Let’s face it: mama chari (shopping bikes) are fine for tooling around town, but they’re hardly ideal for exploring the Japan Alps or Hokkaido. If you’re ready to get behind the wheel here in Japan, I’m happy to tell you that it’s not as difficult as you might think. If you’re from a country like the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, or New Zealand, all you have to do is take your license down to the local Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) office, get it translated, then go to the local driving test center and they’ll issue you a Japanese license. However, if you’re not from one of these lucky nations, things are a bit more difficult. Nationals of most other nations, including Americans, have to take a driving test.
If you’re one of those unfortunates who has to take the test, this article is for you. Let’s assume you already have a current driver’s license from your home country (if you don’t, you’re going to have to start from scratch here, and that will probably involve going to driving school, which will set you back several hundred thousand yen).
Here’s the deal: the process in question is called “gaikoku menkyo kirikae,” which translates as “foreign license conversion.” The first step is to go to the local JAF office and have them issue a certified translation of your license. You’ll need to show your gaijin card and pay Y3,000. They’ll issue the translation in about 30 minutes.
Next, you have to go to the local driving test center (“unten menkyo shiken-jo” in Japanese). What I’m going to write here is specific to the Kyoto driving test center, in Nagaoka-kyo, where I got my license. Some of this might not apply to other centers, but I assume the process is fairly similar at other places in Japan.
(Note, this post is intended to supplement my article that appeared in Kansai Scene).
Bring the following to the test center:
• Driver's Licence
• Translation of Driver's License (from JAF)
• Certificate of Alien Resistration
• Passports (including previous ones)
• One Photo of yourself (write your name and the date taken on the back) 3cm x 2.4cm. The photo must be the recent one (within 6 months).
If you don’t speak decent Japanese, you’ll probably want to bring an interpreter, as they may well ask you to explain things about your driving record, your old license, even the first driving test you took back in the States. Hint: they want exact answers, so do your research before going if you are unsure. Don’t lie about anything you can get caught out on.
Important: you’ll need to prove that you were resident in your country for three months after getting your first license. This can be done with high school and college diplomas, as well as passports if you have entry and exit stamps (often lacking, as, for instance, American immigration doesn’t tend to stamp exits).
Don’t forget your passports (including old ones) and your juminhyo (from your ward office).
Once at the test center, go to the window where they process applications for "gaikoku menkyo kirikae." It will probably take them two hours to process your application. If they accept your application, they’ll issue you some paperwork that allows you to take the test. First, make payment as directed. Then, they’ll send you to take a 10-question English-language written test that is pathetically easy. You’ll be with any other gaijin applying that day. If you can’t pass this, you have no business driving or doing anything else. There are no trick questions: answer with what you think is right.
If you pass the written test, you’ll be able to take the driving test and they’ll give you some information about where to apply. There won’t be time on this day, so you’ll have to come back. But, you should make good use of this day. Ask if there is a koushuu-jo (practice school) nearby and sign up for one hour of driving with an instructor. It costs about Y6000. Again, if you don’t speak decent Japanese, have your interpreter join you in the car so you can understand what the instructor is telling you. These guys really are there to help you, so listen up. They “teach to the test,” and they will help you pass it.
Important: after you finish, walk back into the office and sign up for two hours of driving practice on the actual test course on the next Saturday. This is the secret to passing the test. Show up on that Saturday and master the course. This costs around Y17,000 and it’s money well spent. Take as many notes as you have to.
On the day of the test:
Show up by 8.20am and get your papers in to take the driving test. Dress smartly and comfortably. Take reading materials, as this will be a day of waiting (if you pass the test).
They’ll take your papers then direct you to go outside and wait for the examiner at a particular car stand at 9.10am. Be there promptly. You may be with other gaijin taking the same test that day. They may even join you in the car.
When it’s your turn, do what your instructor told you: approach the car from behind, walk around the right side and in front of the car. Look underneath to check for who knows what – dead cats? Then, board. Here’s the drill:
• Lock the door.
As your doing the following, butter up the examiner. Start with “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.” Then, announce that you’ve taken three hours of driving practice next door and on this actual course. Then, say that if you make any mistakes, you’d like him to tell you where you went wrong when you’re done, so you can improve your driving. If you don’t know how to say this in sensible, polite Japanese, get someone to tell you. Note that in Japan, if you can’t speak proper Japanese, they’re not going to kick you respect and it will be that much easier for them to fail you. So, keigo is the way to speak here.
• Adjust your seat.
• Adjust your mirror.
• Put on your seatbelt and make sure it lays flat on your body (not kidding).
• Make sure the car is in park, with the hand brake engaged.
• Put your foot on the brake and start the car.
• Check your left mirror then look over your left shoulder (exaggerate these motions in all cases).
• Put the car in drive.
• Release the hand brake.
• Put on your right blinker.
• Check your right mirror.
• Look over your right shoulder.
• Start driving slowly.
• Do your warm-up lap (you’ll know what I mean).
Here's a map of the course:
Drive the course as your instructor taught you. Just a few key points:
The S curve (not the crank, which is easy) is the crux. It’s hard because you have to enter it after hugging the left curb rather tightly, which sets up the angle rather poorly. But, it can be done. In my case, I found that cutting the wheel a little later than I thought necessary did the trick.
Also, two simple rules:
1) When turning left, hug the left curb (within a meter, but not so close that you risk hitting the curb – this is to prevent bikers from squeezing between you and the curb). This is not necessary on leftward curves, only at turns (intersections/junctions).
2) When turning right, hug the center line (ditto about bikers).
Here's the Japanese document they give you at the test center that describes the above turning prodedure:
Finally, when you stop the car, look over your right shoulder before opening the door.
If you’ve taken the practice lessons and followed the above, you may well pass on your first try. It’s not as difficult as people say (most people who fail multiple times were too cheap to take the driving practice or didn’t realize that it was possible). Practice makes the difference.
If you pass, you’ll probably be there until around 2pm. Congrats! Now start thinking about shaken.