After more than one and a half years living as a Japanese resident, I have decided to stop procrastinating and attempt the conversion test for a Japanese driving license.
The reason for procrastinating was because I heard horror stories about it and how troublesome each procedure is. In summary, a foreigner should not expect to pass on the first attempt, and maybe not for the next 5 attempts too. Having limited paid leaves, I was reluctant to use them on driving tests. However, from year 2018, my company increased our annual leave to 24 days a year! That was the motivation to go for it; I was prepared to spam my leave just to pass the test.
Why do I have to take leave? The test center only operates on weekdays and there are only two timings for the test: 9am and 1.30pm. How convenient is that?
This part is only about the application process as my test date is set on 16 May.
Before moving on, the first question is why do I need a Japanese driving license when I can use the International Driving Permit issued by Singapore? That’s where the concept is wrong. I could used it only for a year, which applies to most countries, even Singapore. In fact, I still can use it now, provided I don’t get caught; not many police officers and car rental clerks know about this law. Count yourself lucky if you are doing it and not getting caught because it amounts to the same offence as driving without a valid license. The maximum penalty will be 300,000yen fine or up to 1 year imprisonment. As I’m a law-abiding resident, I take the legal way.
As a foreigner with a valid foreign driving license, you do not have to go for the full driving course; you can just apply for conversion. Depending on whether your home country has some agreement with Japan, you have to take a practical test. People from countries like Taiwan, South Korea and many European countries are exempted from the test. They are able to get the license on the day of application just completing paperwork. I actually think licensing is much stricter in Singapore than any of the exempted countries, but too bad we are not part of the agreement. Therefore, I have to suck thumb and go through the difficult way.
Unlike Singapore, where you can take the test in the driving school, everyone has to take both written and practical tests at specific test centers in one’s own prefecture. In the case of Tokyo, there are three centers. As a Kanagawa prefecture resident, I have to take the test in the prefecture’s only center, which turned out to be the police headquarters located at a place where birds wouldn’t lay eggs. The nearest station is called Futamatagawa, 13 minutes by rapid service from Yokohama.
I got my information from this pdf file.
Each prefecture has its own application instructions by essentially they required you to provide the same documents.
- Foreign driving license
- License Translation document
- Photograph (3.0cm x 2.4cm, blue background)
- Residence card
- Certificate of residence (住民票) with your nationality printed
- Proof that you have stayed in the issuing country for a period of more than 90 days (case-by-case)
1, 2 and 5 are what you already have. You do not actually have to specifically take a 3.0cm by 2.4cm photograph because I found out that they do cut it for you. However, I think it must be a coloured background (apparently blue). For (3), you have to make a trip down to the Japanese Automobile Federation at Hamamatsucho. Pay 3000yen for a paper translation of your license, which could take up to 3 hours (I waited for two hours). I have no complains for this because I took medical leave (had some skin problem) to see a doctor and guess what? I planned it such that my waiting time for the translation was covered by my visit to the doctor. That was all possible because I had heard about this inefficiency. They operate only during office hours, so it’s either you take paid leave/medical leave or get it posted to your address with an additional postage fee. And no, you can’t do bank transfer for this, you have to put in 3000yen + postage fee into an envelope and mail it to them. Sounds like in the 90s? Yes this is Japanese technology.
Forget about Honda ASIMO the robot, Shinkansen and the cool Japanese gadgets commonly shown to the world. Engineering in Japan is great, software is not. Efficiency is even out of the question.
As for (6), you just need to visit your ward’s/city’s office on.. guess what? Yes another weekday to pay 300yen for a piece of paper. Some offices open on alternate Saturdays for the morning so check if yours does.
My greatest worry was (7), because I read lots of stories about how people had a hard time proving that they stayed in their country for more than three months after getting their licenses. Turns out, this largely applies to licenses that need to be renewed, which puts Singapore out of the context. This is because if the issued date is very close to the date you arrived in Japan (whether it is a new or renewed license), they want to ensure that you didn’t come to Japan straight after getting a new license and pose a danger to their roads. So if you just renewed your license, you should have a document that states the first issuance of the license. Thankfully, I got mine 8 years ago and logic convinced the officer who checked my documents that I must have stayed in Singapore for more than three months. And thankfully, Singaporeans do not have to renew our driving licenses. If in doubt, just prepare a document that proves this point. If need be, collect passport stamps from your own country long before you come to Japan and get judged by the immigration officer cuz no one actually stamps in their home country.
I made the trip down to the license center on April 27, Friday. I used an off-in-lieu instead because I worked on a lot of weekends recently. This is another motivation too; as I get off-in-lieus, I can spam test attempts! I planned to arrive slightly earlier than the registration time which starts at 8.30am. When I entered the building, I was shocked to see so many people already sitting down and waiting. A lady in blue blazer directed me to write down my name on a list. I was number 20…
There are two registration times for the day: 8.30am to 9am and 1pm to 1.30pm. For the uninitiated, you would probably think that given 30 minutes, it is possible to register all 20 people. Let me tell you, NO. At that moment I already knew I had to spend the entire day in that building which resembles a canteen of my primary school, but 2 times larger. I could not understand why that can’t process 20 people in 30 minutes, but after spending the entire day there, I can assure you you will know why. Sometimes I think if the Japanese government would hire me, in 5 years time, kids would be able to speak fluent English. What is the link? Japan is slow and resistant to change.
Okay back to topic, what was happening in that canteen building? One-by-one, names get called and people approached the only one counter, managed by a man in this thirties, wearing a uniform I supposed to be the traffic police’s. He has a head shaped like a potato, and I resisted the urge to let him know he was wearing his tie clip too low; only about one inch above his belt. If I did, I’d have probably kiss goodbye to my application. There, he will check if the required documents are present for 2 to 3 minutes.
A couple of times, the lady in blue blazer came out of a door beside one of the canteen booths to confirm things with the applicants. I guess she must be keying the personal details into a computer behind Mr. Potato.
While waiting, I talked to a Caucasian man who was holding on to a number card that says “2”. He said we will receive this card after getting registered. I asked him what time he came since he got an early number. He said he started queuing up at 7am outside the gate. What…? How can anyone be more kiasu than a Singaporean?? An angmoh just won me in kiasuism? I can’t believe it. Then I went on to talk to an Indonesian couple who was holding on to “1”. Both of them came the day before to apply but the wife forgot to bring her passport, so she was automatically assigned number 1 for this day.
Although the registration time was stated to end at 9am, people continued to get called past 9 and I was called around 9.15am. Oh I thought I had a chance! Unfortunately, the only good news was my documents seemed to be fine and I had to come back in the afternoon as they cannot process so many people in the morning. Alright fine, as expected I thought. I was number 6 for the afternoon round. Not bad, they managed to clear 14 people.
I went back to the station and spent three hours window shopping and having lunch. There was a small mall with Donki Jote, Nitori and Yamada electronics. I went back to the canteen-like place and my wait continued. At around 1.15pm my name was called and this time, after confirming my documents, Mr. Potato took away my passport, residence card and Singapore driving license, most likely for Blue Blazer lady to copy and record them. Mr. Potato then asked me to wait for 1.5 hours, like it’s normal. He was like, please sit and wait for one and a half hours. IT IS NOT FREAKING NORMAL! Sorry I am a damn impatient person. I had no choice. He had the chips.
It was rather uneventful for the next 1.5 hours, besides for a couple of interesting things. People, mostly locals who passed the test in the morning were able to collect their licences. They were told to gather in a yellow box while they were briefed on how to collect their licences, which was basically to queue up in 2 rows, check their name after receiving and approach a machine at the entrance to confirm their identity. I was thinking, why are they being treated like school kids?? Congratulations anyway, for most of them were in smiles after they exchanged a slip of paper for their photo card licenses.
A lady came to sit beside me, holding an envelope. Suddenly, she turned towards me and asked, “Filipino?”. I thought I heard wrong so I said, “Sorry?”. She repeated, “Philippine?”.
“No, Singapore,” I replied, after making sure that she was a Filipino looking for a fellow Filipino in a canteen where birds wouldn’t lay eggs on a sunny Friday afternoon.
“It’s until 1.30?”, she asked. “Yes, I think the registration for today is already over”, I replied. So she was late because she went to get the 3000yen translation in the morning. I asked her to approach the counter to check if she could still register or maybe put her name down for another day, but she waited for around 40 minutes beside me before making the move.
For the afternoon round, besides me there was a Canadian, a Korean, an Indian, an African with a baby (not sure which country), a Cambodian with a companion, a Chinese and a guy with Eurasian looks with a companion, much less than in the morning. I should have came in the afternoon instead, I thought.
Lesson learnt: Want to be kiasu, go all the way, don’t kiasu halfway. If you miss the kiasu window, go YOLO.
At around 2.45pm I was called again. I approached Mr. Potato, who had changed his position to a booth at the far left of the canteen. This time, he had filled up an application form for me, or was it Blue Blazer lady? The thing is, he handed me a filled up form and asked me to insert Furigana above my name written in English, and my address. Like.. WHY CAN’T YOU FILL THOSE UP TOO? OR LET ME WRITE EVERYTHING MYSELF! Did you seriously just spent 1.5 hours writing my name, birthday and some other small information?? That’s not all.. after doing that I was required to go to another building to pay the application fee of 2550yen.
First, why can’t the payment be done at the same place??? Second.. oh my fucking goodness I wonder what era I had entered. The application fee was paid by buying three stamps (2000, 500, 50) from a counter at another building. And I had to fucking stick the stamps on the form like on an envelope! Hello, where are all the automation systems? Alright I just didn’t mention that a new building will be in place from May 7. Maybe the facilities will be much better. Maybe everything shall change from there. Japan, please prove me otherwise.
After doing that 1970s stuff, I submitted the form back to the booth. Not sure how long, but after a short while, Mr. Potato called me and the Cambodian, and ushered us behind the booth through a door located at the far left. I was expecting to see a kitchen but just kidding. There was a machine that looked very much like the ENIAC (first computer, google it to see). It turned out to be the machine for an eye test. Eye tests in Japan are administered this way: Instead of the usual Snellen Eye Chart with alphabets, you are looking at Pacmans without the “V” shape, basically circles with a cut on one of the four directions. You just have to say where the hole is; up down left right. The size of the Pacmans get smaller until they are satisfied with the results. I did similar tests with devices the size of a microscope so this machine is a mammoth, and it is bloody analog. Might have been made 50 years ago. Before checking out eyesight, Mr. Potato gave us a brief on the renewal of licenses and things like you can’t drive manual if you take the automatic exam, as if we already passed the test.
We were then told to wait for another hour to take the written test. At 4pm, 5 of us took the test and I was the first one to leave the room. Not bragging but if you know things like drink don’t drive and to stop at a red light, you should be able to pass the test. If you know things like not stuffing a four-year-old child into an infant car seat and not to park on a box that has diagonal stripes (common sense even though you might not know), you should get full marks. You need 7/10 to pass.
Then, Mr. Potato briefed us about the driving course. There is only one driving course. A major mistake (such as failing to stop at a stop line or mounting the curb) will be considered an immediate failure, so the goal is to drive through the course without getting deducted past 70 points; starts at 100 points. Yes we have to remember the course by heart so I took a picture of the course map. Thereafter, we were taken to the building where I bought the stamps. After another short wait, we were handed our application forms, this time with a small slip of paper which states our practical test date and time. The Indian guy couldn’t understand Japanese so I had to translate the instructions for him. I found out that this was his third attempt at applying, but at least and at last he succeeded! Why? Cuz they are so anal about paperwork.
Everything ended at around 4.30pm so I spent one working day at a canteen where birds don’t lay eggs, idling around. What a good waste of life. But at least, I completed the application!
However, I will change my test date because I want to book a practice session. The test sounds easy right? Just driving through a course. I hope it is easy too, but unfortunately, rumours are that they only pass you when they feel like it. People who don’t check their blindspots deserve to fail because I can’t understand why you don’t check your blindspot? That’s one, but things like “keeping as close to the curb as possible while turning left”, I didn’t think it had to be this strict. This test will be a test on how well you can take a driving test, not so much of how good you can drive. Therefore, I think I will need a practice session with an instructor who can tell me what the examiners are looking for, and of course to familiarize myself with the clutch of a 1990s comfort taxi cab. I am not kidding, the vehicles are these:
After some pondering, I think I know why the service was so bad and the system sucks so much. Well, Japan has no benefits for approving more road users, much less foreigners. They don’t have to treat us like customers. They are better off without us on their roads. But I will hold on, I will tolerate this bullshit, for the card.
Update 1 May: I called the center to change my test date.
- The number that they gave us was not in service WTF
- I googled the right number and called again, and got directed to a guy with fucking bad attitude. I was horrified that this was a customer service hotline, or maybe it was not. First, not using polite language while talking to a stranger is shunned. Guess he probably wasn’t well educated anyway. I called a second time after he brushed me off for not having my application number (I took a picture so I was able to refer to it immediately). He asked for the test validity date which wasn’t on the photo that I took, so I apologized and said I didn’t have it with me. Then he kind of got irritated and told me something along the lines of “but I told you to call again after you have that paper with you, didn’t I?”. Okay my fault, I thought I could get through that. Decided to avoid an argument cuz my license is in their hands. Thinking about this makes my blood boil but let’s not stoop to his level.
Next up, practice session. I am actually prepared to fail 10 times.