When I first arrived in Japan, getting a driver’s license was a piece of cake. I moved from a place that had a full reciprocal agreement with Japan concerning such licenses. Once I provided the basics like my name and address, showed them my ID, took a quick vision test, and paid the fees, I became the owner of a shiny new Japanese license. I didn’t even have to take the behind-the-wheel test or the written exam. Jealous?
Well, if you believe in karma, it was working in spades when I went to renew my license recently. Unlike my previous clockwork experience, this time around I spent four hours at the DMV, plus another three hours round-trip trying to get there. I would like to say that this is an isolated experience, and that you will pass through the licensing department in record time. But when it comes to your very first license renewal (shokai kōshin, 初会更新), three to four hours is going to be the norm. I can’t eliminate the basic requirements, but perhaps I can share a few tidbits that can help make your renewal visit easier. If you would like to review the official steps (in Japanese), click here to visit the National Police Agency web site’s page on license renewals.
What to Look for First
If the licensing bureau has your current address, they will mail you a 更新連絡書 (kōshin renraku-sho) postcard about five or six weeks before your birthday, letting you know it is time to renew. You can update your license during a two-month window, starting one month before your birthday. Don’t miss that timeline, as you will need to perform extra steps if you miss it.
The postcard also tells you where you can update your license. Normally, you can use one of the area police stations that performs license renewals. But because of the Coronavirus pandemic, first-time renewals are done only at the 運転免許センター (unten menkyo sentaa, Driver’s License Center). At least that’s the case where I am in Kanagawa prefecture. Since there is only one such center per prefecture, you might need to travel some distance, as I did. The postcard indicates the location, days, and times when you can perform the renewal.
If a postcard never arrives, you can still do your renewal. Just be sure to complete it within one month of your birthday.
What to Bring
The postcard also lists the items you should bring to renew your card.
- Your current driver’s license.
- The renewal postcard.
- Cash for any renewal, testing, or lecture fees. You can also bring prefectural revenue stamps (収入証紙, shūnyū-shōshi) if you have them, but at least at the Kanagawa center, they will sell the stamps to you right there. The price is listed on the postcard. In my case, the fees amounted to ¥3,850.
- A recent photo of yourself, fitting the official standards for driver’s licenses. At the Kanagawa center, the default is for them to take a photo of you on-site, so be sure to look beautiful after walking from the station in the sweltering heat. The postcard says you can bring your own photo, but I think I missed the chance to mention the photo I brought. As a result, my license photo looks just like, well, a driver’s license photo.
- For those 70 or older, the postcard indicates additional items that must be brought.
- If you will make changes to your demographic details (name change, new address), be sure to bring your 住民票 (jyūminhyō) or other evidence with you.
- Foreigners like me must also bring their residence card (在留カード, zairyū kaado).
Step 1: Fill Out the Application
Like all bureaucratic experiences in Japan, the renewal process is highly organized and conveniently numbered. Of course, it is mostly done in Japanese, but many of the steps can be performed with even basic language skills.
For a first-time renewal at the Kanagawa Driver’s License Center, my day consisted of six specific steps. If you are doing a renewal that has a lecture component at a renewal center in most large metro areas, I expect the steps will be nearly identical. For renewals done at a police station or in smaller prefectures, you might see some differences.
The process starts with an application form. At the renewal kiosk, insert your current driver’s license. You will be prompted to enter two four-digit numbers. They will be used again when you get to the photo portion of the steps, so don’t forget them.
The kiosk will print a ticket with those two numbers, plus an application form. At the nearby tables, print your name, phone number, and birthdate at the top of the form, then write your full name at the bottom of the page. On the back of the application is a series of yes/no questions. They ask things like, “Have you experienced sudden unconsciousness in the past five years?” or, “Has your doctor suggested that you give up driving?” The National Police Agency posts the full questions (in Japanese) on their web site. If you are able to answer yes to any of the questions, you might want to reconsider driving in Japan.
Step 2: Pay the Fees
This process is the easiest of all the steps. Simply hand some cash to the staff at this counter to purchase the necessary revenue stamps. There is a vertical rectangular area on the application form where you can paste these stamps. The staff can help you find this space on the form if needed.
Step 3: Take the Vision Aptitude Test
At the next station, your visual acuity is checked. In America, such check is often done by identifying letters in decreasing sizes. In Japan, they use a set of circles with gaps in them. You indicate which direction the gap points. If you want to prepare for this part, I wrote another article that describes vision tests in Japan.
While waiting in line to take this test, the overhead monitors indicated a second type of vision test that I think checked for depth perception. In that test, you had to indicate when three vertical bars lined up with each other. It’s possible that this test is only needed for drivers with specific vision problems. For whatever reason, I wasn’t asked to take that test, and I didn’t see anyone else in front of me taking such a test either.
Step 4: Turn in Your Application
At the next station, your application is checked for accuracy. While I didn’t need to change my address, it seems that this was the right place to turn in such documentation. This station had a very long line, but if you are doing a first-time renewal, they stick you in a line with just a few people. This seems like a win, but I think it is done only to ensure you get to the upcoming endless lecture on time.
In my specific case, the counter staff had me stand in a waiting area for an extra minute or two while they checked my residence card. Once that was complete, they sent me to the photo station.
Step 5: Get Your Picture Taken
The last pre-lecture step is to get your photo taken. I had brought a photo with me, but as they hurriedly sat me down and clicked the shutter on the camera, I didn’t have any time to object. If you did bring a photo with you, be sure to speak up before they capture your image.
Depending on your renewal situation, you will be given one of four pieces of paper: a pink card, a small orange card, a large orange card, or a white card. I don’t know what the others are for, but standard renewals get the small orange card. Show your card to the staff just beyond the photo booth to receive a copy of the Driver’s License Manual, the booklet used to prepare for the written exam. Don’t worry! Unless you were told otherwise, you won’t need to take any exam.
Step 6: Go to Class
For first-time renewals, the final step before getting your new license is to attend a two-hour lecture. In my case, this took place in the most well air-conditioned room in the building; the shivering will keep you from falling asleep. The class starts with a heartbreaking 30-minute video showing people who had been maimed for life in car accidents. After the movie, the lecturer regaled us with accident statistics and warned us about the dangers of あおり運転 (aori unten, tailgating) and ながら運転 (nagara unten, distracted driving).
A big surprise for me was that the topic of drunk driving never came up, something that would have been the focus back in America. Due to cultural, transportation, and police enforcement reasons, drunk driving accidents are a smaller concern here. Instead, the lecturer talked on and on about exercising “かもしれない運転” (kamoshirenai unten, “I suppose” driving). The idea is that as you drive, you should constantly say to yourself things like, “It is now safe for me to make this right turn…I suppose.” This is designed to keep you focused on all the dangers around you that could lead to an accident, dangers like pedestrians and cyclists who may suddenly enter your lane of traffic.
Although I wasn’t required to take a written exam, part of the lecture involved answering thirty self-graded questions that gauged your understanding of safe driving habits. Some of the questions were hard to answer and, in my mind, subjective. For instance, one question asked, “When you drive, are you confident in your abilities?” The correct answer is “No”; that is, you should always be questioning your confidence and driving prowess. Perhaps it is my American upbringing, but if you have to answer “No” to this question, I wonder if you should be driving at all. Maybe I misunderstood the question, but I expect that cultural differences between Japan and the US are at the core of why I struggled with some of the prompts.
Assuming you passed through all six of these steps in one piece, you will be given your updated license upon leaving the lecture room. Congratulations!
[Image Credits: Hades/photo-ac.com]