Driving me crazy

After over two years living in Japan and getting an International Driver’s License every time I went back to the States, I decided to get my Japanese driver’s license. The company will pay for it, so why not? The main impetus though is my driver’s license in the US is expiring next month and I was expecting to get a renewal by mail. I haven’t received it yet, and my house sitter is preoccupied with his newborn child. I want to make sure that when I go to the US I’m not caught in a situation where I have no valid license. My only valid license may be a Japanese license. The other reason is that I’m going on a road trip soon and I want to be unquestionably legal.

Have I driven in Japan since I got here? Nope, not this time. I have driven frequently in Australia and before in Japan, so it won’t be the first time that I am driving “on the wrong side of the road.” And every vehicle I get in now is right hand drive.

Everybody who lives in Japan and has a blog has probably blogged about getting their license so there is nothing unique about what I am writing. But what the heck, this is MY blog so I am allowed to write whatever I want.

Most folks in the office already have their license, and our Office Administrator knows the process inside and out so it should be really easy. Plus my colleagues have practical experience so they could impart their wisdom to me. It seems deceptively simple: written test, practice driving, and a practical examination. Maybe half a day, tops, right? Uh, NO, this IS Japan. Let’s just say converting your foreign license to a Japanese license is not so easy. It isn’t hard, but patience is a must.

Where to start?


The same the world over

First of all, there’s the paperwork preparation. What paperwork was required?

  • Get an official translation of my California driver’s license at the Japanese Automobile Federation (3000 yen plus time)
  • Copies of my US license, front and back
  • Copies of my alien registration card, front and back
  • Old passport picture and visa page
  • New passport picture and visa page
  • Two recent pictures

OK, not so hard so far.

The License Center in Hirabari

On my initial visit to the Aichi-ken version of the DMV, I knew I would have to take a written examination before I continued the process. We had a very, very, very dry version of the Japanese rules of the road from the JAF. It is a great insight into Japanese culture, and very much a lesson in not wanting to be the nail that sticks out above the others. A nice excerpt from the document is:

A tremendous volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic moves on the road. The failure of a single driver or pedestrian to consider others, by moving as he or she pleases, can upset the traffic pattern or cause accidents, even though the individual may not be injured or inconvenienced.

Traffic rules have been established by a systematic set of commitments that must be observed by everyone. By following these rules, we can be assured that traffic moves smoothly and safely. In other words, it is the fundamental responsibility of each citizen as a member of society to observe traffic rules.


Day 1
To summarize my first day, here’s what I had to do at the Aichi-ken version of the DMV:

Finding your way around Hirabari

  • Step 1 / Window 12 – Have my paper work reviewed to see if it is order and also determined how long I have been driving on my old driver’s license. Also get initial form
  • Step 2 / Window 11 – Carry paper work and pay 2400 yen
  • Step 3 / Window 13 – Stand in-line to get some stamp and show my AR card, precurser to vision test
  • Step 4 / Machine 1 – Do a quick eye test to determine which direction the C is pointed.
  • Step 5 / Table 1 – Color test – can you recognize red green yellow
  • Step 6 / Room 6 – 10:30 am foreigner written examination
  • Step 7 / Room 6 – Get results and assignment of time slot for practical driving exam
  • Step 8 / Window 17 – Change time slot for practical driving examination

These were the initial steps for the DMV portion of the morning. There were still more steps to do before the day ended.

Where to go

But first, at Step 1, the official groused to my translator that US passports are the worst to read because they cannot understand when people enter and leave the US because the US doesn’t stamp passports. I think they were trying to understand how long I was in the US for the duration of my last license. I think it helps determine if I need a beginners magnet or not.

Yes, a beginner’s magnet. If you are a beginner driver you have to display a yellow and green magnet warning others you are a beginner (yellow, green – the colors of Spring). If you are an older driver you must display a magnet indicating you are a senior driver (yellow, orange, the colors of Fall). I was hoping to avoid the beginner magnet. Luckily my official got bored and figured I had been in the US long enough.

Caution to fellow drivers

After I made it past the paperwork check window, I had to go to the payment window and pay 2400 yen for some reason. They show proof on your paperwork by affixing stamps to the paper. Then I moved to another line to prepare for the vision exam. After a few updates and stamps to the paperwork, I had a quick vision test with my glasses on. No problem. Then I had to stop at a table for a simple color recognition test. For some reason I was compelled to answer in Japanese. After all, I know my colors. Except I got them all wrong. I called red (akai) to be blue (aoi). I think I called yellow (kiiroi) to be black (kuroi). Nice! My OA laughed and the table person said, “In english.” That was easier. Great start to the testing for the day. My excuse is that I had gotten some rather disturbing news prior to the color test so I was a little shaken up (all is well now).

Find the right line

I had the written test that basically was, “If you see a sign that says STOP should you stop? O or X.” Where O = maru = true and X = batsu = false. I had ten such questions. I aced it. After I passed the written examination I was assigned the time for my driving test. I was assigned the next morning! Oh no! My OA couldn’t make it so we had to go to another window to reschedule the driving test for the 27th.

As I said, that’s not all. Next I had to:

  • Step 9 – Sign up for practice driving sessions on the test course (17000 yen, I signed up for two 1 hour sessions)
  • Step 10 – Sketch both the driving courses, A and B, because you have to memorize the course for the practical examination
  • Step 11 – Walk the driving course to understand the layout

Since I had not driven in Japan for 6 years, I thought perhaps a practice session or two may be practical. What is especially strange for the driving test is you have to drive a particular course, and you must have the course memorized, but you don’t know the course you will have to drive until just before your test.

Course A

Course B

They won’t give you a handout of the course either, they give you paper with a non-repro light blue (before the days of color scanners / printers) and then you have to sketch the course from one of the zillion examples they have in the driving practice office. I signed up for two courses on Saturday and sketched the courses. Like an F1 driver, we had a chance to walk the course as well between 11:45 and 12:30. So after a walk around Course A and Course B, it was time to be done for the day.

Day 2

  • Practice session 1
  • Practice session 2

I had arranged a Japanese colleague to meet me at the driving school and be my translator for driving practice. We had planned to meet at 2:00 pm, giving me plenty of time before my 3:00 pm Session 1. I got a text stating he’d be about 10 minutes late. No biggie, after all, we were getting there about 1 hour early. Then I got a phone call at 2:15 pm saying, “Where are you?” OMG. I was sitting at home screwing around with my iPhone. “Um, I messed up. I’m on my way.” Not the way to start a practice session. I was extremely lucky and got to the subway station just in time. After I was on the train, there wasn’t anything more I could do, and it looked like I would make it. Which I did, somehow.

The driving school

The first instructor I had really didn’t say much. We just drove course A over and over. In Japan, you really, really, really, want to be as far over on the left as possible on a left turn so that you squeeze out any bike or motorcycle from t-boning you. Just run them into the curb! That was my main critique.

The second instructor was like a drill sergeant on Course B. “And check one-two-three-four turn,” “mirror, bike-check, slowly slowly, no brake no accel,” “signal.” He made me nervous! I think by the end though he was pretty confident I would pass because he was just chatting with my interpreter by the end, while I did laps.

I only turned the windshield wipers on once, and that’s not bad after a 6 year hiatus in a Japanese car in Japan (right hand drive). I felt I was ready for the practical test but I knew I would be nervous.

Day 3

  • Step 1 / Window 11 – Pay fee for practical test (car rental, etc)
  • Step 2 / Window 17 – Proof of practical test fee / check in, course assignment
  • Step 3 – Walk the course again just to make sure
  • Step 4 – Wait for line up for test
  • Step 5 – (outside) Line up for test and receive lecture
  • Step 6 – Wait for others to go
  • Step 7 – 10 minute driving practical test on course A
  • Step 8 / Window 21 – Wait for results of practical exam
  • Step 9 / Room 2 – Verify latest paper work for those who passed the exam
  • Step 10 – Picture
  • Step 11 / Window 11 – Back to Window 11 to pay license fee
  • Step 12 / Room 2 – Receive license and another lecture
  • Rejoice!

I got to visit Line 11 again right away. Until the test line up, I basically bounced around to get all I needed stamped, paid, initiated, and so on. Eventually we got lined up for the test – some were doing the manual transmission test while I was choosing automatic. All my cars in the US have been manual, and I prefer them. But I thought I’d reduce the complications. When I drove manuals in Australia, I sometimes made some awful sounds going from 2nd to 3rd and I didn’t feel like failing.

There were about 10 foreigners in my group, trying to convert their licenses to a Japanese license. My interpreter / OA was with me and she’s been through this before. The first guy didn’t do bad. The second guy totally revved the engine. The third guy forgot to turn on his turn signal before exiting the parking stall. And so on. My OA said, “Fail.” “Probably fail.” “Instant failure.” The poor woman in front of me forgot to put on her seatbelt.

Vehicles on course taking the exam

Finally it was my turn. I was telling myself just to relax. I never had to take a driving test in the US as I got a “waiver” on my permit in driver’s education that said I was such a good driver I didn’t need practical test. Just one of many unwarranted academic advantages I got by being clever instead of worthy. OK, I probably wasn’t “unworthy” but I knew how to game the system.

Vehicles on course taking the exam

In the middle of the exam, I started getting a little nervous but still I was driving. I knew I wasn’t over to the left enough, but I thought I hit all my steps and bike checks. I didn’t overrun any stop lines (instant failure) or forget turn signals. I made it through, returned, and the instructor just told me to move to the left (I knew it) and to do my bike check earlier. I left feeling pretty good.

And then we waited. I finished about 10:20 am, and the scores would not be announced until 12:45 pm. Yes, that’s right. Announced. We had to go upstairs, wait in a waiting room, and if your name was called you passed. Like Mr. Chastain handing out tests from highest score to lowest score. What a bummer when you had to wait for your exam. Well, I passed. Phew. As did 4 others in the group. That’s it. One Peruvian woman was so emotional that she started crying while on the phone telling someone she passed. “How many times?” she asked me. “Just once.” It was impressive to her.

I finally processed out (picture, pay, pickup, lecture) and I now I am a licensed driver in Japan. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. And no magnetic beginner’s badge of shame.

Watching the woman cry made me realize there are two types of expats – those who have a sweet package deal and those that are just barely making a living. Of course, that is a generalization. For me, it was easy, the company was paying for everything, including my practice sessions. So the approximately $250 I spent was not so much to me. And honestly, I would pay for it myself. For others, it is a big deal, and they can’t afford practice sessions, or multiple tests until they pass. I need to stop and think before I complain too much here.

A few of my Japanese colleagues knew I was pursuing my license and expressed shock that I was able to get it. I don’t know if I should be offended or proud? That is a typical sentiment though, EVERYTHING is harder in Japan so anytime a foreigner has success it is a big deal. Well, big deal or not, I’ve gotten a Japanese license. I’m relieved that I didn’t fail instead of happy that I passed, but the end result is the same.

2 Replies to “Driving me crazy”

  1. Wow. That is so much more complicated than here! Congratulations on getting your license, and I can not believe that you never had to take a driving test in the US to get your license! Crazy. But then, I never took driver’s ed, so maybe that has something to do with it.

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