In late November, I received an email from the company about the process of getting a Japanese driver’s license. It contained a list of documents to procure that was dauntingly long, and also informed me that Americans rarely pass the test on their first attempt. At that time, I was really indecisive about whether or not to renew my contract; in fact, I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t do it. Since I wasn’t planning on staying in Japan for a second year, I certainly wasn’t motivated to jump through the hoops of getting a Japanese license, so I promptly forgot all about it.
Fast-forward to February and I received another email from the company labeled “URGENT”. The rep asked if I had gotten any of those documents ready and reminded me that time was running out. By this time I had decided that one year wasn’t long enough and was now planning to stay in Japan after all. But I had done myself no favors by dragging my feet. Now I needed to act fast and get my documents in order so that they could schedule a test for me, and in the meantime, I was strongly advised to take some driving lessons. The urgency, combined with the looming difficulty that Americans usually have passing the test, freaked me out a bit.
Here’s what it looked like:
- A valid foreign driver’s license (US license)
- A Japanese translation of the US driver’s license from JAF (Japan Automobile Federation)
- An official document identifying the date that the license was first issued (such as a driving record or official state verification of status)
- An old Japanese driver’s license (if I had one)
- Tōroku Genpyou Kisai Jikou Shōmei-sho (外国人登録原票記載事項証明 – Certificate of Information Recorded on a Foreign Resident) a registration file from city hall
- Gaijin Card
- Any additional documents confirming residence of 3 months or more in the country from which the license was obtained (such as school transcripts, old passports, etc). If necessary, apparently the US embassy could issue an entry and departure record.
- A photograph (3cm long x 2.4cm wide) taken within the past 6 months, no hat, front-face, no background, and from the shoulder up
Scrambling to collect the documents, I discovered that the seemingly complicated process was actually just as complicated as it had first appeared. Not only were some of the documents difficult track down – A document identifying the date that my license was first issued? Like from when I turned 16…in Iowa? – but some of them were even rather expensive. The JAF issued translation of my Washington State driver’s license cost ¥3000 (plus an additional ¥380 in postage for them to mail it back to me). Once I received this pricy piece of paper, I discovered that it actually had an expiration date. Why would a translation of a driver license have an expiration date, you ask? Beats the hell out of me.
It took me two weeks or so to get everything in order. By my count, the costs for the documents alone totaled ¥4480. (Additionally, I ended up spending $10 on an official Washington State driving record that I didn’t actually need. The Washington State DOL website’s FAQ section was quite clear that I just needed to email them to receive a “verification of status” document, but in my haste, I had already paid for the driving record before I read that bit. And by the way, Iowa’s DOT website, along with its lack of services, was utterly useless and unhelpful.) I was ready to face this test and see just how bad it really was.
On Thursday, March 1st, I was given the day off work so that I could go take a driving test in Sapporo. Since Americans are required to do a paper test and a practical driving exam, I had thought that I was doing both of these on the same day, but it turned out the written portion needed to be done first and actual driving part of the test would have to wait. Hiroko and Shun were kind enough to take me to the Driving Test Center (運転免許試験場) in Teine, and guide me through the process. As it turns out, I certainly could not have managed without their help.
We arrived at the Driving Test Center at 1pm. Documents in hand, we proceeded to window six, the one for foreigners. Hiroko noted that within the Driving Center, the signs were written almost entirely in kanji, making it difficult for a person of novice Japanese skill to read what’s what. The lady at the window took my documents and gave me a short paper to complete; it was basically asking if I have ever had any problems with problems with loss of consciousness, or other medical conditions which would impair my ability to drive. I quickly read through it, circled “none of the above”, and signed. Then, before giving it back, I quickly corrected a small typo and handed it across the counter. This startled the lady, as she thought I was going to circle one of the other options, but when she saw that I was just correcting the form’s English, she seemed rather pleased.
They took my various documents, as well as my Washington driver license, passport, and alien registration card to be copied. Then they asked us to wait and return to the window in about one hour. Hiroko, Shun, and I bought some refreshments from the vending machine corner and sat down to wait. An hour later, they called me up to the window again and I got my passport, alien registration card, and Washington license back. Apparently all my documents had checked out. I was given a new form and directed towards the vision screening area. But before I got my eyes checked out, I need to purchase ¥2400 in payment stamps to cover the process. The guy who did my vision test was probably the most cheerful guy I saw all day. He seemed to really enjoy listening to answers of “left”, “right”, “up”, and “down” in English, and his huge smile never faded.
After the vision test, I needed a wait for a little while longer while the staff prepared an English version written test for me. I was a bit worried about this written exam, even though I had actually read the book; I just had bad memories of my written driving test back in Iowa. It turned out that the exam was only ten questions, and it was a maru-batsu test (まるばつテスト – true-false test). This should have been simple, but I still stressed over the prospect of making too many mistakes and failing. Luckily, I passed just fine.
With the written test passed, we then had to schedule practical driving exam for another day. Hiroko again stepped up and took care of me, speaking with staff and calling Nozomi-san to make sure the times worked for everyone. We scheduled the driving test for the following Monday afternoon, at 1pm. Following my company’s advice, we also scheduled a one-hour driving lesson for that same day, in the morning. This way I got some practice on the driving course, as well as insider info from a professional driving instructor. Use of the driving course costs ¥700 per half hour, so I had to buy ¥1400 worth of payment stamps ahead of time to be able to pay for my lesson’s hour on the course Monday morning.
On Monday March 5th, I got up at 5:30am. I had a driving lesson scheduled at the Teine Driving Test Center, with a driving course reservation at 7am. Hiroko was happy to drive me to the Driving Test Center in Teine again, even though it was very early. My driving instructor turned out to be a slender, athletic-looking gentleman with a military haircut. He seemed quite fit and youthful, so I assumed he was young, but the creases around his eyes indicated he had more years than I had guessed. We would be driving the course in his car, which looked like a taxi cab. The course was smaller than I had expected after looking at its map. Still, it was probably the size of two football fields placed side by side. There was a traffic signal intersection in the center, a couple of tight and narrow side streets, and enough room to accelerate to 50kph on the outside track.
The lesson itself was done completely in Japanese and proved invaluable for passing the practical driving exam. This isn’t because the lesson teaches you the necessary skills for safe driving, but because the driving exam has very specific and rigid expectations for what you are to do. Without a briefing on the esoteric actions one needs to perform during the test, the safest drivers in the world couldn’t pass. There are a lot of little touches, simple things to perform, but if you don’t know what they’re looking for, you’re screwed.
For example, right from the outset of driving, you should look 1) back at the left blind spot, 2) forward towards the front-left corner of the car, 3) at the rearview mirror, 4) towards the front-right corner, and then 5) back at the right blind spot. That’s a 5-point look combo that you’re obligated to do or you’re docked points. Of course during the test, you might not have been aware that you were being judged on few things even before this “initial” step. Did you adjust your seat, adjust the rearview mirror, buckle your seatbelt, and lock the door? Did you physically crouch down and check the ground in front of the car before even getting in? You probably missed points if you didn’t.
After the 5-point look combo, you still have to perform another step before starting to actually drive. Hit the right blinker to indicate you’re going to pull out, and look 1) at the rearview mirror, 2) towards the front-right corner, and 3) back over your shoulder at the right blind spot before starting to drive. In fact, anytime you turn or changes lanes, you are expected to perform this 3-point look. From there on out the instructor gave me little tips to fine-tune driving. For example, what side of the lane to lean towards and when, when to drive slower or faster, and remembering to look right –then left – at an intersection (not left then right, like I’m used to). With his tutelage, I became more confident that I could pass the test. I paid ¥7000 for the hour lesson and hoped that it was enough.
Hiroko and Shun again accompanied to the driving center to help with any communication issues and to generally root me on. The time sensitive nature of the whole thing had made me anxious and I genuinely appreciated their support. As instructed, we were there at the window, five minutes before 1pm, ready for the physical driving test. However, we ended up having to wait because I was testing with two other foreigners and they hadn’t showed up yet. I joked to Shun that my fellow foreigners were probably Russian mafia and so they didn’t show up on time for anything. To my surprise, twenty minutes later, five or six young Russian men appeared.
The Russian guys lazily strutted up to the counter, standing out more from their swagger than from their height or whiteness. Since we had to wait for them to show up late, Shun was a bit offended by their lack of decorum. He quite audibly talked about how they were idiots in Japanese. I too was a little put off by them at first, as groups of rowdy young dudes generally make my spider-sense tingle, and I didn’t particularly want to attract their attention. Luckily, these guys could barely understand a word of Japanese so they probably didn’t catch the cracks Shun made about them.
My two fellow test participants and I were led into a little room where they explained how the test was going to go – in Japanese. Most of this time was spent trying to clarify if the Russian guys understood the directions, which they quite clearly did not. I tried to help translate a little, but one guy understood only a bit of Japanese and a bit of English and not much of either. The other guy knew only migi (右) and hidari (左), right and left. During this briefing, I discovered that Japan has separate licenses for manual and automatic transmission vehicles. I was getting an automatic transmission license, so I would only be legally allowed to drive automatics and any car with a stick was off-limits. My new Russian friends were doing the manual transmission test, and I had a feeling that their chances of passing that day were really slim. It was too bad too; they actually seemed quite friendly after I got a chance to talk to them.
To start our test, the three of us jumped in the car with an older gentleman, and he drove the course to demonstrate what we were going to do. After the run through, I got to drive in that same car – an automatic transmission – with the man, while the Russian guys got into a second car – a manual transmission – with a female test administrator. Since I was in the lead car, I couldn’t see how my Russian friends were doing, but I needed to focus on my own test anyway. The fate of the whole endeavor came down to my performance of the rehearsed, arbitrary, esoteric, superfluous driving actions to I had learned that morning.
Throughout my driving test, the test administrator made little ticks on his clipboard; I assumed he was checking the boxes of all the things I was doing right. I felt pretty confident during my drive. I followed all the tips I had received, made it painfully obvious that I was looking at all the right places, and never hit anything. The actually driving took less than five minutes. Finishing up back at the starting point, the man casually asked me a couple questions; what kind of work I did, where I lived, if I had taken driving lessons. His friendly demeanor gave me the impression that I had passed. Ten or 15 minutes later I got the official word: I did indeed pass. No problems. The Russian guys both failed. There was one more fee to pay via the payment stamps, another ¥2100, and then I had my photograph taken. It was about 2:15pm, and they told me that I could pick up my brand new license at 4:00.
Since we had some time to kill, Hiroko, Shun, and I drove to a nearby used book store to do some shopping. Like many bookstores in Japan, this store sold all kinds of media; books, manga (漫画 – Japanese comic books, which are produced in a variety genres for pretty much all possible audiences), music, movies, and even a variety of video games. I entertained myself for an embarrassing long time simply perusing the Famicom, Super Famicom, and Nintendo64 titles. Eventually (and with Hiroko’s help) I located the store’s inventory of a boxing manga called Hajime no Ippo (はじめの一歩); I’m a fan of the anime. I purchase book #4 and decided to challenge myself to read it.
At 4pm, we returned to the driving test center and picked up my new license. I had succeeded, and just in time too. To have the card in my hand was a great relief. It was also a further endorsement from the Japanese government that I was welcome to live and work in Japan.
In the end, the cumulative expenses to get my license totaled ¥17380 (that’s about $208 USD). The process of converting a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one did honestly seem to be intentionally complicated. While one might guess that this is in an effort to keep foreigners excluded, I don’t think that’s the case. I believe the process is actually made difficult to prevent Japanese citizens from getting a driver’s licenses in foreign countries and converting them over at home. A Japanese citizen could easily get a driver’s license while on vacation, in say Hawaii, and then return to Japan and convert this license to the Japanese equivalent. If successful, you would circumvent the normal driving school method of obtaining a license and save yourself a lot of money.
You see, Japanese driving schools are quite expensive. Enrolling in a driving school in Japan can run you somewhere between ¥300,000 and ¥400,000 (approximately $3,600 to $4,400). Clearly, it’s big business. The boatload of documents, the esoteric driving test rituals, and even the driving course itself, are all designed to maintain the necessity for driving schools. From the outside this looks like quite a scam. But then again, I’m just an American, so what do I know?