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Chapter 3
So You've Been Here a Year
Getting a Driver's License in Japan


  1. Introduction
  2. Q & A - The Blessed and The Cursed
  3. The Procedure for Everyone


Unless you only want a scooter license, you will eventually have to go through the process of converting your home driver's license to a Japanese one. You can drive using your International Driver's Permit until either exactly one year from the date written on it or exactly one year from the date you entered Japan, WHICHEVER IS SHORTER. So, if your date on your International Driver's Permit is in May, then it will expire the following May even if you entered the country in July. You can be fined big (up to 300,000 yen) and maybe face worse for driving on an expired permit. If you plan on driving at all after the expiry date, you need to get a Japanese license. If you have to take the practical test (not everyone does: see below), try to start the process at least three months before expiry (six is better) since failing the practical test and having to wait weeks in between attempts is very common. In other words, as soon as the snow melts and springtime is in the air, think license!


Some people I know who lived in Japan a few years ago could renew their International Driver's Permits. Why can't I?

Because the Japanese changed the law in June 2002. Now, our International Driving Permits are only valid for a one-year maximum and cannot be renewed. The only time it can be renewed is if you return to your home country and can prove you stayed there three full months before coming back. Not likely for JETs.

WHY?? Contrary to popular belief, this law was not to give foreigners a hard time. The reasoning was to keep non-license-holding Japanese from going abroad, getting a license, then coming back and driving on an international permit.

I don't have an International Driver's Permit, but I do have a driver's license from my home country. Can I still get it converted to a Japanese license?

Yes, but only if you were in your home country for a span of at least three months before you came to Japan. Whether you have an International Driver's Permit does not relate to whether you can get your home driver's license converted to a Japanese one. However, you cannot drive in Japan, even for a minute, until you get it converted.

I heard that getting a Japanese license is very difficult and time consuming. Is it?

Yes, it is time consuming, but whether it is difficult or not all depends on whether your are blessed or cursed...

The Blessed:

United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada
(also Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, South Korea)

The Cursed:

United States of America, South Africa, China, Brazil, Jamaica
(also Africa, Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, Russia, Singapore and any other country not listed either here or above.)

The Blessed go to a Driver License Center with lots of documents and money, take an eye exam, possibly take a written exam, wait around a lot, then they are given a shiny new driver's license that day.

The Cursed have some key extra steps before the shiny license part: The written and practical exams.

We're Americans. Why do we have to take the practical test and not the Canadians? They drive on the right, too!

Three reasons. First, American licenses are done by the state government and not the federal government, making a reciprocal agreement tricky since they would have to look into 50 states (as opposed to only 13 colonies in Canada - which did take years to accomplish). Second, the Japanese have to go through an even harder process to get an American license since their international driving permits are valid for less than a month. Third, because they're evil.

What about us South Africans, Chinese, Jamaicans, and Brazilians? Why do we suffer, too?

Probably because they think these countries (along with the U.S.) do not have adequately strict driving tests. More likely because they are evil.

Where can I get my driver's license converted to a Japanese license?

At a Prefectural Driving Center. Every prefecture has at least one Driving Center where foreigners can change their license; it is usually in the biggest city. Some prefectures, especially in rural areas, have more than one. Look in the back of this book to find one near you, or ask your supervisor, other JETs, or check the internet.

Can I get my license transferred (and take the test) in a different prefecture?

No. Unfortunately, you must go to the prefecture you live in as printed on your alien registration card.

There's a Driver's License Center in my prefecture a lot closer to where I live, but it is not listed in this book. Can't I take it there?

Not unless you are getting a scooter license or have already gotten a Japanese license at some point in the past. The local center may have recently acquired the authority to convert a foreign license to a Japanese license, but most likely you will have to go to the main testing center. (You could theoretically get a Japanese license from scratch at a local testing center, but that process involves a 100-question test in Japanese (only a few prefectures have the full test in English) in which you must get at least 90 right. Then you would have to take the full Japanese practical test, which might be on a course or on real roads. It is longer than the test for foreign conversion and includes additional challenges like parallel parking. Getting a Japanese license from scratch could be worth a try, but it will likely end up being a lot longer and harder than just taking the shorter test to get it converted, even if the testing center is far away.)

Most Japanese do not take the practical test. They spend somewhere to the tune of 300,000 yen for a full Driving School Course. With a diploma from an accredited school, they do not need to take the practical test, though they still have to take the written test. (You the foreigner can make use of the driving school in cheaper one-hour increments to practice (recommended) but you won't get a diploma unless you go about 35 times.)

"More than 90% of Japanese driver's license holders are graduates of designated driving schools."
- Koyama Driving School


Before you even attempt to go to the Driver's License Center, do three things:

  1. DATE OF ISSUE? Look at your current driver's license from your home country. Is there a Date of Issue on it? If not, you need to contact the driving authorities in your home country and have them send you some kind of certificate that has the Date of Issue of your driver's license on it. It is a hassle, but the Japanese authorities will not change a license without a Date of Issue. (Why? See next question.)

  2. THREE MONTHS? Is your Date of Issue at least three months before you came to Japan? If not, you will most likely not be able to get it changed into a Japanese license. You will have to get a Japanese license from scratch (yikes.) NOTE: If you recently renewed your license and that is why it has been less than 3 months, then you can still get your license converted. However, you have to get a certificate from your home country licensing authority that shows the original date of issuance. If you very recently renewed your passport, they may want to see a previous passport to show that you were a licensed driver in your country for three full months.

  3. TRANSLATION! You must get your driver's license translated into Japanese by an official authority (not by your friend.) There are two recognized authorities: one, the embassy of your country and two, slightly cheaper, is the JAF (Japan Automobile Federation). Go to a JAF counter in person and get it translated on the spot or send 3,290 yen by registered cash mail - 3000 yen for the translation fee and at least 290 yen for return postage - to your prefectural JAF office with a copy (COPIES ONLY) of your license. (See http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm for procedure details and http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/list.htm for a list of JAF addresses for every prefecture.)

Once you have the above taken care of, find out where the Prefectural Driving Center is and how to get there (whether by bus, car, or train). The back of this book has online links to maps, but even they can be confusing. Keep in mind that the Driving Centers will usually be very large buildings with flat land around with all the courses on it. If possible, go with someone who knows where it is the first time. The Driving Centers usually only accept applications for a half hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon (sometimes, only one of the two). If you miss this window of time, you may have to wait hours or wait until a later day. Give yourself time to find it.

Once inside the Driving Center, look for a sign in English (it will likely be the only thing in English in the entire building) to guide you to the proper window. Take the items you need listed on the next page to the desk that reads:

(gaikoku menkyo kirikae)


  • Passport pasupoto (They actually want to see all your passports from the time your license was issued, but you can probably tell them that your current passport is your first passport. (If required, you can contact Immigration to get a record of your travel in and out of your home country if you do not have departure / return stamps.))
  • Alien Registration Card gaikokujin torokushomeisho (So that they know you live in this prefecture.)
  • Certificate of Residence juu-min-hyou or toroku genpyo kisai-jiko shomeisho or Certificate/Proof of Alien Registration gaikoku toroku sumi shoumeisho (Some prefectures want the Certificate as further proof that you live at that address, especially if there have been changes recently. Bringing a recent bill with your name and the matching address may also work. You can get this certificate at your city or town hall. It may cost 200 yen.)
  • Valid Driver's License From Your Home Country gaikoku no unten menkyo (so they know you can drive in some country) and Certificate with Date of Issue (if the date is not printed on your license.)
  • Expired Japanese License nihon no menkyo (Bring it if you have one, but most of us don't.)
  • Translation of Your License honyakubun (by JAF or your embassy)
  • International Driver's Permit kokusai menkyosho (This is not necessary, but bring it if you have one.)
  • Two photos that are 2.4 cm by 3 cm (width by height) menkyoyo shashin (Either black and white or color. You can usually get these photos at booths the Driver's Center if you cannot get any in town. No Print Club, these have got to be official photos with a plain background and no hats. The photo has to be from the past three months. Some centers only need one photo.)
  • Your Registered Seal inkan (This is not necessarily needed, but it does not hurt to have.)
  • Money for Fees tesuryo (Approximately 5,000 yen in fees will be needed, depending on the prefecture)
  • Copies kopii Centers can usually make the copies themselves but a few centers might not be able to. To be safe, bring copies of your passport, alien card, and driver's license (in other words, items that you cannot leave there) in A4 size, front, back, all relevant pages.

They will ask you a lot of questions regarding your driving record outside Japan, including questions about what you had to do to pass your driver's test in your home country and whether you went to driving school there. It's okay if you do not know all the answers, but answer the best you can. They will usually only be able to ask in Japanese. Do your best or bring your Japanese friend/supervisor to translate for you.

From there, you may have to take the written exam and the "cursed" countries also have to take, or get a reservation for, the on-the-road practical exam. (See following chapters.)

If you have made it through all the above without being turned away for some reason (likely) or failed (likely), then they will start issuing your license, which can take up to an hour. You will take a simple eye test. Basically, you have to say which direction the letter "C" is facing and know your red, yellow, and blue (yes blue "ao" and not green in Japan) lights. If you are color-blind (shikimo) you may have problems depending on the severity of the color-blindness, how well you can 'fake it', and whether the test shows the lights in their proper positions or not. Japan seems to be a little stricter about it than other countries, though they are gradually improving.

They will also take your picture and double-check the spelling and katakana of your name. Then, finally, they will come out with a little white card, laminated on one side. It is rather boring and unimpressive for a country so bent on cute. Your license is good for three years and renewing it, if you stay here that long, is a lot less hassle. If you stay here long term and go through 5 years without any violations, the stripe on your license will be gold (instead of green or blue) and you save on insurance.

Finally, show it off! Everyone wants to see it!


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