Converting driver’s licenses in Japan

It was reported today that US actor Dante Carver, best known for his role as “oniisan” (elder brother) in popular Softbank Mobile commercials, has been reported to prosecutors in Tokyo for driving without a valid driver’s license. The 34-year old actor from New York reportedly was stopped for a traffic violation in July of this year and showed the police an International driver’s license (IDL), which was technically invalid as he is a resident of Japan. IDLs are only valid in Japan if you come here as a visitor, not if you live here. If you hold a Japanese Alien Registration card, as is required for any foreign national staying longer than 90 days, that applies to you.

Even though Mr Carver broke the law, I have some sympathy for him, because the law is anything but fair on this. Drivers from many countries can obtain a Japanese license if they have held a driver’s license for at least three months before moving to Japan, without having to take expensive driving lessons and a test as any fresh learner in Japan. However, this does not apply to drivers from the US. They do have to take a practical test in Japan again after already having passed a test in their home state. Americans are by far the most numerous nationality amongst Westerners living in Japan.

When I first arrived in Japan back in the 1990s, I was told by other foreigners that UK driver’s licenses could be converted without a test, but German licenses could not. Later I heard that this had changed and applied for a Japanese license, which was granted. I had to answer questions about how many driving lessons I had taken before the German test. They were particularly concerned about how long I had held the license in Germany before first coming to Japan. I needed to document at what date the license was issued, when I had visited Japan and when I had moved here. I even brought all my old, voided passports with entry and exit stamps for backup. It took two trips to the driver’s license centre to get it done. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to have it finally sorted out.

By contrast, when I moved to the UK, I simply mailed off my German license to some office in Swansea and received the UK equivalent by mail. It was equally easy to swap the UK permit back to a German one when I returned to Germany a few years later.

Others are not as lucky as Brits and Germans and do have to take the test. It seems ironic that people are allowed to drive in Japan on IDLs while they’re unfamiliar with Japanese roads, but after they’ve been here for a while and have more experience they’re no longer allowed to do that and are forced to retake a test.

Now you might think passing this test should be trivial for any experienced, safe driver. I would not bet on it, as a Japanese friend of mine found out to her cost. Japanese driver’s licenses have to be renewed every couple of years within a month of your birthday. When she moved to a different address in the same town she forgot to have her driver’s license updated with the new address. Consequently the post card to remind her of the upcoming renewal never reached her. Like most Japanese she mostly used her health insurance card for ID.

When she next looked at her license, she noticed the renewal date was more than 6 months in the past. She contacted the administration and was told the license she had held for more than a decade had irrevocably expired. It was like she had never passed the test. She would have to take a new test from scratch. Including driving lessons, this easily comes to 300,000 yen or more.

The tests are not what you would expect. For example, before you get into the car you must bend down and look underneath the car for rocks, cats, booby traps or whatever, otherwise you have already failed it. That’s just the start. Everything is totally exaggerated (not unlike Japanese manga or TV dramas, I might say 😉 ). The tester would not give you directions such as “turn right at the next traffic light, then left at the intersection” as you go. Instead they would show you a map, tell you where you are and then ask you to drive them to a particular point. You’re supposed to memorize the route. It’s like they tested would-be taxi drivers! Of course you’re not allowed to look at the map again while you’re in motion. You can not pull into private property to make u-turns or to check the map if you get lost. Basically, the way to pass the test is to take many paid driving lessons around the same streets where the test will be conducted to thoroughly memorize the area.

It all has very little to do with road safety: Apparently the driver’s license administration and the tests are mostly staffed by former police officers in Japan. They retire from the police service before the age of 65 when they receive their full pension, serving in these other jobs for a couple of years. The more inflated the bureaucracy surrounding driver’s licenses, the more jobs for semi-retired police officers there are. Make it too easy to convert foreign driver’s licenses into Japanese licenses and some of these jobs might go.

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