Getting Your Japanese Driver’s License (Updated Guide)

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Picture this: you’re a new ALT fresh out of your home country and you find out you’ve been placed in Gunma. Gunma sounds lovely! It’s got mountains, lakes, shrines, and the 3rd highest rate of car ownership in all of Japan. Oh dear. Sounds like you’ll probably need to drive, and if you mean to stay for longer than a year, you’ll have to get a Japanese driver’s license.

Now, this can seem intimidating at first. You may have already heard that Japan’s licensing process is complicated, outdated, steeped in bureaucracy, and downright arcane. While all of that may be true, this guide will hopefully make this process as smooth, easy, and painless as possible. Nobody should have to be turned away from the window after taking a whole afternoon of nenkyuu. We’ve broken this guide down into three easy sections: the basics, the window, and the test.

Part 1: The Basics

Before we get to the licensing, there are 2 questions you should ask yourself:

1. Do I need a license in the first place?

In most cases, if you want to stay longer than a year or didn’t get an IDP on your way out of your home country, the answer is likely yes. However, if you are able to bike or are one of the lucky few that can take the train or bus to work and have it be practical, and don’t mind not having access to a car, then you’re in luck! You can probably stop reading this and move on with your blessed life. Go get yourself sakura-flavoured Starbucks with the time and money you’re saving, you monster. If you need a license like the rest of us then move on to the next question.

2. Need I suffer?

It’s a question one must ask themselves in daily life, but in this context it refers to whether or not you have to take the practical driving exams. If you meet the following criteria, you can skip the tests. You must: 

I. Be from one of the following JET countries:

1. Australia
2. Austria
3. Belgium
4. Canada
5. Denmark
6. Finland
7. France
8. Germany

9. Hungary
10. Ireland
11. Italy
12. Netherlands
13. New Zealand
14. Norway
15. Poland
16. Slovenia

17. South Korea
18. Spain
19. Sweden
20. Switzerland
21. Taiwan
22. UK
23. USA (only Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington)

(The other non-JET countries that don’t require a practical exam are Czech Republic, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco, and Portugal.)

II.  Have a valid license from said country
III. Have lived there for at least three months after getting your license
IV. Be 18 years old or over
V. Have a valid visa in Japan
VI. Have a registered address in your city/municipality in Japan

If you meet all these criteria, great! You can stop reading this article after Part 2. Unfortunately if you’re from anywhere else, or haven’t ever had a driver’s license, it means you will have to go through the stringent Japanese examination system. Read Parts 2 and 3 of this article:

Part 2: The Window

This section covers the finer points of the bureaucratic hurdles you will have to face. Follow these steps and you’ll have your very own driver’s license.

1. Call and make a reservation!!!

This is really important and we can’t stress it enough. You’ll need to call and make a reservation several weeks in advance to book a time. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a balancing act, because you’ll usually only be able to reserve at least three or four weeks in advance, but at most only eight or nine. As a general rule, you can call and make a reservation for the next month without issue, any earlier or later and it may not work out.

2. Collect your documents:

You’ll need all of the following physical documents to transfer your license, and if you’re missing anything the staff are likely to turn you away and you’ll have to come back another time. That being said, copies can be made on site at the copying machines on the second floor for some pocket change in the back by the vending machines. If you have a flash drive handy you also may be able to print off certain forgotten files. You’ll need:

  • I. A driver’s license from your home country (original and copy)
  • II. Your passport (original and copy)
    • ○ If you come from a country that uses stamps for entry and exit, you’ll need copies of those stamps too.
  • III. Official license translations from the JAF (costs ¥2000-3000)
    • ○ Make sure you get this early. The translation could be available the next day, or could take up to 3 weeks. You can also opt to have it mailed to you.
    • License Translation Form – English 
  • IV. Driving abstract/record (Americans only)
    • ○ Obtainable through your state DMV. You can apply online or through mail in most cases; time to receive will vary by state.
  • V. A certificate of residence (original and copy) obtainable at your city hall for ¥300.
  • VI. License-sized photo (3cm x 2.4cm) This can be taken at the photobooth of any supermarket or on site at the traffic center for ¥800.
  • VII. Zairyu card (original and copy)
  • VIII. IDP 
  • IX. Proof of 3+ month residence in home country
    • ○ Credit card statements are safest. 3+ consecutive monthly statements from the same card will work fine in most cases. Barring that, things that have also worked or supplemented statements include:
      • a. Consecutive monthly timesheets from work in your home country (including address of your workplace)
      • b. Driving history sheets from your DMV or equivalent.
      • c. IRS residency record or equivalent.
  • X. ¥6000. This may be lower depending on the type of license you get. I got a medium sized vehicle licence (it includes pickups and moving vans) which is unfortunately the most expensive one.

3. Be there at 1pm or be square

Bring a Japanese speaker for extra security – you can get turned away if your Japanese is not proficient enough to communicate. It’s a good idea to check out local associations in your area to see if volunteer translators are available.

4. Register, process paperwork, and wait in cycles

5. If everything works out, time to pay and take an eye exam

6. Take the written test if you have to (see Part 3)

7. Take the practical test if you have to (see Part 3)

8. Go downstairs for a reflex test:

As part of the reflex test there is a depth perception test which can be particularly confusing at first blush. Essentially, you will be staring into a black bar moving back and forth between two lines, and you will have to determine when the three line up, either when coming forward, moving backwards, or both. It can be hard to tell they are even moving on the first try, but remember to pay attention to the center line as it appears to grow and shrink by moving closer or further away from you. 

9. Wait for the staff to print your license:

For this section, you will join a group of other people all waiting on the main floor right outside the reflex test; simply wait for them to call your name.

10. You’re done!

If you’re lucky enough to skip the tests, then congratulations! That’s it, you can breathe a sigh of relief (and remember to be kind to those that do have to take the tests). You can skip right to the end. 

Otherwise, here is what you need to know for the test:

Part 3: The Test

If you are from America or any other country not listed above, this is the part that everyone dreads. After completing the paperwork, you will take a 10-question written test about Japanese traffic law. This part is fairly easy and relies mainly on common sense. It is offered in English, so you don’t need to be too nervous about it.

The practical test, however, is the biggest hurdle in getting your license. In almost every case you will have to come to the traffic center multiple times before finally passing the practical exam. 

The traffic center begins to check paperwork from 3pm each day, so make sure you arrive by 2:50pm to secure a place in line; the earlier you are, the faster you will go through the process. They will check that your paperwork is all in order, and then have you pay the test fee: ¥2550 each time. You will be given a number and sent to the testing location. 

The practical test checks your ability to do what the instructors want rather than your actual driving ability, so you need to know how the test is conducted. GAJET has made a step-by-step guide, which you can find right here.

After completing the test, you will then go back to the main reception area to await your results. They announce all results together on a whiteboard, and your number will be written here if you have passed. If you have passed, the staff will tell you how and when you can complete the process. If you have failed, you will need to get in line to register for your next test date.

Driving Schools

Driving schools in Japan can be expensive, but they can also be very helpful in learning the particulars of the test. These are some of the larger ones in Gunma that may be worth a try. 

Akagi Driving School

赤城自動車教習所 
群馬県伊勢崎市赤堀今井町1-564
1-564 Akaboriimaichō, Isesaki-shi 
Phone: 027-062-0135
http://www.akagide.jp/

Minami Shibukawa Driving School

南渋川自動車教習所 
群馬県渋川市半田2700
2700 Handa, Shibukawa-shi 
Phone: 027-922-1945
http://www.m-shibu.com/

Yanasebashi Driving School

柳瀬橋自動車教習所 
群馬県藤岡市森新田221-2
221-2 Morishinden, Fujioka-shi 
Phone: 027-442-0671
https://www.yanasede.com/

Ohwatari Driving School

大渡自動車教習所
群馬県前橋市総社町総社1164-2
1164-2 Sōjamachi Sōja, Maebashi-shi 
Phone: 027-251-4037
https://www.ohwatari.com/

Maebashi Amagawa Driving School

前橋天川自動車教習所 
群馬県前橋市天川大島町1065-2
1065-2 Amagawaōshimamachi, Maebashi-shi 
Phone: 027-261-0840 
http://www.amagawa.com/

Isesaki Driving School

伊勢崎自動車教習所
群馬県伊勢崎市上諏訪町1499-1
1499-1 Kamisuwachō, Isesaki-shi 
Phone: 027-024-1515
http://www.isesaki-driving-school.co.jp/

NOTE: Be prepared for the first time to be more expensive, as you might have to pay a registration fee in addition to the lesson fee.

After Passing the Test 

As the foreign license transfer test always takes place at 4pm, you will have to return on another afternoon to receive your license. Follow the instructions given to you by the reception staff after you have passed your test for when and where to return to.

You will do a few parts of the licensing process with the Japanese test passers; however, much of it will be separate, and there is quite a bit of waiting and wondering involved. For the entire process of receiving your license, you are looking at another 1-5 afternoon.

Conclusion

And with that, barring anything unexpected, you should walk out of the traffic centre with a new, shiny (if a little boringly designed), Japanese driver’s license. We hope this guide is helpful in your journey navigating the complicated world of Japanese bureaucracy, and that it will save you some anxiety and frustration in the future. 

Remember that you are not alone and hundreds of ALTs have gone through this same process before you. You are not the first, and you won’t be the last. Don’t hesitate to ask others around you for help, as there are many great resources to help you out, such as the Gunma ALTs Facebook page, LINE group chats, your GAJET representatives, and even your friends and coworkers. 

You can do this! Good luck, and we hope to see you out on the road soon.

About Author

about author

Aidan Koch & Loïc Cremer

Aidan is a second-year American JET working in Kiryu-shi. He like long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners, but it can be hard to find those in Gunma so he settles for mountain hikes and ranting about how awesome Tōbu is. Coincidentally, he currently works on GAJET as the Tōbu Regional Representative. Loïc is a Belgian-born Canadian JET living in Takasaki. He is obsessed with games, sports, and travel, and enjoys writing both custom content for Dungeons and Dragons and short fiction. You can find him on Line as “Loïc Cremer 暮馬 呂蛇颶”, or contact him on facebook as Loïc Loki Cremer. He is very creative in naming his social media profiles.

1 Comment
  1. Helen

    Speaking from personal experience – don’t think you can skip taking the driving school. I did… and regretted it once I did (after 7 tries). There are things on the driving test you will never know to do, unless you go to driving school at least once.

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