Understanding the Mechanics Behind Driver's’ License Centers in Japan

It’s a huge responsibility to operate heavy machinery, which is why there a number of tests that a person must undergo before being issued a driver’s license. The regulations regarding the procedure, as well as the procedure itself that leads to acquiring a driver’s license,  is different in every country. Some have stricter guidelines, while others are easier to bypass.

Though it may seem cool to be able to drive in Japan just like actors would in Tokyo Drift, reality has never been further. There is a reason Japan’s railway system is so popular, and why not everyone owns cars. Not only is commuting much more cost-efficient and less stressful, it’s also hard to drive on Japanese streets. Plus, it’s incredibly difficult to acquire a license in Japan, especially if you’re from a country that required you to get a visa to enter.

Driving A Car Around Japan

Having a driver’s license is a little more uncommon than usual for a resident in Japan, especially in busy cities like Tokyo and parts of Kyoto. This is because their train public transportation system is super-efficient, so much so that anyone could get to one tip of the island to another by hopping from one train station to the next. However, cars can come in quite handy when traveling to and from more rural areas of Japan.

Abide By Japanese Driving Rules

Driving a car, and obtaining a license in Japan means you’ll have to be at least 18 years of age. If you’re not from Japan, you’d better get used to right-hand driving (the steering wheel is found on the right), cruising on the left side of the road. It’s best that you’re familiar with a little bit of Japanese in case you see road signs that are only expressed in their language. Most of the time, though, the English translation would accompany them.

The fastest you can go is about 100 kilometers per hour (or 80 kph, depending on the road), while urban areas limit you to 40 kph. Bigger roads let you go at 60 kph. Though the main roads are spacious enough, many other roads are narrow. Expect to pay the toll if you pass through any expressway. Depending on what part of Japan you’re in, you might be in for some heavy traffic.

Etiquette When Driving

Unlike many other countries, the Japanese are extremely polite when they are out on the road. Apart from a few hot-headed anomalies in the busier cities, most of Japan will let you go first without a problem if you ask. For example; in countries such as Italy or the Philippines, if you flash your lights or high beams, it means that you’re about to go ahead and that they should watch out. It’s the complete opposite in Japan, as they flash their high beams to let you know that it’s okay to go ahead.

How to Get A Driving License in Japan

A driving license is called an “unten menkyo”, written as “運転免許”. You need a driving license even if you were made to use something as simple as a motorcycle or moped. The National Police Agency supervises driving licenses in all of Japan, while the public safety commissions of the government of each Prefecture handles driving licenses on a prefectural basis.

Drivers In Japan: Strictly Regimented

For Japanese citizens who want to obtain their driving license, they must first choose to either go to a designated driving school or go to a non-designated driving school, which means they can learn how to drive on their own. If the student chooses the first option, then they may skip the practical examination, and just continue with the written test. For those who decide to take the second option, they must take both tests.

How the Exams Go

You take the test – or tests - by registering for them, and you do so by going to the driver’s license center, or “DLC” of the prefecture you are registered to reside in. The written exam is what is given first. It is simple; it consists of only 10 true or false items. To pass, you must answer 7 out of those 10 correctly.

After a couple of hours, you will be handed your test results – but not which items you failed to answer correctly. If you pass this exam, depending on whether you studied at a designated driving school, an appointment will be set for you to come back and take your practical test, which tests your skills in real-life scenarios of following proper traffic regulations. Failure of the practical test would mean you would have to come back another day and try again.

There are guides online that may give you the idea via practice tests of what the questions will be like when you take the actual written test. Websites such as “Japan’s Driver’s License” are incredibly helpful info about what to expect, as well as what to do and prepare to obtain your driving license.

How to Convert Your Overseas Driving License to A Japanese One

The name used for this process is “Gaimen Kirikae”. Firstly, there are required documents that you must search for, gather and submit, before anything else. These documents are namely your valid foreign driver’s license and all the licenses that you’ve had before that one, just in case.

Next, make sure that your foreign license is translated, which you can have done in the JAF, or Japan Automobile Federation. Take with you a 3 x 2.4 cm photo of yourself from the last half year, and if you’ve had any previous Japanese licenses, take those too.

Furthermore, you must show your residence card, also known as a “zairyu”, which should have your current residence printed on it, along with your “juminhyo”, or residence certificate that shows your nationality, and was issued no later than three months ago. Bring your passport and all the passports that have expired before that one. This is to prove that you carried your license in the country it was issued in for no less than three months.

Submit these requirements to your local license center. They will then tell you whether you are required to take a test or not. Those who live in a list of 24 countries that have an agreement with Japan (the USA is not part of this agreement) have the eligibility to not take the test, if they comply with the other requirements, such as having a visa to stay in Japan longer.

If you aren’t, all you must do is undergo a vision and color recognition check. If you do have to take the test, then you undergo the check and both the written test, training, and driving test. Once you pass this, you’ll finally get your Japanese Driver’s License.

How Long and What Does It Take to Do This?

Nobody talks about the fees that regular licensing schools entail (Around 300,000 yen), as well as how they are usually taught in Japanese and not English. Going to that school may take a month or so. Not to mention the time it takes to gather all the different documents takes a chunk out of your stay in Japan. If you’re not planning to stay long, it’s recommended that you stick to having an international driving permit, which is valid for an entire year.  

Different Kinds of Licenses in Japan

Not all licenses issued by the driver’s license center are the same. There are three classes of licenses. Provisional licenses, or 仮運転免許, are given to new drivers. If you have a provisional license, you must make sure that your black-on-white plates are visible on the outside of your car. Then, there’s the class 1 license, (第一種運転免許) which is issued to most people who drive private cars.

Class 2 license (第二種運転免許) is given to people who operate vehicles for a living, like a bus and a taxi driver. Class 2 licenses require the driver to be at least 21 years old, experience on the road for three years.

There are different categories of vehicle classes. Having a driver’s license does not mean you can drive all of them. There are details in each classification of vehicles. For a vehicle to be classified as a “Heavy Vehicle”, it needs to weigh more than 11,000 kilograms or have the capability to carry upwards of 30 people.

An ordinary vehicle license (普通) would allow you to drive only ordinary vehicles, small special vehicles, and mopeds. To be able to operate a motorcycle, you must acquire a motorcycle license.

International Driving Permits Versus Japanese Driver’s Licenses

Instead of going through the trouble of getting a Japanese Driver’s License, you may instead choose to acquire an international driving permit. This allows you to drive in different countries, as it gives different translations of your driver’s license, to be understood by foreign countries. You can acquire this back in your home country.

How to Rent A Car in Japan

If you are 18 years of age and have either an IDP, or international driving permit, or Japanese Driver’s License, you are allowed to rent a car in Japan. There are companies that are trusted to rent from, such as Nippon Rentacar, Times Car Rental, and Toyota Rentacar. Renting a car would set you back around 5000 yen for an entire day - that’s if you’re renting a subcompact car. Compact cars go for about 7500 yen, midsize cars hit 10,000 yen, full sized cars are rented for about 15,000 yen. Lastly, if you rent an entire van, you’d better get ready to give up 20,000 yen.

Insurance of about 1000 yen is added to the total. It is understood that the car would be given back gassed up completely. If you need to drop off the rental car somewhere for convenience’s sake, that option is available for a fee. Sometimes, that fee is almost just as expensive as renting the car, depending on how far you dropped it off.

Visit Your Nearest Driver’s License Center

If you have any inquiries about requirements or what it takes to drive in Japan, you may want to pay a visit to the driver’s license center or ward around where you are. Here, you can clarify any questions you may have about procuring a driver’s license.

Getting Your License Renewed In Tokyo

If you’re in Tokyo and want your driving license renewed, there are three places you can go; Fuchu Center, Koto Center, or Samezu Center. Out of all of these centers, Samezu is rated the highest, though at 2.9 stars versus Fuchu’s 2.5, and Koto’s 2.3. Don’t forget to take the necessary materials along, such as your old driver’s license, your alien registration card, a renewal notice (optional), and money to pay the renewal fee.

Renewal hours vary depending on the circumstances of your renewal. Note that it closes during most the holiday season. To make sure, it’s best to call and find out what their hours are or visit the place itself. The process should take a minimum of 30 minutes to a maximum of 2 and a half hours.

What if Your Driver’s License is Expired?

Japanese driver's’ licenses expire during your birthday, and this is done just so you won’t forget the date. It’s best that you renew during the 6-month window before its expiration. You may still be able to catch up in the next 6 months after the due date, but you will be made to sit through a 2-hour lecture.

The restriction arises if you don’t get to renew your license even after 6 months of its expiration. If this happens, you must repeat the process again of getting a temporary license, and take both the written and practical exams. If an entire year passed by the expiry date and you still didn’t get to renew it, your data is erased, and you have to begin from the bottom of all the application processes again.

If you live in a metropolis, it’s easy to get around by foot. Japan is not just made up of Tokyo, though, and there are locations on the map that are hard to reach by using public transportation. It will always be considered handy to be able to drive in Japan – for whatever reason may come out of the blue, just in case.