Sunday, June 10, 2018

License renewal

I renewed my drivers license for the first time here in Japan. In Sweden it was easy: every ten years you got a renewal form that you filled in and sent in with a recent picture of yourself. A few weeks later the new license arrived in the post.

Japan is different. To renew your license you visit a driving license center. There you fill out a form ("do you have a drug dependency?", "have your physician told you to stop driving?"), do a simple vision test and take a new picture.



The license renewal center in Chatan. Not pictured is the big cemetery just off to the left. Honestly, the cemetery felt more cheerful when I first arrived.

But like so often here, while the building feels like pure bureaucratic depression, the people working there were friendly, easy-going and happy to help out in any way they could. It was all a smooth, pleasant experience from start to finish.

There are three licenses: new drivers get a green license valid for up to three years (your birthday the third year). Then you get a blue license, also valid for three years. If you have no traffic violations for the entire time, you get a gold license valid for five years. I went from a green to a blue license this time around.

The final and longest part of the process is the lecture. New drivers (like myself) and people with traffic violations get a two-hour lecture. Blue license holders get one hour. And Gold license holders get a quick 30-minute meeting.


Our lecture room. Somebody should swoop in and designate this a protected heritage site before they get around to destroying it in some renovation. Just look at those monitors! The lectern! The mysterious but oh-so-cool 1970's style number display on the right!


The first parts were the most useful — and, I suspect, the only part that gold license holders need to sit through. Traffic laws change over time and we got updated on any changes since we took our license. He also presented local statistics and happenings on Okinawa, such as the construction of a new roundabout on one main road here on the island, and talked about how to safely navigate the somewhat complicated crossing.

The most important change to me: when I converted my license, a regular license let you drive a car of up to 5t weight. Since then, Japan has introduced a light truck ("準中型") class with up to 7.5t weight and 4.5t loading capacity; at the same time a regular license is now only valid for cars of up to 3.5t. So my renewed license is now for a light truck, but with the 5t restriction I had before. However, we can take a 4 hour course at a traffic school to get rid of the weight restriction and get a "real" light truck license. I'm rather tempted to do this; it can come in handy.

The other two parts of the lecture was all about safety and accidents. Drunk driving rules and statistics; the dangers of left turns; don't blindly trust other drivers signalling a go-ahead and so on. The final half hour was a surprisingly well-produced drama about the consequences of causing a fatal accident. It was a tight, well-written manuscript and a couple of competent and fairly well known actors in the main parts. It would not have been out of place as a half-hour NHK weekend drama.


After a morning like this, what I need is a plateful of tasty calories. One benefit of the US military presence here is that there's quite a lot of restaurants doing good burgers and things of that nature. This is a bacon-burger with poutine at Gordie's Old House on road 58 in Chatan. Yes, it was as good as it looks.

Overall, while the process is a hassle I don't think it's a waste of time. The rule changes and local information were genuinely useful. The safety lecture about dangerous situations is a timely reminder for new license holders. And the drama should make people a little more careful for a few days or weeks at least. Still, I'm looking forward to (hopefully) get a gold license and not having to do this for another five years.



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