6 June 2012

Getting a Japanese Driving License: Paperwork

Posted by Roland under: JET .

(Note: The following is based on my experiences in Kumamoto prefecture, so if you’ve come here and aren’t going to be testing in Kumamoto, your experience with the license center in your area may vary. That being said, there is still much here that can be taken away for your own personal licensing adventure. Best of luck getting your license!)

One of the fun parts for car driving JETs who stay the extra year is that they inevitably have to get their hands on a Japanese driving license. JET recommends everyone get an international driving license in their home country (and if you’re reading this now before you leave for JET, I concur, even if you don’t plan to drive cause YOU NEVER KNOW). Unfortunately, the international license is only good for one year. And no, you can’t just simply go back to your home country and ask for another one, you can only use one international license during your visa period, after it’s used up, it’s time to get a Japanese license.

Depending on your country, this can be a very simple process. Some countries have agreements with Japan in that they’ve exchanged driving information so Japan knows what goes on with their testing processes. In this case, all you need to do is show up with your home country license at your local Japanese licensing center (menkyo center, in Japanese) fill out a few forms, pay some money, and leave with Japanese license in hand.

Unfortunately, America is not one of those countries. The main point here is that every state has different licensing rules (thanks a lot, states’ rights) so its hard to get a country wide agreement because Japan would have to review every state’s licensing process. Canada has an agreement with Japan now, but not after several years of reviewing each province’s data to get to that point. I can only imagine how long it would take for anything to get done with states in America. Considering how DMV bureaucracy works, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

One thing that can be taken to heart is that the process of exchanging your foreign license for a Japanese one (don’t worry, you don’t have to hand over your home country license to them) is that it’s a lot easier than the route you would have to take if you were starting off getting your license in Japan. As has been vaguely described to me, there’s a lot of driving school involved which takes plenty of time and money. I also think you may not even have to drive on the test course at the menkyo center and your testing takes place at the driving school (as a sort of “final exam”). In any case, it seems like a very difficult process regardless and thankfully you’re not starting from square one if you have your home country license in hand. The license exchange process is (in theory) a lot quicker and the driving test you take is a simpler version of the normal licensing test (no parallel parking, reversing, 3 point turns, etc.).

For me however, the problems started with just getting my paperwork in order to even think about applying for a Japanese license. There’s a whole mess of documentation you need to get straight before you head off to the menkyo center. Translation of your foreign license into Japanese, a residence certificate from your local city hall. Most of it wasn’t so bad. The hardest thing you have to prove (which for some, will be very easy) is that you were in your home country for three months after you got your license. This means the license issue date. So you could have been driving for so many years, but if your license says April 2011 on it, they want some proof you were in your home country from April to June 2011.

One would think your passport would be sufficient for this. I can’t speak for other countries, but American passports do not work for this. I think the sticky point here is that you dont get a stamp for when you return/leave the US. You would think the Japanese entry stamps would be enough, but an argument that’s not worth discussing here because it’s not going to change the way the menkyo center thinks anyway.

So for your physical presence test, the simplest thing would be to use a university transcript. Most JETs are fresh out of college, so this isn’t usually a hassle. The hardest part is getting an original copy (can’t just print an online version here in Japan) but if anything that just takes some extra money and time. However, yours truly decided to wait several years after graduation so my university transcript would not fall in the three month period after I got my renewed license.

In my initial discussions with the menkyo center, they were big sticklers on any document I submitted being an original copy. That meant I couldn’t just print some form online, no matter how official it looked. This usually means there needs to be an original signature, seal, stamp, etc. on whatever you try to submit. That being said, when you make your initial appointment with the menkyo center, you’ll usually have to run down the checklist with them, so if your Japanese is good enough (get a friend, if not) you can describe the document to them and they’ll let you know if it’s good or not.

For those reading who may be in the same situation, there are several things you can try.

1. Usually the recommend non-university transcript route is to get an official driving record from your home country. Getting one from California was pretty difficult though so I didn’t fully commit to this route, but your state/country may be easier.

2. It didn’t work for America, but supposedly some countries will write you a letter stating you were in your home country for such and such a period. This kind of request should go through your country embassy or consulate.

3. A rental agreement will usually suffice, as long as the dates are clearly stated.

4. Supposedly utility bills with your address and dates of service can work too.

5. I went with getting a proof of employment from my previous job which said I was an employee of the company from X to Y, with the dates encompassing the three month period. I even got them to do it on official letterhead, with the signature and saved the envelope too. When you bring the proof over, any little bit of evidence helps.

6. I hear a tax return could also work. It didn’t work in Kumamoto (I asked) but this can vary by location.

I would also recommend getting a translation of the important parts of your document, just so the staff at the menkyo center have an easier time understanding what they’re looking it. They probably could read it without the translation, but nothing wrong with speeding up the process.

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