Getting My Japanese Driver’s License, Part 1

This is the first part of a three-part miniseries on getting a driver’s license in Japan – because it is a topic that is THAT complicated and can be quite drawn-out. If you find tales of bureaucracy hilarious, read on. 

For many, Japan is an incredibly attractive destination to live. Fascinating history, booming technology, and a strong economy all make the land of anime, sushi and samurai a desirable place to work as a foreigner, and there are plenty of jobs to be had. While public transportation across the nation is generally good, if you live outside a big city, chances are you might find driving to be a more attractive option depending on your situation.

Although I live in Kanazawa, a decent-sized city, I commute often to nearby Nonoichi, in a car provided by my company, so I needed to be able to legally drive in Japan. For my first year in Kanazawa, I had an International Driver’s Permit, which is a document you can get from AAA in the US stating that your license is valid. It’s easy and cheap, but it’s only good for one year. To renew it, one must return to the US for three months. Since mine was expiring soon and I needed to be able to keep driving in Japan, I needed to get a Japanese driver’s license. 

To convert a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one, there are two categories. I’ll call these the “lucky” people and the “unlucky” people.

The “Lucky” People:

If you are from certain countries with a valid license and you can prove that you resided in your country for at least three months after receiving your driver’s license, you are in luck! Converting your license is a simple process consisting of a bunch of bureaucratic paperwork and an eye test requiring two visits to your local License (Menkyo) Center. You do not need to take a written or road test to convert your license.

Lucky Locations:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, South Korea, or TWO US states (Maryland and Washington).

The “Unlucky” People:

If you are not from one of the above countries, you will need to provide a boatload of paperwork, take an eye test, a short written test, and the road test. It is also advisable that you take one or two driving test practice lessons (conveniently given at the location next door to the Menkyo Center!). You are looking at a minimum of two visits to the Menkyo Center, but trust me, it will probably be more.

Guess which category I fell into?

Also, your luck may decrease further based on your work situation or Japanese ability. I was fortunate because I didn’t have to take time off of work because I work afternoons/evenings, because my company paid for everything, and because a Japanese staff member from my job came with me to each of my appointments. I’ve met others who had to take off work, hire a translator, and pay for everything even though getting a license was required for their job. Even if your Japanese is good, which mine isn’t, I recommend having a native speaker with you, because bureaucratic red tape can be hard to understand, and Japan is such a stickler for the rules that there is plenty of this.

  1. The Boatload of Paperwork and the First Appointment

Your first visit to the Menkyo Center will be for processing the boatload of paperwork you’ve compiled. You will need to bring:

  • Passport
  • Japanese residence card
  • Residence certificate
  • Foreign driver’s license
  • Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) translation of foreign driver’s license
  • Photo

In addition, because you need to prove that you were in your country of residence for at least three months after receiving you driver’s license, it may be necessary to bring expired licenses and passports (which you surely have brought to Japan with you, right?)

My first impressions of the Menkyo Center were that it was a bit old, a bit tired, but not too bad. The one for Ishikawa prefecture is near the sea, and is a big building from the 50’s or 60’s. I spent a lot of time on the second floor, which has huge windows that give a view of the course where the road test is administered, so you can pass time by watching other nervous individuals taking the test. It feels kind of like the waiting area of an airport, but definitely not as dingy or depressing as the florescent-lit dungeons of the California DMV.

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The glamorous Ishikawa Menkyo Center. Image courtesy: Google. 

We submitted my paperwork, filed out some forms, and waited. And waited. The man processing my stuff was kind and thorough, but perhaps a bit too thorough. From time to time he would pop out of his office and ask us a question about a stamp in my passport, like which country it was from or how I got there. I understand that he was doing his job and checking the validity of my passport, but c’mon! How does the fact that I went to Ukraine two years ago and from there flew to France affect whether or not I can drive in Japan?

Two hours later, everything was processed and we had an appointment for the following Monday to take the test.

  1. The Second Appointment (Test Attempt #1)

I was incredibly nervous for my first stab at the road test- mostly because I’d heard from EVERYONE that no one passes the first time. I tried to calm my nerves by telling myself that since I would certainly fail, it didn’t really matter, but this did NOT help.

In Japan, the road test is done a little differently from other countries. When I had taken the California driving test in high school, I had used my own car, on the actual road, and followed the administrator’s instructions regarding the route. In Japan, you use a car that belongs to the Mekyo Center (a white Tokyo Crown Sedan, the same car model that is used for most of the taxis in Japan), on a closed course on the property, and you must memorize the route ahead of time. The course has a few different parts that everyone has to drive, but the order is mixed up daily so routes vary.

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The car you take the test in will look very much like this one. Image courtesy: Google.

After arriving at the center and checking in with reception (which opens at 13:00 and not a minute earlier) I was lead to a tiny, tired room and given an eye test, followed by the written test. I’ve heard that the written test for Japanese people is long and difficult, but the test I took was only 10 true/false questions to make sure I understood basic road rules and signage in Japan. In fact, the most difficult thing about the test was the iffy translation of some of the questions; I had to read them a few times to figure them out.

Once it was confirmed that I had passed the written test, it was time to wait for the road test. I walked over to the big glass windows and looked out over the course, trying to memorize that day’s route per the video screens showing the route of the day, tracing it on the glass and hating my life. First the u-turn. . . then left at the light. . . then the tight s-turn. . . right turn. . . another right. . . the right-angled L-turns. . . left out of that. . . blind left turn. . . right at the light. . . straight. . . maneuver around the parked car. . . and finish. Am I forgetting something?

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The dreaded course at the Ishikawa Menkyo Center.

That day there were several other foreigners trying to pass the test. I watched a chap from Hong Kong take the motorcycle test. I thought he looked alright, but when he came upstairs, he did not look to happy. Crap. I watched a Chinese girl take the car test. Yikes, she braked way too late at that stop sign, and her turns were kind of a mess. No way is she going to pass. And then I heard over the loudspeaker: “Gaikokujin-no Mo-reen Su-ton-des san-ban onegaishimasu” (Foreigner Maureen Stone, Number 3 please). I swallowed, trying to calm my nerves, and headed downstairs to the third parking space where a white Toyota Crown sedan was waiting for me. 

My test administrator was an older gentleman, who was actually pretty kind, in contrast to what I’d heard about Menkyo Center employees. Upon discovering that I can’t really speak Japanese, he checked with me that I knew the words for right, left, stop and signal, and we were off. I was a nervous wreck, even though I’m a good driver. The thing with the Japanese driving test though, is that is doesn’t matter if you are a good driver. What matters is that you follow all the rules and check all the boxes. I wasn’t even sure if I knew all the boxes I was supposed to be checking, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t checking them.

My first visit ended rather suddenly, when I made a really big, really dumb mistake. In my nervous state, my American muscle memory took over, and I turned into the wrong lane. It was over: I’d failed. I felt like the world’s biggest idiot. Later, my administrator went over some of my mistakes with me, and said that while he gets a lot of foreigners that fail the test and cry, but I didn’t, so that was good. At least I’m not a crier. A dumbass, but not a crier.

The good thing about the Japanese driving test, though, is that you get a second chance, and a third, and a fourth. . . and it looked like I was going to need them.

Happy Travels,

Mo

Next time: I learn that basically I’ve been doing everything wrong, and take another shot at the test. Will I pass the second time?

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