Getting Your Driver’s License in Hokkaido

So you want to drive in Japan? Oh, and you’re from the US?

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If there’s anything that’s super unfair, it’s for US citizens who have to go through different processes when it comes to getting a driver’s license in Japan (or paying taxes).

Koreans and British people easily swap their home licenses, while us Americans have to go through so many hoops just to obtain one.

Argh!

Anyway, If you’re going to be living in Hokkaido for more than two years, I say go for it. But, if you live in Sapporo, I think there’s no need for it. For the most part, public transport is pretty reliable, so the trains and buses are enough to take you to your destination. If you’re an ALT living in the inaka rural areas, though, you might need a car.

But there’s always the call of the road that you can’t ignore…You just want to get in that car and be on your merry way.

To help you get that license, here’s how to go about it. This is just general advice and one person’s account. For more specific advice, the Hokkaido Prefecture Police has more information about it. Check this site as well. When I had to get mine, I did a lot of “research” with this one blog post. It was really helpful.

Here’s my take:

1: Get your paperwork ready.

Because it takes a long time to get everything done. You need driving records from the US. You need to go to the JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) office, pick up the application forms, and get your driver’s license translated. You can also do this online, just print out and mail the forms, but I suggest you go into the actual office and talk to someone.

Plus, while at the  office, you can pick up their official driver’s guide for Japan, Rules of the Road. It’s available in different languages, not just English. I definitely think you need this for the written test. Some people have said that they don’t need it, though, that the test is common sense enough.

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You’ll then need to go to your local ward office and get the juminhyou residential record. You also need your old driver’s license, passport, and gaijin card. You also need photos that are specific sizes.

2: Set up an appointment to file the paperwork.

Once you’ve got all the paper work, you need to call the Sapporo License Bureau in Teine. Note, they only speak Japanese. Make sure you can understand the guy clearly or have a Japanese speaker make the appointment for you. They’ll be throwing a lot of information and dates your way, so you need to be alert.

Also, the most important thing to note besides the date is that you have to take the written test. 

3: Get your butt to Teine 

Once you’ve made that appointment, hop on the train to Teine. From Teine station, there are buses that will take you to the driving center. You can also take a taxi or have a Japanese friend take you to the center. Most times, the appointments are in the afternoon, scheduled around 1:00 p.m. so you have time to get there.

4: Be prepared to wait and wait…. and wait some more.

So you’re at Teine, now look for all the the non-Japanese people and line up where they all are. Just kidding! Well, kinda. In any case, look for the sign that says gaikoku or 外国. Last time I was there, the counter was at 10. You hand in your paperwork and they’ll check if you have everything. You’re also given a piece of paper in Japanese that asks you questions about your medical condition, anything that might prevent you from driving. The safest thing would be to mark things no on the sheet.

If you have anything missing, they won’t process your application right then and there. They’ll send you home to get that paperwork. You’ll have to go through steps 2-3 again and make another appointment for the test.

Okay, so when I went–I had several of my old US driver’s license and it took the clerk HOURS to square the timing of my stay in Japan with whatever information she had. I got to the center at 1:00 pm and she didn’t finish until 4:30 pm when they were ready to close up shop!

Waiting and waiting. This is where it comes in handy to have that guidebook. I went through it a second time.

5: Take the test: the eye and written test

Once your documents are good, you’re sent to the vision center where they’ll check your eyes. All you have to tell them is in what direction the open part of the C is facing. So learn the words for left, right, up, and down in Japanese. Or, you can always point, which is what they’ll allow you to do :).

That done, it’s on to the written test. I speak English so they set up a the test for me in my language. I’m not sure if they have it available in Chinese, Korean, Thai, or any other language, so please check.

Basically, it was a baru matsu, or O and X test, essentially true or false. Easy enough.

I got it perfect so I’m not sure what the passing score is. If I remember correctly, it might have been 80 percent.

6: Make another appointment

Yup, that’s where it ends. Once you pass the written test, you have to set up another appointment for the actual driving test. I was lucky that I had mine almost two months later–which gave me time to practice. But some people are able to get an appointment the following week–it depends on whether the time you file the paperwork is busy or not. I went in March to file paperwork and got my appointment for May 6th. I guess early spring is a busy time for them.

But, the good thing is, when I was setting up the appointment, the lady told me that I had the option of paying for a professional teacher to help me go through the actual driving course for the test. It would cost about ¥10,000 but you could book it any time. I thought about it but ended up not going through the options.

7: Practice!

Okay, with two months before the driving test, I had enough time to practice. But to be honest, I had been “practicing” for ten years before I decided to get my driver’s license. Since hubby has a car and drives all the time, I thought I didn’t need to get it. He finally insisted that I get mine because he was tired of doing all the (legal) driving. For the last ten years, I kept renewing my international driver’s license and used that to drive. It’s illegal, by the way. Just so you know, international driver’s licenses only have a limit of one year in Japan. I thought I could just keep renewing mine. If I got caught, I could pretend that I didn’t know about the rules. But the Hokkaido police actually know this fact. Luckily, I’d never been caught.

Make sure you get used to driving on the left side of the road, but the driver’s side is on the right side of the car. Remember that US and Japanese cars are switched–that the blinkers are on the right side in Japan and the opposite in the US. When you’re turning on the wipers, the flip switch is on the left side. Make sure you remember all this when you’re taking the driving test. It won’t do you any good to show how flustered you get if you make mistakes.

8: Test day: seminar first

On test day, you have to take the seminar–in Japanese. The proctors will explain the course in Japanese, but on the projector, there are English translations. Also, when you filed paper work, you’re given advanced notice of what the course will look like. It is the exact same thing on the paper and on the screen.

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The actual driving course. During the seminar, the proctor goes through in detail, what you are expected to do at each point.

However, you need to take this seminar seriously–or at least show the proctor that you’re serious about taking the test. If the proctors make eye contact, nod solemnly.

This all comes in handy when you’re doing the driving test. Note the parts where the proctors stress. They’re giving you the keys to pass. Basically, the theme is all about safety. Checking first before doing anything and then actually doing it slowly. If you don’t understand Japanese, make sure you go with someone who does so they can translate for you.

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You’ll have gotten this and the above sheet on the day you filed for paperwork. The seminar is the exact same thing that they go over. Make sure you follow along.

This is just a feeling but, I really think that me showing them my seriousness was a reason why the proctor passed me. She kept making eye-contact with me the entire time. Imagine my surprise when I was placed in her group. We were broken up into two groups. Five of us per proctor.

9: Take the test.

Become a 16-year old driver again. Harken back to the days when you were first learning to drive. Just remember that they’re not looking for skill, they’re looking for safety. It doesn’t matter how well you turn the corner or how smoothly you’re steering the wheel, they’re making sure that you’re not going to be a danger to other people on the road.

Before you even get into the driver’s seat, make sure you check around the car. Actually squat down in front and behind the car, look under the car. Check the right passenger side. Before opening your own door, make sure you check for on-coming traffic as if you’re stopped on the highway.

If there’s any take away from this blog post at all, it is this:

If you don’t do any of this checking, you automatically fail.

AND MAKE SURE THE PROCTOR SEES YOU DOING ALL OF THIS!

Again, it’s all about safety.

Once you get in the driver’s seat, put on your seatbelt, adjust the seat, check your back and side mirror and adjust anything that needs adjusting.

AND MAKE SURE THE PROCTOR SEES YOU DOING ALL OF THIS!

The second most important point is that your Japanese has to be good enough to follow the proctor’s instructions. They will not tell you in English, or whatever language you speak. Listen carefully and do what they tell you to do. Otherwise, you fail.

They’ll be giving you directions every step of the way.

Once they give you the green light, turn on that engine and pretend you’re on the highway. Check the mirrors and look behind you to the right before pulling out into the road. Turn on your blinkers way ahead of time before turning or changing lanes. Brake exquisitely slowly.  Don’t speed up too fast, even though they tell you to get up to 50kph.

Take your time and remember safety first. Drive slowly. Breathe.

AND MAKE SURE THE PROCTOR SEES YOU DOING ALL OF THIS!

10: Pass or fail

You’ll pull into the same area you started out off. The proctor tells you then and there whether you’ve passed or not.

I just remember the euphoria that went through my entire body when she told me I passed. I wanted to dance with joy, but I had to go back into the driving center.

11. More waiting

Either way, if you passed or not, you have to wait another two to three hours for your license or your appointment for the next try at the driving test. They’re all given out at the same time.

For those who failed, you’re given a sheet on when to come in for the test again.

For those who passed, you’re told to check the information that they will input into the system. You need to make sure that the spelling of your name, birthday, and address are correct. After that, you’re rushed into a booth where the same guy will take your photo. Be ready to take it quickly–and deal with that funky photo on your license–forever!

After that you wait for about an hour and then they hand you your brand, spanking new driver’s license.

Hooray!

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