Friday, October 3, 2008
The DMV or How I got my Japanese Drivers License
Hate going to the DMV in the States and its not much better in Japan, but it had to be done.

I drive a scooter to and from work. I could take a bike, but my schools are kind of far and a scooter is much more convenient. Plus I arrive at school a lot less sweaty and tired. My first year in Japan, I simply used an IDP (international driving permit) but its only good for one year. I had always assumed that I could just take a scooter test rather than having to go through the whole process of converting my drivers license but quickly discovered that converting was my only option. How could I have made such a mistake? Well, thanks to the internet, I thought there was a scooter license only test that I could take in English, but while the English scooter test is offered in every prefecture surrounding Yamanashi, it is not offered in Yamanashi itself and you have to obtain the license in the prefecture listed on your gaijin card. So that left me no other choice but to start the license conversion procedure.

I hadn't really prepared and started the process a bit late. I also ran into a ton of problems with getting days off from work to go to the DMV center and with finding someone to help translate for me at the interview. Sigh. The license conversion procedure is as follows:

Step One: Get a translation of your home country's drivers license

This was probably the easiest of all the steps. You can't just have any old person translate your license though. It has to be done via the JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation). You need to have a JAF application for translation that can be found on their website, a copy of your home country license, a copy of your alien registration car and a 3,000 yen processing fee. You can either take all this to the closest office or mail it in. They have a location in Kofu that is somewhat easy to access via trains however, their hours are not so convenient. Luckily, I manage to leave work a bit early one day and did everything in person. I showed up right before closing though and they asked if it was okay to mail the translation to me once they finished. I didn't have a problem with this and gave them a little more yen to cover the mailing fee. The translation arrived in the mail about a week later.

Step Two: The Interview

The next thing I had to do was setup my interview. They only conduct interviews at what is essentialy the DMV otherwise known as theYamanashi Prefectural Government Police Headquarters Driving License Division. A mouthfull, I know. It is located in Minami Alps, which is about a 50min drive from where I live. Not having a car and all, driving was not an option and there is no train station anywhere near the DMV. However, there is a bus that runs from Kofu to the Driving center.

Scheduling the interview was way more difficult than it should have been because not only did I need to get a day off (interviews are only held on the weekdays during working hours) I also need to get a translator to come with me which means they needed a free day too. I figured this wouldn't be too hard as the JTE I work with would have nothing to do if I wasn't in class anyway and she could just come and help me. However, I qucikly discovered that she had no intentions of helping me at all with the interview which left me sort of stranded because there is no way I could do the interview without someone to translate for me. I worked it out with the BOE and had my friend Janet come with me. I had to take vacation that day, but she did not. The BOE also let us borrow Satoru, the IT guy, to drive us to the testing center. Janet was really nervous about the whole thing.

For the interview, I preped in advance. Things you are required to bring include an offical JAF translation of your home country license, the actual license plus copy, your IDP plus copy, your alien resgistration card plus copy, you passport plus a copy of the picture and visa pages, and 2 3cm x 3cm pictures. I also had a copy of my driving recond that I had my parents send to me from Colorado and a typed out list with the answers to the following questions:

1. When did you obtain your driver’s license (date)?
2. Where did you obtain your driver’s license (city, state)?
3. When did you take your written test?
4. How long after did you take your practical driving test?
5. Where did you learn how to drive?
6. What was the name of the driving school?
7. How long and how often did you practice for?
8. What kind of car did you practice in?
9. Did you pay anyone illegally to obtain your driver’s license?
10. How many questions were in the written test?
11. Did you take an eye exam for your driver’s test?

I also know that you need to be prepared to speak about any foriegn traveling you have done, especialy if it was to countries like Thailand where you can easily pick up a counterfiet license. I had only been to Korea at that point and no one even mentioned it to me.

At the testing center they took us into a room and then gave me a worksheet to fill out that asked questions similar to those posted above. Janet ran into some difficulty with the Kanji on the worksheet so we had to skip a few. Then the interviewer came back and went over all the questions and explained the ones Janet had trouble translating. My interviewers was this really stern looking woman, but she really seemed to like me and Janet, which I think helped things run more smoothly. After about and hour and a half things wrapped up and they told me I passed the interview and would need to make an appointment for the driving test next. I could not make an appointment at that time as I did not know when my next day off would be.

Step 3: Driving Lessons

After the interview we hunted down Satoru and went to the building right next to the DMV, the Driving Center. While I alrady know how to drive, the driving test in Japan is more of a learned thing than an actualy test of your driving skills. There are 3 courses that you have to memorize because during the test, the tester will not provide you with any intructions. So, if on the day of the test you have to drive course A, you need to know where you need to turn and what you need to do for course A or you fail, even if there is nothing wrong with your actual driving.

Thus, lessons are highly recommended for helping learn the course. To sign up for a lesson, you can't just call and schedule one. You can only sign up for driving lessons in person so I figured it would be best to do right after the interview. When I showed up at the center I knew there were 2 types of avaiable lessons. Option 1 is a 1 hour lesson with instructor. Cost is 6300 yen. Expensive, but the istructiors know all the best hints and tips to help you pass. Option 2 is to practice with a licensed driver who has had their license for at least 3 years. Cost is 1260 to use the course. This option is way cheaper, but you need to find someone to drive with you and their car has to have a hand style emergency break. They also may or may not know what is needed to pass the test. I was planning on going with Option one till Janet mentioned to the lady at the counter that I didn't have a car and that it would be difficult for me to get to the center.

And thus Option 3 was revealed. There are several 'freelance' driving instructors who don't work for the driving center directly but who are essetnaly the same as driving instructors. Its like privatly hiring someone to be your instructor rather than via the testing center and many of them, espeically if they live in your area, are more than happy to drive you to the testing center. The desk lady looked up a few who lived near me and we called one up. He was a bit nervious to find out I was a foriegner, but agreed to be my instructor. I also asked for a 2 hour lesson rather than the standard 1 hour cause I didn't want to waste 2 weekends on driving practice, but wanted at lease 2 lessons, so I just did the back to back. My private instructor was also cheaper than the center instructore. It only cost me 1man for 2 hours.

I met the instructor at a nearby train station and we drove over to the testing center. While he didn't know much English, we managed to have a pleasant conversation on the way. At the center he took care of everything at the front desk and then it was off to the course. As I was saying before, you really do need to learn the course. There are sections where you are required to speed up to a certain point, which no one will tell you to do on the day of. There are also a lot of silly little things that you can lose points for. Here are some that I learnt during the lesson:

Procedures for getting into and starting the car:
check and make sure there are no obstructions around the car before opening the car door
Put on seat belt
Adjust seat, rearview mirror
Break
Put in drive
Release parking break
Look in rearview
Signal
Look in left side mirror (it must be left first!)
Look over left shoulder
Look in right side mirror
Look over right shoulder
Relase break and move forward.

Changing lanes:
Look in rearview
Look in left or right side mirror depending on direction
Look over left or right shoulder depending
Signal
Look in left or right side mirror depending on direction
Look over left or right shoulder depending
Change lanes

Parking and getting out of the car:
Must park the car within 5 inches from the line
Must not have the hood of the car pass the sign you are directed to park at
Put your parking break on before stoping the car
check mirrors before exiting the car

If you mess up anything, including the order you can lose points on the test. If it all seems excessive to you, that's because it IS excessive. This is why the lessons are important.

Step 3: The Written Test

You take this the same day as the driving test. A translator isn't really need for anything that happens this day, though it wouldn't hurt to have one with. It took me forever to get this thing schedule too. The first appointment I made was canceled at the last minute for some random reason. By the time I managed to find another day off to take it (or a day I could leave early to go do it, which is what ended up happening), I had already been biking to school for about a month.

This time around I had to take the bus to the testing center. Almost all the testing stuff starts at 1:30pm. Due having to work in the morning and the bus schedule, I wouldn't be able to show up till 1:45 ish. They got a bit huffy when I asked if that was okay but I just pointed out that they canceled my first test and they were magically okay with it. When I arrived, due to being late, I was wisked straight into a private room to take the written test. It is 10 true/false questions and you have to score at least a 7 out of 10 to pass. The test is avaialbe in Enlgish, Spanish Portugese, Korean, and Chinese. Some of the translations were a bit.....odd, so it took me some time to finish the test but I managed to score a 10 out of 10 without doing any type of studying.

Step 4: The Eye test

Right after passing the written test, they whisked me off to the eye testing area. They use this huge machine to do it. You look through the binocular things and they flash picutes of C's on the screen. First you have to tell them which direction the bolded C is facing and then you'll be shown several colors and asked which color you see. Super easy. I didn't even need to wear my glasses, which is a good thigh cause I didn't have them with me. Also, as a warning, if you wear contacts, be sure to let the eye tester know or take them out before the test. There was a woman who didn't do that and the tester person kinda chewed her out in front of everyone. After the test they give you a paper which you need to take back to the main desk.

Step 5: The Driving test

In between the eye test and driving test is a lot of wait time. I brought my ipod and studied the course maps. There are 3 courses, A, B, and C. Before the test gets underway, they have someone pick what looks to be a pingpong ball out of a box. The ball will either have an A, B, or C on it and that will be the course for everyone testing that day. I got stuck with course B. I didn't mind it though, I just didn't want to get stuck with course C. It was the most difficult one for me and also the one I practiced the least.

Before the test starts yo also have to fill out some paperwork with basical age, sex, name info. You had that in and they will hanko it for you. You will then need to another window with the hanko'd sheet and pay around 2500 yen. This is the testing fee and you have to pay it every time you test. At some point, someone from the driving test center will set up a desk next to the door. You will need to pay them 1650yen before starting your test. This is the fee you pay to use the course (cause the DMV doesn't actually own it, the driving school does.....a total money making scheme but it has to be done or they won't let you test). Once you pay, they will give you a slip of paper. Keep this paper! You will be required to show it to you driving tester before you begin.

On the day of my test, there were about 5 other people testing. Around 3pm they started the test and we all went to the course where a car was waiting. For the test, it will be you, the tester, and one of the other testees. There is some law requring that 3 people be in the car to avoid any bribe type situations. You will also be required to sit in the car during someone elses test. I ended up being a passenger for a woman who was taking the test for her 5th time! She failed when she made a wrong turn. I felt bad for her cause she was taking the maual test, which I hear is even harder than the regular test (you have to test specifically for a maual or automatic license here). When it was my turn, I did a brief drive around the course to warm up. You are allowed to run through the whole couse as practice if you want, but I didn't see anyone do that. I feel it would probably annoy the tester to have to wait that long for you to start. During my practice I sort of freaked myself out because I made the mistake of using the windshield wipers rather than the blinker. Its a mistake I made alot during my driving lessons too. I managed to get through about half the course just fine, but the made a turn and ended up in the wrong lane and automatically failed the test. It was rather sneaky though cause none of the lanes on the course are maked, so even though I thought I was turning into the proper lane, it was actually a lane going the wrong direction. Sigh.

So, Driving Test round 2. Took me another month to get a day off and this time I got the whole day so I could relax and not rush straight from school to the testing center. The A course was drawn this time which made me happy because it is the course I am best at. This time there were more like 20 or so people testing and there was even another American! We got to chit chatting and that was a lot of fun. He hadn't taken any lessons, which I think wasn't so bright on his part. I tried to fill him in on some stuff during the several hour long wait for the test to start. I had to pay all the fees for a second time too.

This time around my tester was the same lady who did my interview! First, I had to sit in the car while someone else did their test. She ended up automatically failing when she not only hit the barrier setup around the 90degree crank turn, but then panicked, hit the gas, and drove compleatly off the course. When it was my turn I was really nervous and my legs were shaking the whole time but I passed! In fact, out of the 20 or so testing that day, I was the only one who passed. Scary.

After that, its more waiting around while they get your paperwork in order. You'll also get your picture taken for the license.

And that was my 'get a license' experience. It's a really pity that I don't have a car to drive. Ha!

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