how to get a driver's license in Japan - part 1

It's time. Two years have flown by, and it is finally time for me to acquire a Japanese driver's license. I've survived this long by biking, walking and riding buses and trains, all usually convenient. Though I came to Japan with an International Driver's Permit (valid for a year from the time you get it - from any auto association such as AAA in the US), I did not drive at all during this time, as I never really needed to (Although at times, it would have come in handy...).

This hasn't changed, really, but there are times when my husband and I wish we had a car - such as those cold, rainy, windy days when a trip to the supermarket is required for dinner, but donning all our gear and backpacks to brave the elements just doesn't appeal.

To preface this, I am covering most of this from the angle of an American. The process for Brits, Canadians, Australians and most other nationalities is more simplified, as the driving test is not required. The license simply needs to be translated and converted (lucky!)

how to get a driver's license in Japan

I began the process a few weeks ago by first heading to JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) to get an official translation of my Washington State (US) driver's license. I brought my license to the nearest JAF office (you can also mail it in, but could take up to a week to get back) , along with the application I had filled out at home. You don't really need to know much Japanese for this process, unless you have unique circumstances. (I had changed my name on my US license last year so I had to explain the old and new licenses were still the same, etc.) The translation cost about 3000 yen, and took less than an hour to complete.

I also bought a copy of "Rules of the Road" (1000 yen), essentially the English translation of the actual driving rules in Japan. And I must say, for any native English speaker, this book is quite amusing at times (I'll share some fun facts with you later).

Next, my husband and I went to our city's police station.
*Note:* this is not the same as the "koban" (police boxes) you see everywhere. You'll want to look for: 警察署 (けいさつしょ, keisatsusho).
My husband, the fluent one, helps me out in these kind of situations, as I really only understood about half of the conversation (although again, I had slightly "special" circumstances). So, if you don't think you can handle it alone, then bring along someone who can help you translate. You also may be required to fill out their application in Japanese, and, answer some questions that are in Japanese (mostly about your health). I brought the following documents (required):
1. US driver's license (both for me)
2. Alien Registration card
3. Copy of license translation
4. Form from City Hall confirming my residency (this may not be required in all cities)
5. Passport
6. Small photo (the kind you get at photo booths everywhere
After some confusion with my changed name, we filled out the necessary paperwork and chose a test day (the driving test will take place at a driving center, NOT the police station. The police run it, but the name typically includes: 運転免許センター (うんてんめんきょセンター, untenmenkyo sentaa).
*Keep in mind that you should have had your license at least 90 days in your home country, BEFORE you entered Japan. If you renewed your license sometime within that time, then you may need to get proof from the appropriate DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) in your home country that you did have a license for a long period of time. If you do not have any driving experience earlier than 90 days in your home country, you will likely need to take a course at a local driving school (around 250,000 - 300,000 yen).
We chose a test day two weeks later, and then set up an appointment at the nearby driving school for an hour practice session. At this particular school we had to call the same morning to schedule an appointment (cost around 6000 yen for the first time). You don't need an extensive amount of Japanese to get by, but if it's your first time and you go alone, you should be able to understand Japanese at least at an intermediate level, as the instructor will likely offer a lot of helpful explanations about the test in addition to basic instructions.

My practice session consisted of driving around the course, which is a relatively small area, maybe the size of a running track if not slightly larger. The middle parts of the course contained intersections, a traffic signal, s-curves, crank turns and even a small hill. When we drove onto the course, some students were already out practicing driving a semi truck (well, a Japanese semi) and a motorcycle. The instructor asked me to practice a variety of tasks such as changing lanes, turning, speeding up, slowing down, braking, parking, and going through S-curves and crank turns. All of this of course, along with constantly checking my blind spots and mirrors before making any moves.

The instructor also gave us an explanation of what to be aware of and what the testers look for. A few of those included (in no particular order):

1. DO NOT grab the steering wheel underhand when turning. Yes, it's that 10 and 2 thing. The sad part is that I habitually turn underhand without even thinking or noticing, even though this is bad in the States as well. The instructor kept hitting my hand every time I slipped my hand under instead of over.

2. Remember to look over your shoulder and check your blind spots and mirrors at all appropriate times. You will have to look twice before making a turn or changing lanes.

3. This is sort of obvious, but stop before the stop line/sign, not on it. Although, don't stop too far behind the stop line either so that it isn't obvious you are actually stopping at the stop sign.

4. When driving in lanes, and preparing to make a turn, move close to the line to keep motorcyclists from passing you on the inside. So, if making a left turn, you would 1) turn on your signal, 2) check your blind spot, 3) move close to the shoulder line so that you are practically on it, 4) check to the left again to make sure you won't kill anyone or wrap your car around something, and finally, 5) make the turn.

5. Pump the brakes three times when slowing down. The instructor had me sit in the passenger seat for the first part of the session to observe while he drove. He kept saying to brake softly, but I felt nauseous after the five or so minutes of being jerked around and constantly tossed against my seat belt. Now I understand why so many Japanese people brake the way they do when driving. (I'm not saying everyone brakes this way, but nearly everyone I've ever ridden with does and I always wondered why it seems so common here...)

6. Go slowly into S-curves. I drove normally until I got to the S-curve and then slowed down, but the instructor kept saying "slower! slower! Not so fast!" at the S-curve. So, I guess that means slow to a crawl before the curve, and then even if you think you are crawling through the curve, slow down even more. The instructor mentioned that it doesn't matter how slow you go in the curves and turns, and he and others who have taken the test mentioned to take your time but not go TOO slow elsewhere on the course.

I left the practice session feeling pretty good, albeit paranoid about my bad driving habits. My driving test is on Friday (yes, THIS Friday!) so I've been doing research online and asking around for advice. I'll be back after Friday to share with you the test and results - so stay tuned for part 2 of how to get a driver's license in Japan.

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