocopies of every document.  It's easier to shred a document you don't need versus hunting around for a copier machine.
      • Avoid going to the Licensing Center in June or July if at all possible.  These are the months foreigners are scrambling to the Centers trying to beat the expiration date on their International Driver's License.  Once you decide that you are going to stay a second year in Japan and that you'll be driving, I would suggest starting the licensing process immediately to beat the traffic.
      • When is your birthday?  If your birthday is coming up, keep in mind to time the test date after your birthday.  Why?  Your new license will expire on your third future birthday and NOT the third anniversary of the date of issue.



      The Exam




      There are a total of three exams: eye, written and driving.  But, only the countries listed below will be required to take the eye exam to be issued their Japanese driver's license.



      As mentioned on another page, the Japanese eye exam doesn't use the alphabet or numbers.  They simply use the letter "C" facing different directions and you must say: right, left, up or down.  I had a brain fart when I took it the test because I said, "backwards C...upwards C...downward C."  However, I pass along this nugget of wisdom so you won't have the examiner thinking you're stupid, too.


      If you are from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland or United Kingdom, once you pass the eye exam you are done.  If you're not from one of these countries, the painful process continues.  NOTE: Residents of Canada need to take the written test but not the driving test.  Also, residents of Germany (Why?  I have no clue) NEED NOT an international or Japanese driver's license.  They can drive indefinitely in Japan using their German driver's license, granted that they have a Japanese translation of it.



      The written exam is ten questions and you must answer seven questions correct.  For all you non-math people, that's a mere 70% to pass.  They will take everyone up to a room with desks, pencils, and little test booklets in your native language.  The test is pretty easy but the challenging part is reading the often times bad English translation of the questions.  However, before you start worrying too much, I have never heard of anyone failing it.  The test is very easy and anyone who has been driving previously in Japan should have no trouble with it.  You might have a quick read over JAF's Rules of the Road page.


      After the written test, you will have a break until one p.m.



      The driving test is on a closed course reminiscent of a go-cart track at an amusement park. It doesn't really test your REAL road-driving skills.  It feels silly and it is a big pain in the ass.  That being said, you must jump through the hoops to get your license so there's no point of groaning about doing it.  Oh yeah, you'll most likely fail the driving test at least once.  It's my own personal conspiracy theory that this driving test is a scam to collect money from foreigners.  I failed twice, but I've know other people who have taken the test four times, while their others who hired the services of driving tutors passed their first time out.  And, just to let you know now, if you fail it will most likely be because of something stupid and inconsequential.  The first time I failed, I was told it was because I didn't use a cross-over hand to turn the steering wheel.  The second time I failed, I was told I drove TOO slow on the straight-away and because I wore sandles.  The third time I passed, but I was hungover and made a wrong turn on the track.  You go figure the logic.  Of course, it was on the third try that I also decided that I would start paying the 4,000 yen fee using 100 yen coins. ;)


      All gripe aside, I would suggest checking your bad attitude at the Licensing Center door because it won't help you pass the driving test.


      So, when you return from your lunch break at one p.m., you will most likely walk over to the driving course along with a handful of test-takers, probably all foreigners.  The instructor will invite you three of you at a time into the 'driving test' car, which will look familiar because it's the same model as all the taxis in Japan.  He (most likely) will drive around the course one time and point out some details on the track.  He will most likely speak only Japanese and will later give you directions in only Japanese. When he stops, he will get into the passenger seat and invite one of you lucky contestants to sit behind the steering wheel of hell.  His invitation is where the test begins.  He will be watching you like a hawk.  Here are the tricks of the trade:



      1. You might think to take about  1-2 lessons with a driving instructor.  Each lesson will be about 3,000-5,000 a piece.  These lessons have no bearing on whether you're a good driver.  They simply will give you some tips of what to watch out for come test day.  However, if you're like me and refuse to take the practice lessons, read on...
      2. Before stepping into the vehicle for the test, do the must-needed-but-never-done-in-reality check in front and back of the car for those small children, cats etc.  Look around the car a lot!  Your neck should be a little sore afterwards from bobbing around looking at all that imaginary traffic, high school students on bikes, children, pets, obachans, etc.
      3. Also, before getting into the vehicle, put your hand on the driver's door but before opening it and check both ways to make sure a random vehicle isn't going to come by all of a sudden and take the door off the hinges when you open it.
      4. After getting in the car and before starting the engine, adjust your seat, mirrors, check your instruments and fasten your seatbelt.  Then, do the pre-flight checklist once more to ensure the drill sargent next to you sees you did it.
      5. Watch those hands!  Keep both hands on the wheel at all times, positioned between 9-10 and 2-3 o'clock.
      6. This sounds mundane but at stop signs and/or traffic signals ("robots" for my South African peeps) make sure you stop behind those fat solid white lines that are located in front of crosswalks.
      7. When you're making any turn:
        • Make sure to employ the hand-over-hand steering wheel turn.
        • Check your rearview mirror, side mirror, then manually turn your head behind you to look before making any turns.  You might even think about doing this process twice.  The manual head swivel is to check for bikes or motorcycles swerving past you as you turn.
        • If you are taking the stickshift test, make sure you are in second gear when you turn.
        • Unlike back home, you must turn into the farthest lane not the closest.  So, if you are in an intersection turning right, you will turn into the left lane and not the right lane, with your leftside tires hugging but not on the solid white line.
      8. Make sure you accelerate to 40km or more on the straight-away.  Then, slow down by pumping your brakes exactly three times.  Will you fail if you don't do this?  Who knows, but keep in mind the driving test will seem like the most sloppiest driving you've ever done in your life but it's okay for test purposes.  You figure out the logic to that one...
      9. In the S-shaped and L-shaped area, make sure you tires don't fall off the track because it will be an automatic failure.  Also, even if you are comfortable driving through these tight areas and even if you don't hit anything or your tires don't fall off the track, you could possibly get tagged for going too fast through this area.


      After the test is over, you'll most likely receive a quick lecture in Japanese before letting you out or changing seats with the next driver.  Most likely, the lecture will include all the wrong things you did on the test, but keep cool.  At this point, you don't know if you've failed.  I would suggest keeping a level head throughout the entire process, even if you find out you failed because when you take the test again, you could get stuck with the same instructor.




      Back to Driving in Japan




This page was last modified on Wednesday, March 19, 2014 03:21:39 PM