By Emily Guo
The number of congratulations (“おめでとう御座います”）I received – both from the license center staff and teachers who knew I was going through this process – shows that obtaining a Japanese driver’s license is no joke. So for those who will be in my shoes sooner or later, I wanted to give an idea of what it was like to jump through all the hoops in order to obtain a Japanese driver’s license.
Since summer tends to be a busy time for folks converting their foreign license to a Japanese license, I thought I’d share my experience at the Ehime Menkyo (License) Center and the process of preparation beforehand. There are plenty of other resources out there so this is just one person’s experience. But hopefully it can be a help to those of you looking to get your Japanese Driver’s License!
For a more general overview on all things driving in Ehime, check out the Ehime AJET Driving page.
Outline of the Process
First, there are a few criteria that determine who is qualified to apply to convert their license to a Japanese one.
- You have a foreign driver’s license
- You have stayed in that country for at least 3 months after obtaining your license
- Your license has not expired
The general process of obtaining a Japanese Driver’s License is as follows, but not all of the parts will apply to everyone (check out the pdfs under Preparing for the Document Review to see which tests you have to take).
- Scheduling an Appointment
- *Day One: Qualifications / Document Review
- *Day Two: Vision Test, Knowledge (Written) Test, Practical (Driving) Test, License Issuance (if you pass all the tests!!)
*Day One and Day Two are just to show that you will need to go to the Menkyo Center multiple days, first for them to clear that you have the right documents and meet the criteria and then to take the tests to actually get your license. But note that you may have to go more than one day for either if you don’t pass either the document review or one of the tests. Tip: Ask your BOE/supervisor if it’s possible to take a non-nenkyuu day for one or all of the days, especially if you need to drive for work. They may still require you to take nenkyuu, but you never know unless you ask!
Scheduling an Appointment
The license center operates by appointment only, and sometimes finding an appointment slot can take a while. Summer is probably the busiest season of the year because all of the other ALTs and foreigners who came during the summer will have their IDP expire soon. If you came during the summer and are using an IDP, your IDP expires exactly 1 year from the date you arrived in Japan, not 1 year from the date that is written on the front. If you thought you could buy yourself some extra time by starting your IDP later, unfortunately that’s not how it works. One year since arriving in Japan is when your IDP expires, so just double check to be sure!
Even if it seems too early, I think it’s a good idea to ask your supervisor to help you make an appointment at the center. It may be months (I started asking about it in January/February and ended up with a June appointment, granted March/April were busy with the staff re-shuffling, but still a wait) before you can get a spot. So it’s really never too early (or too late) to start that process.
Preparing for the Document Review
Once I got my appointment, there was the number of documents I needed to prepare for review. My supervisor shared this document with me that has all the necessary materials in Japanese. I then copied and pasted it into Google Translate and edited it into an English version. You can open both of those by clicking on their images above. The numbers in each document correlate, so you should be able to communicate with your supervisor on the different items across the translations.
Documents of note:
- Photos: Department stores or supermarkets may have photo booths outside them where you can sit and get your photo taken for various document purposes. I went to one outside my FUJI Grand and they had an English option so I was able to get my photos printed quite easily. If you still can’t find a booth, though, the license center has one that you can use.
- Certificate of Residence (住民票 Jūmin-hyō): I acquired mine from the city hall for about 300 JPY. Your supervisor should be able to guide you on how to get it, or you could probably ask someone at city hall to help you.
- Translation of foreign license: I got my license translated through JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) by applying for a translation and then printing the documents at a conbini when it was finished. You can go to JAF’s site on translation here: https://english.jaf.or.jp/driving-in-japan/drive-in-japan/foreign-nationals-license
Going into the document review, I had my photos; a certificate of residence; residence card; passport; a university transcript and bank statements showing that I lived in the U.S. for x months; foreign driver’s license; IDP; translation of my foreign license; money for the various fees (at least 5,000 JPY; 10,000 to be safe); and my supervisor to help as an interpreter.
While they were reviewing my documents, they asked me a number of questions in an interview-type format about the process of obtaining my current driver’s license. They asked me questions such as
- Why did you get a driver’s license (e.g. to commute to school, work, shopping, etc.)?
- Did you go to driver’s school before getting your license? How long was that driving school, how many times did it meet?
- Did you have any driving practice before getting your license? How many hours of driving? How many hours of observing?
- Was there a paper and a practical test for getting your license?
- What was the paper test like? How many questions were on it?
- What was the practical test like? Was it on a course or on the street? How long did it take? What kind of things did they test you on?
- How long after the test did it take to receive your license?
Basically, they may ask you just about anything related to obtaining your foreign driver’s license. Only some of it may be actually relevant to whether they determine you eligible to pass the review, but I treated the questions like they were all important. I was able to remember most of the details of getting my license in the U.S. (thanks to reading something about this interview the night before) and said them as clearly as possible.
Note: I highly recommend that on this day you try to take a practice driving test at the center. The practice tests are only open until 4:30pm, but I found it very useful for knowing how to prepare for the real test. You’re already at the center, so you may as well make the most of the trip, especially if you had to take nenkyuu for this!
Vision Test – 適性試験
The simplest of the tests, they first conduct a simple vision test to determine if you are fit for driving. It is, however, conducted in Japanese, so here is a brief description of what you may expect.
It’s likely similar to the vision tests they conduct during the annual health checks at your city hall. First, they ask you to look at a C-shape and indicate whether the gap is pointing up, down, left, or right. Then, they will show the colors red, yellow, and green (or blue), and you will have to tell them which color you see.
Knowledge (Written) Test – 知識審査
This was a very short, very straightforward test of ten TRUE (O) or FALSE (X) questions about the rules of the road. You need to get seven out of ten questions correct in order to pass the test.
I skimmed over the Japanese Rules of the Road Handbook to prepare, though even that may not have really been necessary. I do think it’s helpful to study up a bit on road signs and various road markings, especially if you’ve never taken the time to figure out exactly what they mean since coming to Japan. It’s not a difficult test, but you need to pass it first in order to take the practical driving test, so it doesn’t hurt to put a little time aside to review the rules and feel a bit more confident on your knowledge beforehand.
This website has some practice written tests: https://leasejapan.com/en/license-conversion/written-test-guide/
Japanese Rules of the Road Handbook: https://english.jaf.or.jp/driving-in-japan/rules-of-the-road
Online Guidebook: Chapter 2 – The Written and Unwritten Rules of the Road
Practical (Driving) Test – 技能審査
By far the most stressful part of this whole process, the practical test involves driving a designated course on their testing track behind the center. You will receive a map of the course the first day after the document review and have set a date for your test appointment (if you do not get one, then ask for one!).
From experience, I highly recommend asking to take at least one practice test while you’re there on your first day. You’ll have only just gotten the map, so you won’t be very familiar with the course, but it’s worth trying anyways to get a visual of the route and have a sense of what they expect from you. Plus, the test is conducted in one of their cars, which are retired taxi cabs and may be bigger or just different from what you’re used to driving.
Note: not everyone is required to take the written and/or practical test. You can look at this page to check your testing requirements. If you’re from the U.S., however, and not from one of the special agreement states, chances are that you need to take all the tests.
The practical test, despite its name, is not really that practical. It’s not testing you on your ability to drive a car in practical, every day situations, per se. It’s more testing you on your ability to take a driving test. A lot of parts of the test don’t seem to make a lot of sense in the setting (i.e. checking the road for oncoming cars before opening the door even though you’re on a test course. Or stopping at a fake railroad track and listening for the sound of a train even though it’s a fake railroad track). But it’s part of the test and you have to abide by those rules in order to pass. One JET quoted in the online guidebook put it well, “The most important thing about the test is not to get frustrated with the ridiculousness of the test. There is nothing practical about the ‘practical test’.”
The test is conducted out of 100 points in total. A score of 70 is required to pass. During the test, the proctor can make note of things to deduct points from your overall score. Each deduction is not equal, however, as there are some that may be just a 5-point deduction (forgetting to check one of your mirrors) and others that may fail you automatically (not putting on your seatbelt). Even knowing that, try to focus on your own driving and not on what the proctor may be writing during the test.
We Ehime folks are especially lucky in that we have to say our checks out loud while taking the test. This means that every time you make a turn, you need to rehearse a whole process (i.e. “back left okay,” *turn on blinker*, “back left okay,” *move car slightly to the left*, “left right okay,” “back left okay,” *make your turn*). Things like this will make a bit more sense if you’ve done at least one practice, but honestly it still might not make a whole lot of sense.
The practical test is where the most preparation and studying is needed. But even with all that studying, there are things you might not realize the test proctor is looking for. What I did (and would definitely recommend) is taking another practice test the morning of your scheduled exam. Hopefully you’ve prepared enough so that the practice run can just be a chance to smooth out any questions or unexpected mistakes to avoid during the real test.
Tips & things to note:
Be respectful to the test proctor and make sure to greet them before and after your test: “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu” and “Arigatou gozaimashita” (Most likely it will be someone who was conducting the other exams for you as well so it’s a good idea to be very respectful of everyone there really.)
Take your time at the start. Look for ongoing vehicles before stepping into the road to get into the car. Make sure your seatbelt is fastened. Touch your rearview mirror to check it (even if it doesn’t need adjusting). You’ll have a mental list of checks after enough preparation, but don’t let your nerves get hold of you and rush you through it!
Practice in your car (or a car). I did this so many times the night before, from going through greeting the proctor to turning my blinkers on to checking under my car for cats or small children playing to visualizing each turn in my head. Going through the motions many times helped it feel natural during the actual test.
Online Guidebook: Chapter 5 – The Practical Test
A video someone made about their experience: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSRlLg2_UJ0
Getting Issued Your License – 免許証交付
Congratulations!! You did it, you passed, and now they are issuing you your license. They will issue your license the same day that you pass your test. You don’t have to do anything except for follow their directions at this point, which involves a lot of waiting for your name to be called while they put together your documents.
You will have to pay the issuance fee as well as any driving practice tests that you had. I believe my total for the day was about 6,000 JPY (2,550 for the license issuance, and 3,500 for the practice tests). I’d recommend bringing at least that, or about 10,000 JPY to be safe. You’ve already made it this far, don’t let not having the cash hold you back now! Bring enough for one less thing to stress about the day of.
Now you can go out to your local 100yen shop and buy a Wakaba sticker to show off your new status. All license-holders are required to have this sticker on the front and back of their car for one year after obtaining their license.
Note: Once you have your license, do not ever throw it away, even if it expires! May sound obvious, but if you have an expired license, you can just renew it without having to do any exams. If you lose / throw it away, you will have to repeat this whole process over again. Please save yourself that trouble.
May you pass and never have to think about this ever again!
GOOD LUCK !! がんばって！