Letters From Japan ~ Vol XIII ~ Driving License


Introduction: I recently began writing letters to send to my friends and family regarding my experiences here in Japan. I've received some encouragement to release the letters net-wide and am doing so in the hopes of providing some entertainment and maybe even some useful information...

In our last episode...

One M.D. Chachich was lamenting on the fact that he let his American license expire before getting a Japanese one. Various devious means were discussed regarding the "unexpiration" of his license and that was the last we heard...

And now, the rest of the story...

In brief, I got it! Yahooo! No, I didn't even have to resort to illegal means. What had happened, if you recall, is that I procrastinated and let my license expire by two weeks. I decided to try to "go for it" anyway only to have the lady at the Japan Auto Federation (JAF) tell me "no dice, what the hell were you thinking, you can't convert an expired license!" (well, not in those words, exactly).

After that, I consulted my friends (or what my mom would refer to as "bad elements") here in cyberspace and received instructions for falsifying the date on my license. Reserving that as an option, I called my home state and asked them how to go about extending my American license. They said they could give me a three month extension no questions asked and I said yeah, do it baby. A week or so later, I got a paper extension for my U.S. picture license in the mail.

Actually it was really stupid of me to procrastinate that long. Not only did the expiration of my license cause an added hassle, if I'd have converted it last year, they wouldn't have asked me to perform a driving test. So I could have avoided a fair amount of, well, not "pain" exactly but "time wasted."

With extension in hand, I went back to the JAF for the official honyaku (translation). The JAF, by the way, is like AAA with auto insurance and travel info. They also offer official (ie notarized) translations of foreign licenses which are necessary in order to apply for a license conversion. I believe this is only done at one office in Tokyo, the one at the base of Tokyo Tower.

The girl at the JAF seemed to understand the concept of a three month extension well enough but I had some difficulty trying to explain that the 'C' on the photo license meant the same thing as the 'CHAUF' on the paper one. After she made a few calls to somebody to assist her on what to do, and one to the licensing office to see if they'd accept it, I finally got what I had come for, an official translation of my license for the unjustifiable price of Y3000. She warned me, though, that even if she provided the translation the licensing office still might not accept it. Well, I had to try anyway.

A week or so later, I went to the Koto licensing office in Koto-ku with all the necessary papers in hand (foreign license, official translation, passport, alien registration card and recent photos) only to find that they can't handle the conversion of foreign licenses! Naturally this was the most convenient office for me. This would have been less annoying if the English guide for living in Tokyo -- designed to make living in Tokyo easier for us gaijin -- hadn't claimed that this was one of three offices where this could be done. Obviously the guide's a bit out of date.

So, last week I took the morning off and went to the Samezu licensing office (one of two offices that can handle the procedure) and, luckily, had a nicer experience. The line for foreigners was quite short when I handed in my paperwork, yet in the traditional bureaucratic fashion they managed to drag out the process as long as possible. Luckily the girl was very friendly and cute besides. I handed in my papers, waited, went to another window to pay the fee of Y1700, went through the eye test (up, down, left, right, red, blue) and returned to the first window. Then I took the "written test" which was actually on a computer with a little console with "Yes/No" buttons.

The test can be taken in one of several languages including Korean, Thai and English. Probably European languages as well but I wasn't really paying attention. The girl gave me an indirect compliment by asking me if I wanted to take it in Japanese. I said, well, that might be a good challenge but I'd better stick with the English. It was a good thing I did because the test was brutally tricky with questions like "it's okay to drink a little bit before driving" or "it's okay to drive in lanes marked 'busses only'." Passing was 7/10 but I squeaked by with a 10/10 score.

After the test, I was told I'd have to take a driving test. The girl asked me if I'd like to take it in an automatic or manual transmission car. I said, well, it doesn't really matter. She said, well, all Japanese have to take it in a manual so maybe I should too. Yabai! I couldn't act like a wimp and back down and ask for an automatic so I said that'd be fine. I was given a slip of paper and scheduled the driving test for a week later. I was told later that had I chosen the automatic, my license wouldn't be good for driving a manual. I haven't been able to confirm this, however.

Shortly thereafter, I realized that I'd only driven once in Japan, and that was a year ago, so I started getting a little nervous. I took advantage of a generous coworker and borrowed his car on Saturday for some practice. Since I was without a valid license (my international license was long expired) I was driving illegally -- an old habit that I'm used to. Driving was natsukashikatta. The last time I drove was the first week of the new year when I was home for the holidays. Just a few years ago it would have never occurred to me that I'd go months without driving a car, or even that it was practically possible.

I arrived to the driving test with a fair amount of confidence. I was told to wait in a room along with 11 other people. It took me some time to realize that all of us were foreigners because all except one other guy had Asian features. After some setsumei (explanation) action in Japanese by the examiner, the test commenced, one person at a time. The test was deceptively simple, involving driving around a course and following basic traffic rules. No parking exercises were included.

Even so, out of the field of 12 only 5 of us made it. The instructor was failing people for things like crossing the white stop line, touching the curb while manuevering through a narrow driveway-like course, or failing to properly use the mirrors. So I guess I was pretty lucky. Not only didn't I want to pay the Y2100 test fee again, I didn't want to blow more time off work only to spend it at the drivers licensing center. When I brought the car to a stop, I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard those two syllables, OH-KAY.

The rest of the morning was spent in more lines to pay more money, take the license picture and wait for the license itself. They create it on the spot, and pass it out 30-60 minutes after taking the picture if you're lucky enough not to be delayed another hour while they take their lunch.


(C)opyright 1994 Mike Chachich

This material may be freely copied and distributed for non-commercial uses provided this copyright information remains intact. Commercial uses are strictly prohibited without prior written consent. All stated opinions are solely the author's and do not represent those of any other person or organization.

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Created: June 18, 1995
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2005