Monday, April 4, 2016

Driving in Japan I: Get A Japanese Driving Licence

Friday was the first day of my (hopefully rather temporary) unemployment. With a bit of free time on my hands, I'm taking the opportunity to do something I should have done years ago: convert my Swedish driving licence(1) to Japanese. I haven't done so mainly because we live in Osaka, with excellent public transport, and because owning a car(2) is quite expensive. A registered parking space in Osaka city would by itself cost more than my daily commute to Kobe every month.

But now that I am differentially employed we no longer know what I will do or where we will live. Rural Japan has nothing like the dense subway and bus networks of the big cities so it's prudent to make sure we can get around anywhere just in case.

Converting a foreign licence can involve taking a theory test or even a simplified driving test for many countries. But for Swedish licences it's only paperwork, with no actual testing involved. They interview you and look over your documents to make sure that your training corresponds to what you would get in Japan; and that you lived in that country for at least three months after getting the licence. That's so young Japanese don't go to Indonesia or some place, get a licence there in a one-week intensive course, then convert it to a Japanese licence when they return.

The process is not difficult, but there's a fair amount of things to keep in mind. You need to assemble a pile of documents:

The Chuo-ku ward office.
  • Your licence and your passport, and copies of them. If you have renewed your licence since coming here, bring your older licences and passports too.

  • A certified translation of your licence. You get that from JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation). The main point of the translation is not the language itself, I think, but that they translate the specifics of vehicle classes into the Japanese equivalents. Car and bike sizes and weights, allowable passengers and that sort of thing.

  • Your 住民票 or Certificate of Residence. You get that from your local ward office. Just tell them what you need it for and they'll give you the right document.

  • A picture, 3cm by 2.6 cm. This is not the picture that will end up on your licence. This is attached to your application so everybody can confirm that the same person is applying, taking tests, sitting for the licence picture and so on.

  • Proof that you lived in the country for three months after getting your licence. A passport with an entry stamp to Japan is not enough. I brought my Ph.D. certificate (showed that I went to grad school in Sweden), a Japanese certificate for my first job here that showed my address in Sweden, and a statement of financial support (also in Japanese) that showed my Swedish address at the time. Things like a phone bill or rental contract would work fine too.

Here's the steps I took, in turn:

First, go to the main JAF office. In Kansai that's in Ibaraki in Osaka, towards Kyoto. It's small and fairly quiet, and I think all other people there were also foreigners looking for a translation. For the most part, JAF's services involve things like emergency assistance, publishing maps and things like that; you don't normally need to visit them in person. This is one of the few things you do on-site. It took them about 30 minutes to translate the licence.

Furukawabashi station on the Keihan line.

Then, go to the Osaka prefectural police Driver's Licence Center in Kadoma in the north-east of Osaka city. It's along the Keihan line; you ride the express to Moriguchi, then change to a local train for another four stops to Furukawabashi. Walk south for about 1.5km and you're there. Pretty neat area, with lots of shops, some good cafés and a Kurazushi if you like your kaitensushi cheap and cheerful. I know I do.

The Osaka Prefectural Police Kadoma
Driving Licence Center.
When I get there they tell me that they accept applications between 8:30 and 13:30. As it's already past 2pm I'm too late. But they were happy to check my documents and see that I had everything I'd need.

I come back the next morning around 9am and met by chaos, with hordes milling about queueing up for their licence exams. If you come there to actually take the theory and driving tests you need to be there in the morning to get through the entire process by the end of the day. So the place is infested with nervous 20-somethings lining up for their licence exam applications, not unlike ants descending on a picknick.

Fortunately, the foreign licence exchange is a separate counter and not busy at all. You walk up, they check the documents you have and give you a two-page form to fill in. That form asks you when and where you took your licence, and what, exactly, you did to get it. What driving school did you use, or did you practice privately; what kind of theory test did you take - how many questions, yes/no or multiple choice; what did you do during the practical test and so on, and so on.

You fill it in as best you can (English is fine), and bring the form back to the counter. There a policeman who I swear could play the lead part of "insubordinate but likeable younger detective" in a police drama looked it over and asked me a series of detailed questions about the order of licence renewals; what, exactly, I did during car and motorcycle driving practice; and how the driving tests were conducted and in which order. I had to explain the ice-driving test in some detail; Japanese drivers apparently don't do that.

It took about half an hour in all. It's all in Japanese; I could handle it without problems so you don't need to be fluent or anything, but if you're not up to explaining the finer details of your driving school experience you'll want to bring somebody along to translate for you. While we were talking, the pile of licence test takers were finishing their eye test behind us.

Next you pay for the licence at the cashier. The cost depends on the vehicle classes you want to convert. I converted heavy motorcycle as well as regular car, and that totals about 7000 yen in all. You move on to the eye exam — it was empty by the time I got there — and take the ten-second test. They only test up to the legal limits, so really, if you can't pass this you probably couldn't find the eye exam room in the first place.

On the way back to the application counter you need to register a PIN code on a machine. This completely mystified me at first, but it turns out to have a point later on. You fill in two four-digit PINs — any code you like — and it spits out a ticket with the two PINs and a bar code. Hang on to that one; this will be the PIN code to access the digital data on your licence later on.

Maneuver test for small bikes. Looked really easy, to be honest.

Return your documents to the counter. There they will explain the exact terms and conditions of your licence. I'm a new driver in Japan so my licence is good for less than three years — until a month after my third birthday — and I'll have to put that "new driver" mark on any car I drive for the next year. Also, as a new driver I have some restrictions for motorcycles; I'm not allowed to ride a bike with a passenger for the first year and things like that. But I only converted my bike licence for old times' sake so I don't really mind.

You get your documents back, along with a coloured card (mine was blue) with a time slot for the photograph and licence delivery on the second floor. My slot was 30 minutes later; enough for a can of coffee and a few pictures of the area. Meanwhile the huge pile of people are now lining up behind the test counters on the second floor. Get to the photography counter well in advance. They announce the time slot and card colour for the next group. You get called up by name, line up and go in one by one. Remember the PIN code ticket? You shove the ticket into a machine there, sit down, they take your picture and you're done.

Go across the hall — the test takers have all disappeared to the testing rooms by now — to the licence delivery room along with the other people in your time slot. After ten or fifteen minutes a young office worker comes in, runs through a speech about responsibility and driving carefully, then calls each one up by name to deliver the licence. Congratulations, you are now a licensed driver! In all, the process took about two hours from the time I stepped into the building until I left. Not bad at all.

Licensed to drive. Now I just need to learn how again.

#1 is it "licence" or "license"? "Licence" is the noun, as in "A licence to kill". "License" is a verb, as in "You are licensed to kill cartoon villains for entertainment".

#2 I actually have much more experience riding bikes than driving cars, but my biking days ended when I got married. We decided that bikes are dangerous so we don't ride them any more.


  1. itu bukan pengangguran kawan, kemungkinan anda hanya butuh istirahat sejenak

  2. Just for reference, that usage isn't universal: licence is British (or commonwealth) spelling only; in the US it's an outright misspelling and license is used for both here. Before I saw the footnote and then looked it up, I thought you just had some typos -- this is the first time I've ever encountered licence and my spellchecker hates it.

    I do find it interesting that this is the first time I've ever realized that you're using British spelling; somehow in all the years of reading I'd never noticed before (somehow you don't use the kind of vocabulary that really jumps out at me? I didn't even notice "colour"), but there it is.

    Also, an ice-driving test is fascinating: we don't have any such thing in the US either, but it makes a lot of sense that Sweden would have something like that.

  3. Hi Douglas,

    I tend to mix. We learn British English at school and we get exposed to a mix of mostly British and American media: many American movies; British and American TV series; and many of my favourite authors, from PD James to Terry Pratchett to Charlie Stross are British.

    As a result, I use whichever spelling and vocabulary that happens to appeal to me at the time. If you search this blog I'm sure you'll find instances of "color" as well, and I tend to use the Oxford comma or not more or less on a whim. Since I'm not a native speaker I can trust that any usage of mine is correct or at least idiomatic in some dialect of English ("Oh, but that usage is considered acceptable in South-Indian English vernacular.")

    Ice driving is a lot less exciting than it sounds. It's just an enclosed track where you spend an afternoon there learning how to drive in slippery conditions, how to react if you lose your grip and find out what it feels to get into an uncontrollable skid.

    There's two ways they make it slippery. One way is just to cover the surface with soapy water:

    The other is to add "outrigger wheels" to a car. Basically caster wheels, like you have on a shopping cart, that lift and take up part of the vehicle weight. The instructor can change the "sliperiness" on the fly, and you can use any enclosed track:

    Either way, you run through a set of exercises: taking an S-curve; slalom between cones; braking at different speeds; and evading a sudden obstacle. You go through it until they determine that you have a good handle on it.

  4. I think I would have really enjoyed going through a course like that (and gotten a lot out of it), but setting something like that up in the US would be a lot more difficult (for one, I got my original license in Houston in the summer... There's no time of the year that Houston ever has any snow cover -- we had friends come up to visit us in Denver from Houston this winter just so their kids could see snow for the first time in their lives. They weren't particularly young anymore). For another, the US' reputation for lax driving license standards is pretty accurate, so I had to learn to handle snow/ice pretty much on the fly when I moved to Denver.

    That said, when I bought my current vehicle, I picked the worst conditions I could get to test drive it and gave it a good run on icy roads.

    As for English, well... Very often competent non-native speakers honestly have much more correct language production than natives (I'd say you certainly do -- if I didn't know better I'd judge your writing as native). I know that as a native speaker I'm guilty of violating the language pretty badly at times, especially on places like twitter and whatnot. There's just something about certain slang registers that I find endlessly amusing, I guess. On the other hand, I have far neater (both tidier and more accurate) handwriting in Kanji and such than my wife (who's a native Chinese speaker). She mostly just thinks it's cute. o_O

  5. "I think I would have really enjoyed going through a course like that (and gotten a lot out of it), but setting something like that up in the US would be a lot more difficult (for one, I got my original license in Houston in the summer... There's no time of the year that Houston ever has any snow cover"

    Ah, but that's the point - the outriggers let you do this on dry asphalt at any time of year. You can skid uncontrollably and hit cardboard moose even in midsummer!

  6. Ah, sorry, I wasn't clear (I'm screwing around on the internet when I should be going to sleep -- it's like the reverse of before coffee for me): meant more difficult in terms of desire than capability. My parenthesis is in the wrong place -- i.e., it wouldn't happen in the US because of laxness, and especially not in Houston because why would they? It's not a useful skill there.

    Besides, in Houston they don't even teach you/test you on how to deal with hydroplaning during the tropical rains, you learn that on your own, too. It's a bit of a different sort of skill than dealing with ice, but also can be challenging at times -- wet brakes don't tend to work so well for a bit if your wheels ever get submerged, say (and roads get flooded all the time).

    These days for me the easiest thing to do here in Denver is just wait for actual winter and spin around in empty parking lots -- sometimes I do that for fun. >_>

    Anyway, thanks for the description, it was really interesting. I ought to get to bed; who knows what kind of crazy stuff I'm saying by now. :)

  7. Hi Jan, Thank you so much for this post. I have been desiring to convert my license since i arrived in Japan in 2019. Unfortunately i received my license only days before leaving for Japan. However good news! I might have since accrued (I believe) enough time in the U.K. in the last two years through visits e.g., xmas and just now (Covid has been a pain on this front)

    I have a few things I wanted to confirm if you may know. The 3 month rule, how many days EXACTLY is that? Is it 12 weeks? 84 or 90 days?

    Does the date begin from the day you past your test? or from the date i was issued my first license? They are two weeks apart unfortunately, as the U.K. takes a few days to issue the license, but my test clearly says the date i passed it. If its when the license is issued, i'm in trouble again.

    In terms of proof of residence, a simple rental contract, i can draw up with my sister with whom i live in the U.K. but its a bit flimsy and a printed piece of A4 with some signatures. How strict are they on this?

    Thank you so much in advance!

  8. It's three months as as unbroken stretch before you first arrive in Japan. Going back doesn't count. You will need to retake the licence here, I'm afraid.


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