How to Get a Driver’s License in Japan

Having a Japanese driver’s license can help many foreign residents integrate themselves smoothly into Japanese society.

It has come to my attention however, that people who take the driving practical tests in Japan fail many many times (on average about 3 or more times).

I wrote this particular guide so that you can get a head-start learning the Japanese way of driving.

For this reason, we will first cover why you need a driver’s license, where and how to apply, and to know what to look out for during the practical driving exam. All this will help ensure you can conveniently pass without having to go to a driving school in Japan.

BTW,  if you want to cut to the chase, the guide for the practical test is in part 2.

As a note: This article will be an in-depth 2 part guide. The information provided here will include several tips by many people (friends, co-workers, and people met at the license centers) who all have failed at least once. We will go over why they failed as well as what is needed to pass. Most of the individuals who I met needed their driver’s license mainly for work-related reasons. Finally, I like to add that all have successfully acquired their licenses after reviewing this guide.

Why You Need a Driver’s License

  1. Having a Japanese driver’s license makes life more convenient.
  2. Even if you already have an international driving permit ( aka IDP), challenging yourself to acquire a Japanese driver’s license and possibly failing once or several times will help you learn to drive safer and become a better driver overall (even when you return to your home country).
  3. You’ll be forced to learn much more about Japanese roads, traffic regulations, signs, and the Japanese way of driving; raising your awareness for safety.
  4. A Japanese driver’s license  is much better than a driving permit to have especially when you get into an accident or some kind of trouble.*
  5. It gives you the right to drive freely anywhere in Japan.
  6. You become a better driver and a resident of Japan!

Bottom line, it doesn’t hurt to have a Japanese driver’s license. Having a driver’s license gives you the privilege and the freedom to drive all over this beautiful country of Japan.

*In regards to #4, understand that an international driving permit will not really help you if you are an actual resident of Japan.

If you have an international driving permit, it is better to get a driver’s license as soon as you can after obtaining your alien registration card.

I’d like to share that a friend of mine who had an international driver’s permit and got involved in a very minor accident where the other party was obviously at fault. However, the police made it his fault.

Reason: He didn’t have a Japanese driver’s license.

To clarify further, the police stated that because he was in Japan for more than 90 days, he is considered a long term resident.

What sucks even more is the police chose not recognize his international driving permit even if it was valid for several more months.

He was lucky however because he was a cool guy and he got a lot of help from his BOE (he’s a JET) and girlfriend (now his wife) to sort everything out. However, according to my friend, it wasn’t worth the trouble, the time, and the stress especially considering how minor the accident was.

Just to add, he had to pay damage related costs to the other party. Yes I know, it’s bulls$%t but looking at the bright side, he didn’t get deported.

Get a driver’s license if you’re a resident. Get a driver’s permit, if you’re a tourist.

Who’s in Charge? The National Police Agency

Japanese driving license centers are run by the National Police Agency (NPA). So naturally, your proctor during the written and the practical driving test will be a cop who specializes in traffic safety and awareness and traffic rules and regulations.

Don’t be scared or intimidated by Japanese cops. Japanese cops can be one of the nicest people you can meet in Japan. Some Americans don’t like the word cop as it make them envision trigger happy, pepper spraying jock cops but Japanese police officers are some of the most polite and respectable sub-category of people I have personally met in Japan; that is if of course, if you respect them.

It seems that the intention of having driving license centers run by the traffic police is to protect society by ensuring that driver’s know how to drive safely on Japanese roads. So do not complain about the inefficiencies of these driving centers. Safety is first.

Let’s Get Started: Application Forms

  1. First you must be a resident of Japan. You should also have a proof of residency (juuminhyou) confirmed by your city hall. Remember tourists with tourist visas will be rejected.
  2. Second, you must have a valid passport with a valid residential visa and an alien registration card.
  3.  You must already have a valid driver’s license from your home-country with a date of issue on it. You must have had your license for at least 90 days (with proof) in the country you were in.  If you do not have the issue date, you must contact your DMV or driving authority from where you got your license and have them send you a certificate with the date of issue on it to prove you had it for at least 3 months in the country. (They are pretty strict about this.)
  4. You will need to have your driver’s license translated by a recognized organization. You can get your license translated by JAF (Japan Automotive Federation) or by your respective embassy. JAF is much cheaper than getting it translated by your embassy.
  5. 2 photos of yourself (3cm X 2.4cm)
  6. At least 5,000 yen in cash.
  7. Any existing international driving permits (if you have any).

The overall point of the Practical driving exam for foreigners converting their licenses is to show you are a vigilant and a very careful driver who can follow the “Japanese way of driving”.

As a reminder, if you miss any of the top 7 listed above, the license center will reject your application and ask you to come back on a different day with the needed documents. Therefore, you must be prepared!  Just to be sure, call your local license center and confirm what you need to bring.

A Whole day Process

Expect to be at the license center the entire day. 

I repeat; expect to be at the license center the entire day!

It would be wise to bring some food, water, and a good book.

Furthermore, it would be advantageous to go to the driving center before they open. Most places operate via first-come first-serve basis. I arrived an hour before the driving center opened  and there were people queuing for a spot to get their licenses.

This is what it looked like at 0800.
This was for a different window I had to go after filling out the first form.

Remember that all the paperwork will be in Japanese so you need to know where to write your name, address, age, and etc. both in roman letters and in Japanese. You will also pay some fees and receive stamps and other forms for you to attach your photograph.

Cruise on to the next page to see the Process of Applying

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this. Your tips helped me a lot that I passed the second time. I failed the first time because i did not know what to expect plus my japanese was very limited at the time. I did some research and found this post and studied a little bit and learned some traffic vocab. its not about the skills but if you can drvie the japanese way like you said. Knowinng japanese is very important. Thank you.

  2. Casey,

    You’re welcome!
    Passed the second time? Considering many people pass the test by the 3rd time congratulations!

    Knowing your Japanese and your ability to follow instructions is key. Looks like you studied really hard!

    Drive safe and enjoy the freedom!

  3. Great article. I forwarded this to a friend taking the test next week.
    To the others that might think the driving test here in Japan is biased, don’t think they are strict on just foreigners. They are strict on everyone wanting to drive.

    Them being strict is working. Traffic deaths for 2017 are at a record low. Driving in Japan could now be considered a very safe thing to do compared to the world these days thanks to stricter test for getting your drivers license.
    https://japantoday.com/category/national/japan's-traffic-deaths-drop-to-record-low-under-3-700-in-2017

  4. Just got my Japanese driver’s license.

    You really covered almost everything I needed to know to get me license. It’s nothing to do with skill. you really have to know their ways. I got docked for not going closer to the left when parking and got docked for not using the parking brake when doing the mid-stop on the hill part.

    Weird system. its all about driving vigilantly and carefully like you said! I took it slow and looked everywhere.
    Much Obliged. Now I can nanpa on the girls!

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