The Japanese DMV: Another Hell

Everyone knows that the DMV is the worst place in the world. It’s worse than the dentist’s office. One DMV is worse than all of LA.

“Well, at least it’s not the DMV.”

“Well, at least it’s not the DMV.”
(courtesy of Google images. original artwork copyright Whedon, Lynch, and Urru.)

In Japan, it’s no different, and for foreigners, it’s even worse. Japan has so much bureaucratic red tape to begin with. Add being a foreigner who wants to drive, and you’ve got yourself a clusterfuck.

This isn’t true for all foreigners. Depending on what country you’re from, you might only have to walk in, show them your paperwork, and then get handed a Japanese driver’s license. (You know, basically.) This is because your country has been deemed safe by the Japanese government, because your car-related accident statistics are low.

If you’re not from any of the following countries, you are royally screwed:

Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, and South Korea.

Do you see the U.S. on that list? Neither do I.


Apparently, the U.S. has such a bad car accident rate, the Japanese government thinks we all must be bad drivers, so we have to pass a Japanese driving test in order to drive safely in Japan. I understand their concern, but I also just wonder if maybe they’re interpreting the statistics incorrectly. Like, maybe they’re only looking at the numbers and not actual percentages. We have more people and more cars and more land… There are a lot of factors.

EDIT 5/2/13: My friend brought to my attention that, in fact, America has a safter driving record than Japan (which doesn’t surprise me, the way people drive in this country), but the real problem is that America has 50 states with 50 different sets of driving laws (but they’ve gotta be similar for the most part, right?). So Japan doesn’t want to go through the hassle of checking every state’s record. I still don’t see how this justifies their system, but whatever.

Regardless, Americans still have to do more than the English or Australians, and it sucks.

Other ALTs have told me their horror stories. One ALT from my area had to go to the Menkyo Center (literally “License Center”) seven times. And that wasn’t even for the actual road test, which is difficult enough to pass. That was just to try to get enough paperwork so that they would approve her to try for a license at all.

Here are the rules: You must have a non-expired driver’s license from your home country. You must have been in your home country at least 3 months before you came to Japan and before you got your driver’s license.

And if you get your passport after your driver’s license, they don’t like that. Apparently they think that if you got your driver’s license before your passport, then there is no way to prove that you were in your home country 3 months prior to getting that driver’s license.

Even though you can’t leave your country without a passport. (Not legally anyway.)

I got my driver’s license in December of 2008, and I got my passport… last July.

So yeah, I was pretty screwed. They also wouldn’t like that I got my passport so close to when I entered Japan.

Not to mention that the people at the Menkyo Center don’t speak English and don’t have anyone who could, so that makes it even more difficult. If you get rejected and can’t explain yourself properly, then what are you supposed to do? Leave and come back another day with more paperwork.

Seven times.

Several ALTs have told me that they’ve just cried at the Menkyo Center because they were so frustrated. The Menkyo employees were mean and impatient and did not want to deal with foreigners. You may hear stories about how Japan is very welcoming to foreigners. Well, they are.

If you’re not staying.

Anyway, I didn’t want to go through that. I wanted to avoid stress as much as possible. So I got ALL THE PAPERWORK together—every paper I have that has my name on it—and even then I didn’t feel like that was sufficient.

So I e-mailed Enoguchi.

I made arrangements with him and the two other new ALTs in Minamiboso to go to the Menkyo Center together, to get everything out of the way. Having a Japanese person there to help negotiate would help a lot.

Turns out it was a lifesaver.

We went on the last Wednesday of Spring Break, April 4th. Enoguchi drove us up to Makuhari, because he’s awesome like that. He did a lot of research to lead up to this, too—he knew exactly what we needed and where we needed to go. Apparently he also talked to Kim beforehand, asking what he should bring.

Kim: “Any paperwork you have on them. Everything. Bring it all.”

Because that’s seriously what we would need.

Especially since my license expired at the end of February. :X

Luckily, California lets you renew your license through the mail, so my mom had sent in the paperwork and I already had my brand new license with me.

First, we had to get our licenses translated, so we did that and then headed to the Menkyo Center. Unfortunately, the Foreign License Change window at the Menkyo Center is only open literally for an hour a day. These are the hours for the window:

9:00 A– 9:30A

1:00 P– 1:30P

Umm. What. Who the hell decided that was a good idea?

This guy.

This guy.
(courtesy of Know Your Meme)

We got there too late for the morning session, but we were hungry anyway, so we went to find some food. Enoguchi drove us to a mall, and we bought him lunch, since he was taking time out of his schedule to help us out.

Usually ALTs don’t bring their supervisors to the Menkyo Center, even though Enoguchi pretty much took us everywhere in our first week. If we had been doing this back in September, I’m sure it would have been one of those things that he helped us out with anyway. The only difference being, the Menkyo Center is up in the Chiba City area, while everything else was done locally.

So he was a little nervous that the other ALTs would be jealous, since the BOE didn’t do them the same favor of sending their supervisor with them to the Menkyo Center. He said that we would just come up with a story, that we were all just in the same area by coincidence and he came along with us to the Menkyo Center because he had some free time. Haha! He didn’t need to worry, though, because several ALTs in Minamiboso told me to ask Enoguchi to come with us. So they wouldn’t be jealous; they totally sympathized.

When we went back to the Menkyo Center, we were the first in line, but we didn’t realize that we should actually form a line, so we ended up actually being third in line. Haha, oops. But it was okay.

We handed in our paperwork and then waited for them to call our names. If our paperwork was sufficient, they would give us the written test that day. (We had to schedule the road test for another day.) If not, then we would have to come back and bring more paperwork.

Or just give up, sell our cars, and buy a bicycle, which was a serious consideration for me. I mean, I walked everywhere in college—and I mean everywhere—so it wouldn’t be that different. I’ve had to walk for an hour to get groceries before. You know, whatever.

We waited, and waited, and waited, and finally, they called me up. The look on the guy’s face told me that this wasn’t going to work out, that we would have to start seeing other people, that it was okay, I would find another nice mode of transportation, there were plenty of other wheels on the road.

Enoguchi walked up with me, and the man explained that… something. I didn’t understand. xD But basically, it was the exact problem I thought it would be. My license and passport dates didn’t satisfy them, so they needed proof that I was in the U.S.

Which I was, because it was my first passport, and you can’t leave the country without a passport. -_____- Sighhhh…

They asked if I had any proof—anything with a date on it around the time I originally got my driver’s license. The man asked if I had any shopping receipts even.

What? Why the hell would I still have shopping receipts from 2008? Even if I did, why would I bring them to Japan?

All I had was tax papers saying that I was a U.S. resident in 2011 and a 1099-MISC for a job I had in July. However, I also had a flash drive with my JET Application and my college transcripts (Unofficial, because I can’t find the scans I did of the official ones). I asked if those would suffice, but the man said that since they were on a flash drive, they couldn’t accept them.

Then Enoguchi pulled his laptop out of his bag, like a rabbit out of a hat, and we opened my files on his computer, just to check. We showed the man my application, with the dates when I was in Santa Cruz. It literally just said “University of California at Santa Cruz Sept 08 – Jun 12.”

And apparently that was good enough. If we had a paper copy.

Enoguchi apparently didn’t listen to Kim’s advice, because even though he had a copy of my JET Application, he didn’t bring it that day. We asked if we could use their printers to print my copy, but they said no. The man said that if we could bring him a copy by 3:00 (about half an hour away by this time), then he could make everything work.

In the meantime, Jeff’s and Mike’s paperwork went right through. Lucky bastards.

Jeff said that we could probably print from a USB at a combini, so Enoguchi and I left to find one while Jeff and Mike took the written test. Luckily, there was a Lawsons right across the street. I knew you could make copies at a combini, but I didn’t know you could print from a USB! I guess when they say “convenience store” they MEAN convenience store.

We printed out my entire application, paid like 20¥ (~0.20 USD), and then ran back across the street to turn in the paperwork.

After that, it was smooth sailing. I took the written test, passed, and we all scheduled our road test for the same day, in May.

I think it only went as smoothly as it did because Enoguchi was there. I wouldn’t have understood what they needed to approve my paperwork, so I would have ended up coming back with more insufficient paperwork. If Enoguchi wasn’t there, I wouldn’t have been able to ask any questions either—what they needed, why exactly I was being rejected, what I could do with my flash drive, etc.

I mean, even if I brought in my JET Application myself, they probably wouldn’t have accepted it. I think the only reason they accepted it was because Enoguchi explained to the man who he was and who I am—namely, “I work for the city, here’s my card, and this girl is an ALT employed through the JET Programme, so her stuff is legit, trust me, I’m official.”

So I’m so glad he came with us. It really just made everything go smoothly. I think it helped just to have a Japanese person with us at all, because I’ve heard that they tend to be nicer to you if you have a Japanese person with you. It was probably even better than Enoguchi works for the BOE—our employer.

So that was a relief. Now all I have to do is pass the road test, which I won’t. I’ve heard that hardly anyone passes their first time. Or their second time. Or their third time.

Seriously. Look at this. It’s a Jackson Pollock painting.

driving course

…Yeah. So. We’re all gonna practice together.

Tips for Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

Bring your supervisor, or at least a Japanese friend. Seriously.

And here’s a helpful guide that pretty much says it all:


Menkyo Center n. Japanese DMV. Literally “License Center.”

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13 Responses to The Japanese DMV: Another Hell

  1. Chelsea says:

    Feverishly taking notes to prepare for my JET adventure time when it rolls around.

    Which is odd of me, because this is a blog and I could just bookmark it.

  2. Kim says:

    Good luck! The only really hard part about the road test is that you are going from a TINY MINI car to a giant decommissioned taxi.. the previous ALT in Chikura who was driving a normal sized car his whole time there had no problem passing on the first try.

    Maybe you will get the guy I had who loves Biwa and paid no attention whatsoever to my test (because he just wanted to talk about biwa…) That guy was great…

    Make sure you read up on ALL of the rules and do EVERYTHING they want you to do, even the stuff that makes no sense.
    OH and if you get there an (hour?) early you can walk the course beforehand which helps a lot!
    The crank is the hardest part.. I think you can back up twice.. USE those back ups if you need them!!

    Thats awesome that Enoguchi helped you guys out… that would have been a much less stressful experience if I had been able to go with someone else O_O good idea.

    • Thanks for the tips! I drove a ginormous car in the States, so maybe I’ll be okay…??? I feel like I drive like I have an enormous car anyway… But we’ll see.

      Yeah, I’m reading every guide I can find, and I think I’m going to try to walk around the course. I’ve heard about the crank. BLARGH! Why does that sort of thing exist? They need to plan their roads better…

      Yes, it was very helpful. We’re really lucky with Enoguchi. I read that some other ALTs brought their supervisors, so I thought I’d try it, and then other people recommended it, too. Sometimes the supervisors won’t come with the ALTs… But Enoguchi is awesome.

      • Kim says:

        Yeah the crank is LAME. I also drove a big and long car in the states, but I guess I got used to the blue car and just couldn’t judge how much space I had in the crank and actually hit a cone!!!
        My second go-around, the tester actually talked me through the crank, going “Ok now back up a bit.. I’m looking for you, a little more, OK! you’re good!”
        Really don’t think that is allowed >_> but I wasn’t going to complain.

        Good luck! and remember that a lot of the test has nothing to do with real world driving, so thats why they make you do stupid things.

  3. teckset says:

    I completely sympathize with you. I’m an ALT over in Kyushu. It was only through the assistance of my Supervisor that I passed all the hurdles to get my license. One day of daikyuu to submit my paperwork; a Sunday to visit the licensing center to do a practice drive in a borrowed car because my car was too big; and another day of nenkyuu to take the written test, the eye exam, and the practical. I passed it on the first try and that was only after loads of prep work and at least an equal amount of luck.

    Different prefectures and different examiners will yield different results, but if you haven’t taken your driving test yet, then it’s always a good idea take at least one lesson at a driving school to get some tips. Triple tap your brakes when slowing down; wide right hand turns that bear left; really sharp left hand turns; no braking just accelerating into curves; always check forward safety from the right to the left; make left turns from the far left and right turns from the far right of your lane after doing the triple check of rearview mirror, side mirror, and neck turn; before you make your left turn, doing a left side motorcycle check; check for oncoming cars before you open your car doing when getting in or out; and the most important thing I found was that despite the rule being that you make right hand turns into the left most lane normally, if you will make an immediate right without enough distance to safely change lanes, then you are supposed to turn into the right most lane immediately.

    I cannot recommend driving the course at least once any more strongly. It will really help your nervousness. Also, memorizing the course will be a big help. Walk the course before hand if you have time and good luck if you haven’t already passed!

    • teckset says:

      Meant to say, “check for oncoming cars before you open your car DOOR when getting in or out.”

    • Why, hello there! Thanks for your comment. How’s Kyushu? :O I’m actually jealous that you don’t live on Honshu, but then again, I wonder if it’s really any different. And I do feel lucky about my location, I guess.

      Anyway, yeah. I had a terrible time getting my license. Thank you for your advice and your sympathy! (Haha.) By the time you posted this comment, I actually already passed the test and everything. So even though your advice came too late, it’s appreciated! Do you mind if I pass it on by entering it in my post about my DMV experience?

      That post is coming up soon. I just haven’t posted in a while because… ugh. The process of getting the damn license actually made me really depressed for a long time. At least it’s over now.

      I’ve heard that Chiba is one of the stricter prefectures on the test. How is Kyushu?

      Also, do you mind if I ask how you found my blog? O:

      • teckset says:

        Hi there! You’re very welcome. Kyushu’s good; though, it looks like we’re in for some stormy weather this weekend. I’m so glad tsuyu is over, but the mercury keeps climbing. I’m placed in a pretty inaka area, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the inaka is pretty much the same all over. How’s Honshu?

        You’re welcome to pass along my advice as long as you correct that one typo. Oh, a nice little credit to go along with it would also be appreciated. Did you make it on your first try?

        As to how I found your blog, I was just doing so searches for Driver’s license horror stories to pass the time. Yours came up and I thought, wow, we’re contemporaries, so I thought I’d toss in my two cents worth to help another JET if possible. JETs have to stick together in my opinion.

      • Okay, thank you!

        Ugh. I hate hot weather, so this is the time of year that is hardest for me. Blaaaargh. Honshu is good. I just went to Osaka this weekend, which was a lot of fun. Osaka > Tokyo, in my opinion. :D

        Thanks for the info! I wasn’t sure if my blog would pop up for anything. Interesting.

  4. Pingback: Five Stages of Grief and PTSD | The Grand Adventure of El

  5. mthuresson says:

    I just came across your post about your experience getting a Japanese license. Funny! I blogged about this myself, please have a look!

    • Hey, thanks for reading and commenting! Yes, I think we can all agree that the Japanese DMV lives up to the DMV’s reputation as being horrible. Guess it’s the same in every country.

      It’s interesting that your course was different! I mean, the map is basically the same, but we had a different route in Chiba. Guess they don’t want people to “cheat.” As though you could possibly cheat on a practical driving exam.

      I gathered with a few JETs last week, and one of them mentioned that, actually. Someone trying to get a driver’s license knew no Japanese at all, so one of the JETs I was with asked if it would be okay if she translated for the other person. The tester said no, because she might give the person the answers. Which… like… what??

      Anyway, thank you for sharing your experience as well!

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