Friday, September 19, 2008

Getting your license in Japan

Okay, now it's time to get down to business: getting a license in Japan. I'm sure it sounds fun enough - not quite as good as some Jello pudding pops, but at least as much fun as the MVA/DMV back home, right? Ohhh, if you thought that was a pain then you don't know the half of it, mhaw, mhaw.

See now for some of the luckier amongst the foreigners here in Japan, getting your Japanese license can be a total breeze. If you just plan on being here for one year or less, then you can get by just picking up one of those international driver's permits at AAA for like $15 like I did at first. Only problem is, that only lasts a year. If you want to drive more than a year, you need a real license, and that's where it can get fun.

For the uninitiated, getting a license in the US is about as hard as beating my mom in a game of Super Mario Kart (and I'm pretty sure she's never even heard of Super Mario Kart). They should pass them out free with Slurpees at 7-11 or something. Getting a license in Japan on the other hand can be an actual achievement... depending on where you're from.

Remember driving classes back in high school? Well Japanese kids who spend their whole lives in Japan get to go to driving school to get their license, which takes months and costs around 300,000 yen... that's $3,000USD. They're guaranteed to get their license at the end of all of it, but I hear there's a 200-question exam at the end and you have to get a 95% or above, then take the driving exam. No cake walk, and takes a chunk of your savings.

Foreigners who have a license from home can just get it transferred though and skip the course. Simple, right? Wait, there's more...

So I’ll walk you through the process using my own experience. First, you have to get your license translated… but you’re not allowed to do it yourself, even if you’ve been translating stuff officially for about 2 years. No no, you have to go to JAF, which is the Japanese equivalent of AAA, and have them translate it for 3000 yen. What a scam. Oh, and of course this office isn’t in an exactly convenient location as there are only really 2 in the Tokyo area apparently… took me a good chunk of time too (at least 2-3 hours round trip).

Ok, so now that you have your translation, you have to take it along with your foreign license, your passport, and foreign registration card to the Japanese MVA. Now here it gets a bit goofy – they check your passport to see how long you had your license in your home country before coming to Japan. If you renewed your license within 3 months of leaving your country then they won’t even give you a license without an official driving record from back home… within a year and it’s the same deal or else they try to class you as a new driver and make you stick one of these spiffy “I’m a noob” stickers on any car you drive for a year. Shyeah, that’s gonna happen. When I talked to them, they seemed totally oblivious to the fact that when you renew a license they don't let you keep the old one and just expect you to carry it around with you.

Now at this point the next step depends on what country you’re from: if you’re lucky and you’re from a handful of countries including England, Germany, Canada (!!) and others, then you just pay them like 2100 yen or so and go pick up your license. If you are from the US, however, they group you in with the countries like Vietnam where people can’t drive and make you run the skills test gauntlet. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to argue that an American license is worth any more than just over the cost of laminating it, but how the hell did Canada get an exemption!!?? This is probably one of those things best not thought about too long unless you’d like to pop a vein in your forehead and die of an aneurysm, like how Celine Dion has somehow accumulated 5 Grammys over her lifetime.

So anyway, skills test. The place I went had whack hours for the tests… 8:30-11:00am and 1:00-3:00pm, no weekends or holidays for the initial step and Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:40am by appointment for the driving portion. The initial step is simple – eye test and a 10-question computer test with such mind-benders as “can you drive after drinking?” (Answer: No, unless you’re Chuck Norris) If you fail that then you either don’t understand English (yes, the test is even in English), or you don’t even deserve an American license. Oh, and even if you breeze through this, they've scheduled things to guarantee that you cannot get everything accomplished in one day.

Ok, so next it's time for the driving test. This test really isn’t that hard, but what it is is excessively anally nit-picky. They'll fail you for things like not being as far left as you could have been before making a left turn, not signaling exactly 30 meters before changing lanes and stopping on the line for a stop sign/signal instead of behind it. For this reason and this reason alone, most everyone fails on their first time excepting those that take lessons, and a lot of people take many, many more times, which sucks since you have to pay the registration fee of 2100 yen every time you take the test and wait until the next available testing date. I met a guy from Nepal (closer to Vietnam than the US on the driving scale) that said he was on his 7th time. My girlfriend who lived out in CA for a while said she failed her first 2 times and got scared by the instructor laying into her the second time, then passed the 3rd time after waiting like a year and taking a few brush-up courses for 20,000 yen or so. I myself got it on the 2nd try – 1st time hit a curb on their super-narrow S-section (nerves I guess), and passed the 2nd time.

So it took me 4 days spread over two weeks and about 9000 yen, but now I have my license again! Plenty of Japanese people that live abroad, even if just for a few months, will get their license abroad and get it transferred like my girlfriend did, just because of how much cheaper it is… 300,000 yen?!?!?? Compared to that, 20-30,000 yen is nothing. Wow, just wow.

So here’s the finished product – I’ll be writing a guide to the process and driving test in particular as a project for work for those interested, just give me a week or two to get everything together.

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