Converting to a Japanese driver’s license

So I decided to get a Japanese driver’s license since I plan to be here for a while and will probably rent a car every now and then when I travel. I haven’t really confirmed this, but the phrase that I’ve been hearing and using has been 外国の免許を切り替える (がいこくのめんきょをきりかえる). It means to switch your  foreign license.

After studying some posts from other Americans in Fukushima prefecture who’ve taken the driving test, my plan was to:
1. Take driving classes in March/April
2. Take the test once and pass.

Since I don’t need a car to commute to school (not to mention, discouraged, since getting into an accident on my commute would make my school liable), and getting a Japanese DL from on my own initiative, I was pretty much on my own in navigating everything, with some help here and there from other American JETs who went through this experience.

I signed up at a driving school that a friend recommended, and reserved 1-hour sessions at the front desk. Each session was 5400 yen, and I went through 3 sessions that taught me  the order you have to do before you step into the car, once you step into the car, what to do when changing lanes, how to take on curves, and what to do when you’re on a hill or railroad crossing. I got to practice all these, as well as the dreaded S and Crank curves. On the actual test, the hill and railroad crossings weren’t tested, so I got a little more from the classes on what is expected from drivers in Japan. Since I don’t drive on a regular basis, the classes also helped me get used to driving on the left side of the road.

I signed up for the actual test a few weeks in advance, making sure I had enough time to take the courses, as well as compile my documents. The Fukushima license center requires:
1. Proof of your residence in Japan from city hall (200 yen)
2. A translation of your foreign drivers license from Japan Auto Federation (3000 yen, plus 392 postage)
3. International Driving Permit
4. American Driver’s License, with a date issuance that proves that you’ve driven for at least 3 months in your home country.
5. Passport, with a date issuance preferably before that of your American Driver’s License. The issuance dates are important as they further prove that you were actually living in your home country and reinforces your driving history there. Apparently, if your passport issuance date is after your DL issuance date, and is short of the 3 months required, it conflicts with your driving history in your home country, as there is no other proof that you were actually in your home country.
6. A photo, 3×2 cm.

If the issuance dates on your DL or passport are short of 3 months before you left for Japan, you’d need to bring your driving record which you can request from the DMV. I sent out for this just in case, but it was pretty late, so I didn’t receive one in time. Luckily I didn’t need to present it.

On the day of the test, the first thing they give you is a survey that asks for your driving training history, including what you had to do for your provisional license, as well as the official license. For the provisional license, they asked (in no particular order):
1. What tests did you do for the provisional license? Vision, Road Rules, Driving
2. How many hours a day did you train? How many days a week? How many hours in total?
3. How many questions were on the Road Rules test?
4. What car did you drive when you were training? The driving school car? Your own car?

For the official license, they asked, in addition to similar questions to the above:
1. Did you test on a driving course or on public streets?
2. Did you test with an AT or MT car?
3. How many minutes was your written test?
4. How many minutes was your driving test?

So after you answer all these questions, you wait and wait, and then they’ll interview you more thoroughly on the same questions, while also taking notes.

Then you wait and wait, while they confirm that documents are ok and complete, to take an eye test and written test. The written test is a T/F test consisting of 10 questions, and is available in English. I think I got 100% because they just said I passed, while others have said that they were told how many points they passed with. /humblebrag

After the test was lunch break, and they allow you to walk the course. Everyone recommends walking the course, and it was certainly really helpful to imagine myself in a car and knowing which turns to take. After the lunch break, more waiting, as they test Japanese people first on a different course.

Once it was my turn, the test facilitator gives a model drive of the course, and then picks someone to start first. Usually there are 2 foreign people scheduled to test for the day, so you’ve got 3 people in the car. The facilitator watches you drive with a poker face, until you do something really stupid that would auto-fail you, (like hitting the poles on the crank curve, or not stopping for the flashing red light), at which point he’ll tell you, “STOP STOP STOP, YOU JUST HIT THAT” or “THE RED LIGHT’S FLASHING, CAN’T YOU SEE IT?!?” and you think to yourself, “It’s over…”

At the end, if he’s a nice guy, he’ll ask if you were nervous, then give you a run-down of things to watch out for next time, but doesn’t tell you whether you’ve failed or not.

Then you go back up into the waiting room and wait some more to get your results. If you failed, you get zannen, and they’ll ask you when you can come back in again.

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