Licensed To Drive..Finally!!

Converting Your Foreign Driver's License to a Japanese License

This article was originally published on my blog site on January 2008. Please come and visit http://mirai.hayashi-web.net to see more about my experiences in living and working in Japan.

About 6 years ago I attempted to get a Japanese drivers license, since I was still driving with an international driving permit. But due to fact that I could not prove that I had lived in the States and possessed my license for more than 3 months while living there, I was turned away. So every year I would just renew the international driving permit by purchasing it from AAA in the States. But I recently found out that according to the Japan Traffic Act 107.2, it’s illegal for residents of Japan to use IDP’s for more than a year. So therefore renewing year after year is illegal. Apparently this law came into effect in 2003, so in effect, I have been driving illegally for nearly four years now.

Since the public transportation system is really good in Japan, I never really had a real need to get a license right away. I only drive on weekends and holidays, and since the Japanese police are, well...let's just say relaxed in their enforcement of traffic laws, getting a license was wasn’t too high of a priority.

With talks of a new family business which will partially involved racing carsand race karts, and the new family, a license has become somewhat of a necessity. So last July, I went down to the Kanagawa License Center in Futamatagawa (a very inconvenient location I must add) and re-attempted to make arrangements to get a Japanese driver’s license.

Some History

Until about 15 years ago, getting a license in Japan was quite simple as long as you had a valid license from your home country. All that really needed to be done was to get your license translated by the Japanese Auto Federation (JAF-the Japanese equivilant of AAA), take a written test (which is pretty easy), take an eye exam, and that was about it.

In many cases, this process still applies, especially for those in European countries such as Britain and France, or even Canada where getting a drivers license is much more difficult than the States. But for those who have an American individually State issued driver’s license, as opposed to common issued ones like those in European countries, the process has gotten a lot more difficult.

Here are the requirements for American driver’s license holders:

**The driver’s license must be valid (not expired). I doubt that they check if the license is suspended or not.

**Need to bring your foriegn registration card (if you are not Japanese) or some other type of picture ID if you are. UPDATE: As of 2013, this will be you residence card which are issued by the immigration office, not the ward office.

**A passport (current and any old ones you may have)

**International Driving Permit (optional if you have one)

**A proper ID photograph.

**A JAF translated copy of your driver’s license. (You cannot translate it yourself, although I could have done it better, and for free.)

**You will need to show proof that you lived in the country where you got the license for at least 3 months after obtaining the license. (This can prove to be more difficult than expected) I used a very dated driving record (see below) and passports that dated back to when I was in grade school.

**Take a short 10 question test (basically common sense questions about the rules of the road)

**An eye exam (no brainer -unless you’re completely blind)

**An exam to test your actual driving skills –THIS is the difficult part!!

**A lot of patience for the endless beaurocracy, headaches, and anal retentiveness of the examining officers.

**Money -you will need lots of it unless you are one of the rare fortunate ones who pass on the first try.

The first time I went to the testing center in Kanagawa was six years ago, I took everything listed above except some kind of proof that I possessed a valid driver’s license when I lived in the States. I did take my passport though, assuming that with it, and my western looking appearance, they could deduce that I probably spent more time in the States than in Japan. Bad assumption on my part. The Kanagawa Police Department are way to anal, and would only accept concrete evidence that I owned my license for three month prior to coming to Japan.

For many people, this isn’t too much of an issue, but in my case, I had just renewed my driver’s license one week prior to moving to Japan, and the California Driver’s License only shows the renewal date, as opposed to the date when the license was first issued (which for me was 1989) . So in the eyes of the testing center, I had only had my license for 1 week, while living in the States as opposed to the actual 12 years (the actual number of years I had the license at the time). For this reason, I was told that I was not eligible to convert my California DL to a Japanese DL, and to go through the conventional methods of obtaining a license. This so called "conventional method" is the way most Japanese people get their licenses, which entails attending a Japanese driving school which can be quite pricey costing upwards of 380,000 yen or nearly $3700 US dollars, not to mention a lot of time, which may not be possible for many people especially if you’re a working person like me.

Discouraged and somewhat upset over the process, I pretty much gave up on the idea of even trying to get a license in Japan. At the time, an international driving permit was still legal, so I just continued to drive on that until I learned that it was no longer legal to renew it.

Then, a few years ago, while on a business trip to the States, I decided to stop off at a nearby DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) to get a print out of my driving record. Since I was somewhat of a lead foot as a teenager, coupled by the fact that a certain motorcyle policeman liked to constantly hang out in front of my high school and follow me home in the hopes that he could get me to make a mistake so that he could make his daily citation quota, I had racked up an impressive driving infraction record. The infractions were at their greatest between the years 1989 and 1991. I figured that, although somewhat embarassing, this would be adequate proof that I possessed a license for more than the required three months.

Unfortunately, I had forgotton that the DMV only keeps infraction records for 3 years after the actual crime was commited. So according to the DMV, my driving record was perfect because everything had cleared. But they were able to give me a printout of all of the address changes I had made since my college days, complete with dates. The earliest date dated back to 1991 which was perfect! Now it was a matter of whether the testing center accepted it as proof or not.

Complete with the dated driving record in hand, and the rest of the items I have compiled during my scavenger hunt, I went to the Kanagawa testing center last July. I gave all my documents to police officer who resembled a Japanese version of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrain (from the "Dukes Of Hazzard" TV series). He asked me several irrelevant questions about my past and my family. He also asked me no less than ten times whether I was a Japanese Citizen or not. He had my foriegn registration card in his hand, so I don’t know what drove him to ask so many times, or even once for that matter. Japanese citizens don’t/can’t carry foriegn registration cards. It just reconfirmed my opinion of Japanese police as being ...well ...a bit slow.

Several minutes later, Sheriff Rosco returned to give me the news that I was elgible for license conversion, which made me very happy and relieved. I wasn’t able to make it to this stage the last time so I had renewed hope of getting a Japanese driver’s license.

The next stage was the written test. I never saw this as an obsticle. I figured that they’d be common sense questions, and I was right. One of the questions went something like: its okay to drive after drinking when: , followed by 4 multiple choice answers. The only logical answer was "never", but I saw someone answering the question incorrectly. Basically, if you know to stop at a stop sign and not to drink and drive, it will be easy to pass. Unfortunately, there were those who didn’t pass, which made me wonder how relaxed the traffic laws are in their country.

The next step was to take the actual driving exam. This stage was hell to say the least, and it took me six months to figure out what the examining officers were looking for. Basically, if you drive normally during the test, you will fail! At least at the Kanagawa testing center, that’s the way it is. I heard that the Tokyo testing center is much more relaxed, but you have to be a Tokyo resident to be elgible to test there.

The course consists of a series of several left and right turns, a very narrow and crooked one way street known as the crank (because of its resemblence to a crank shaft), an S-curve, and long soft curve with a road obsticle to simulate fallen rocks that you need to avoid by changing lanes properly. The course is not too difficult to navigate. Even the two narrow streets are fairly easy to get through. The difficult part is getting through the course while doing all of the required tasks that the examiner is looking for.

Since my car has a 5 speed manual transmisson, I had to take the test using a car with a manual transmission. If I took the test using a car with an automatic transmission, there would be an “Automatic-Only” restriction on my license. And if I were to drive a car with a manual transmission with a car with a restricted license, its as bad as, and carries the same penalties as driving with no license at all. Whereas, I can drive both manual and auto if I take the test with a car with a manual tranny. This is quite a difference from taking a driving test in the States, because basically you could use any car (auto or manual) and there would be no restrictions.

It took me a total of six attempts to pass the driving exam in Japan, and I consider myself to be a better than average driver. Of course, most people think that they are good drivers, but I’ve actually had professional training in the States, and possessed a B-class commercial driver’s license that allowed me to carry up to 15 passengers in a micro-bus at one point in my life. In all, I have owned a class M motorcycle license, a class B commercial driver’s license, a class C regular driver’s license, and a domestic B racing license, and I had yet to ever fail any kind of driving test until now.

Most people, no matter how good of a driver they are (or think they are) , will fail this test at least once, if not more. This is not because they are poor drivers or make careless mistakes, but because there are certain things that need to be done while taking the test, and you will need to know what these procedures and protocols prior to taking the exam. Other than a few sites like this, there is no published material that will teach you how to take this test, so it's a matter of trial and error. As I said earlier, if you drive normally, or the way most people do on the streets, no matter how well or safe you drive, you will fail -100% guaranteed. And as unfair as it may seem, you are not there to demonstrate how well you can drive, but to show that you know how to take this test. This is the mistake the majority of the people who take this exam will make. The advice that the testing center gives is to take the training course that they offer which is about 8000 yen ($75 US). They suppose to point out all of the procedures and protocols you need to know to be able to pass the exam. I didn’t have time for this, so I skipped it all together, but in hindsight, I may have saved a trip or two if I did take it.

So, here is the run down of all of the reasons why I failed the first five tests:

Test 1: Failed to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. This is an instant failure, and a 100 point deduction. By the way, the minimum passing score is 70 points out of a possible 100, and they don’t tell you how many points they deduct for each infraction. But a major error is an instant 100 point deduction which ends the test immediately. Admittedly I did do what is called a “California stop” which is a rolling stop and go. This is illegal even in California so I’m not sure why they call it a California stop. But the examing officer failed me instantly for that.

Test 2: Turns were too wide, not pulling over to the left or right far enough when making the turns, and turning angle was too wide (should be closer to a 90 degree turn like the light cycles in the 1980’s Disney movie, Tron). I didn’t quite understand this until I did the research. Apparently, the wider than normal two laned streets on the test course are really four laned streets (two lanes in each direction -a driving lane and a passing lane) without a center dividing line. You have to kind of imagine that there is a line in the middle. So when you go to make a turn, you have to signal, look, pretend to change lanes, and get as close to the center line as possible for a right turn (or as close to the curb as possible when making a left turn), otherwise you will run the risk of running into the imaginary car trying to pass you.

Test 3: Apparently, I failed to come to complete stop AGAIN! But this time I KNOW I DID! Sure, most people will protest, "I stopped! I swear I did!", when they probably really didn’t. But in my case I know I did for three reasons: 1) because I made this mistake before and made absolutely sure not to repeat it. 2) pulled the car out of gear and confirmed that it was in neutral by shaking the shifter left and right when I was stopped. 3) the car even started to roll back a bit. The exam officer was so busy looking down at his Clip board, that he didn’t see me doing any of these things. All that he saw was the car pulling away from the line and assumed that I had never stopped. He said that he didn’t feel the car jerk to a stop. This is because, as a commercial driver who transported passengers for a living , I learned that jerking stops can make passengers uncomfortable or even car sick if done too often, so we were trained to make hard stops without the car jerking back too much and come to a smooth stop. But arguing was futile. I had to just accept that this guy wasn’t looking and because of that, I failed. Afterwards, I asked the person who was riding along with us whether or not I had actually stopped. He told me that he couldn’t remember, but he said that some examiners don’t pay close attention sometimes, so I should count to three after every stop and make sure that the examiner sees that I had stopped before proceeding. GRRR! Ridiculous!!

Test 4: I took this test after a 4 month break. Admittedly, I made a lot of mistakes on this test. The first mistake was stopping a bit past the line. The tires didn’t cross the line but the bumper allegedly did, slightly. I failed to remember that the entire car has to be behind the line which is sometimes difficult to do in a car that you’re unfamilar with because of the dimensions. The car, a Nissan Crew (which are usually only used for taxi’s and police cars in Japan because of it’s very mondane and dated appearance) is considerably longer than my Honda Integra which I am so used to driving, and the tires set further behind the bumper than my car. The second mistake I made was riding up on the curb when entering the S-curve. This was a dumb and costly mistake. I think it was due to partially being nervous, being rusty, trying to get as close to the curb as possible, and forgetting the dimensions of the car. Also, which was quite new to me, I was deducted points for not shifting into third gear in a spot where I could have been in third gear. I thought this was a stupid reason for deducting points, but apparently the ability to show that you can effectively change into higher gears, and downshift is part of the manual transmission test.

Test 5: I took this test 7 days after Test 4, so that I don’t forget anything. I thought I had passed this time because I seemingly executed everything perfectly, and I felt really confident. However, when the test concluded the examining officer said, you nearly passed this time. Keyword here being NEARLY. I was happy and disappointed at the same time. Happy that I had finally gotten most of the points down, but disappointed that it was not quite enought to actually pass. This time, I failed because, although I remembered to look behind me when making left to right lane changes, I wasn’t looking enough when making right to left lane changes. So for every lane change, I was being deducted points. His tip to me was to either make less lane changes, or to remember to look behind me prior to every turn, and I will pass. This renewed a whole new confidence in me and I felt really good about passing the next time.

Test 6: Seven days later, it was do or die!! This was the last day I would be able take the driving exam. You are given 6 months to pass the exam after the written test and my 6 months expired on this day. Even on my paper work, it said LAST CHANCE in big bold red lettering. If I didn’t pass, I would be forced to go back and start from square one again. That meant getting the paperwork together (including the driving record -which meant another trip to the States, and the translated copy of my DL. Japanese like nice new fresh copies of everything regardless of the fact that the info will be exactly the same), and retaking the written test again. Not to mention the gobs of money that I had already spent trying to pass the test. So with the added pressure, it was now or never. And I really meant that, because I had no intention of returning if I failed. I was considering going through the very pricey "conventional method". It was the only way I could ensure that I would get my license without dealing with the nit-picking.

This time around, I wanted to be sure not to repeat any of the mistakes I made during the past exams. I reviewed all the reasons why I failed, carefully trained my mind to recall these points while I drove through the course. Also, not driving my own car that week also helped, so that my brain doesn’t forget the dimensions of the slightly longer and narrower Nissan Crew, it’s akward clutch engagement point, the funky side mirrors on the fenders (as opposed to the doors like modern cars), and the longer stopping distance.

I arrived at the testing center 1 hour prior to the application desk opening, so that I could walk through the course (which is highly recommended and helped immensely). As I walked through the course, I mentally noted the places where I needed to remember these points:

** The exam starts from prior to getting into the car to the point when you exit the car, so make your entrances and exits carefully. Before getting in the car, check to see that there are no objects in front of or behind the car. Before you open the door, look to make sure no cars are coming from behind. When you get in, close the door, buckle up, adjust all mirrors and seat position (even if they don’t need adjusting). Make sure that the e-brake is up, and that the gear is in neutral. Tell the examiner that you are ready once you have made all of you preparations, clutch in, brake, and start the car. Release the e-brake. Signal left, look both ways and behind you, then start. (Note: the clutch on this car is REALLY bad. It engages in a very high position (making it frustrating at times) You are given the first 100 meters to figure out a comfortable way of dealing with it.

**Know the areas where you need to shift from second to third gear, and from third to fourth. Generally, you should be in third gear at the end of any medium length straight away, and downshift to second when turning. There is one area where you must be in fourth gear and that is the long straight towards the end. The quicker you can shift into higher gears, the better.

**Know to come to a complete stop at the stop sign before the line, and not to proceed until the examiner has seen that you are stopped.

**Know to drive as fast as safely possible, but not to exceed the posted speed limit. The examiners will fail you if you drive too slow or if you exceed the speed limit which is 60km/hr in the general areas. There is one area where the posted limit is 40km/hr. You should be as close to 40km/hr as possible at this point. Don't think that driving like a grandma is going to get you brownie points, because it definitely won't!

** Slow down to 10km/hr at blind turns and intersection. There are two points in the course where this MUST slow down to a crawl or its an instant failure. The first point is when you turn left and you see an overpass on your left. You need to demonstrate that you are looking to see that no cars are coming down off of the overpass. The other point is a blind right curve toward the end of the course. You need to slow down to a crawl again and make sure that there are no foriegn objects in the middle of the road. Towards the end of the curve there are bunch of pylons to simulate road debris or construction. You need to change lanes to avoid the obstruction and then change back.

** Look behind you after signaling, and prior to any lane changes.

** Keep left! Any turns made should generally be made to the far left lane. Make sure the turns are clean and concise, and close to 90 degrees. Watch "Automan" or or the 1982 version of "Tron" to understand that they are looking for (ridiculous!)

.** ALWAYS use turn signals prior to turning or lane changes.

** Keep your turns tight. Get as close to the curb or center line as possible prior to turning. Make sure to signal and look properly prior turning in.

** Exaggerate your looks, or the examiner will miss it and dock you points thinking you didn’t look properly before making your moves. I personally verbalized my moves as well, like train operators and bus drivers do here in Japan. For example, when I am about to pull away from a light, I would say “looked in both directions, all is clear.” Of course some examiners don’t like this and will tell you to do it quitely, while others don’t mind.

** At the end of he exam, note that you can still fail if you exit the car improperly. Make sure to pull the car out of gear, pull up the e-brake, and stop the engine. Thank the examiner politely for putting up with your pathetic self (a Japanese thing) Prior to getting out of the car, look behind you and make sure that no cars are coming and exit cautiously.

One thing to note about the examiniers is that they are all VERY anal about driving. It’s their life and must be taken seriously. Unlike the DMV in the States, they are looking for ANY excuse to fail you. They rather see you fail, than to let a person who can’t follow their version of basic traffic laws, get a license. So the object of the test is not to give them a reason deduct points. By the way, the examiners will not tell you how many points they are deducting for each mistake you make. But from my experience, I have came to the following conclusion:

** Any minor infraction (failing to signal, failing to look carefully, failing shift gears at the given points, etc.) are about 10 points each.

**Major infrations such as (faling to stop at a stop sign or light, driving on the wrong side of the road, speeding, or anything that endangers the safety of the occupants of the car) is 20 to 100 points or instant failure. So in other words, there is VERY little margin for error.

At the end of the exam, the examiner may or may not point out your mistakes. However, if he/she points out three or more mistakes, its highly unlikely that you passed. Some examiners will compliment you if you pass, others will just keep quiet or just point out a couple of really minor sometimes irrelevant faults (need to tie your shoes, get a hair cut). At my sixth and final test, I only made two minor errors: 1) going through an intersection a bit too quickly, and 2) signaling in the middle of a lane change as opposed to prior to the lane change(almost forgot to signal). The examiner recognized that I obeyed all the laws, did what needed to be done at the given point and commented that he realized that I was nervous, and to just make sure to relax a bit more when I am out in the streets. This was his cryptic signal to let me know that I had passed the test, which I cannot begin to express how ecstatic and relieved I was. I was almost ready to accept the fact that I will need to shell out 380,000 yen for driving school. But having said that, this whole testing experience wasn’t exactly cheap either. To add it all up:

Initial registration: 1400 yen

Application fee: 2400 yen X 5 attempts (first time is free)

Car usuage fee:1650 yen X 6 attempts

License processing fee (to be paid once you pass): 1650 yen

Round trip train ticket to Futamatagawa 760 yen x 7 trips

Photograph: 600 yen

JAF translation fee: 3500 yen

DMV driving record $5.00 US (about 600 yen)

Grand Total: 34,980 yen (about $325 US dollars) and this doesn't even include the plane ticket to the States to obtain my driving record.

Although quite pricey in itself, it’s still less than 10% of the cost it would be take a driving course. 90% off of the regular going rate for a Japanese license is not bad, I suppose. So all in all, it was an interesting experience, although not one that I would want to repeat for a very long time.


MiraiZ image


United States

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