Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Practical Guide to Obtaining a Japanese Driver's License in Tochigi


Converting your American license to a Japanese license (外国免許証切替) at the Tochigi-ken Driver’s license Center (栃木県運転免許センタ) is a cakewalk, consisting of four simple steps

1: Present your American license, residence card, passport and related documents

2: Pass the eye exam

3: Pass the written test

4: Pass the practical driving test

Sarcasm off.

Prepare for the fruitcakewalk from hell, and what I consider the second most incompetent pile of bureaucracy I have ever encountered (US immigration being #1 by a long shot, but that is another story).

Day 1: The only thing you are going to do on day one is Step #1, present your documents. Yes, that is all you can accomplish on the first day. Get a set of photos taken in the booth on the ground floor, then head up to the second floor. That’s where you will be spending all your time. According to their internet site and what is posted inside the center, the time to apply for foreign conversions is between 8:30 and 13:00. However, this is deceitful. They do not begin processing conversions until 13:00. The only advantage of showing up before 12:59 is that you will be earlier in the line at 13:00. Like half a dozen others that day, I showed up at 8:30. Given that the center is literally as far as possible from all of Tochigi-ken’s major cities, none of us could leave once we found out we had nothing to do for four and a half hours because getting anywhere and back again would take too long.

At 13:00, they will begin calling people. Wait your turn. It seems to take about 20 minutes per person, and they usually can do two at a time. There has been around ten people applying the days I was there. When your turn comes up, they will bring you to the back room and start pouring over your documents. Remember, the key thing they are trying to prove is that you have had a valid license for 90 days while residing in the country it was valid. They are going to record and dig through your passport, counting every day in which you were in the US, in Japan, or anywhere else. If you either received OR RENEWED your US license recently, beware. Proving the 90 days may be difficult. Also note that in many states, your license does not have an “issued” date, only an expiration date. I had recently renewed my US license, so I brought an official and a translated copy of my driving record, which I obtained by phoning the BMV in my home state.

Eventually they will boot you out of the room and your documents disappear into the back. A while later, someone will call for you, hopefully indicate that all is in order, hand you some forms to fill out….and you are done for the day. Go home.

Day 2: Come back a bit before ten with all the forms from last time, preferably already filled out. Put them in the box by the first window on the second floor. Around 10:15, they will start calling people into the eye exam room one at a time, in the order people showed up in the morning. Going first really has no meaning, as you will wait just as long in the end either way. When your name is up, head into the room, where they will check your documents. They you will do the eye exam, and then you will sit and wait. Around 11, those that need to take the written test will be called into the classroom for the ten minute test. There are ten questions, and you can take them in English, Chinese, and a few other language other than Japanese. About five will be comically easy. Three more would be equally easy if not for the poor translations. The last two actually will test something tricky, like signage or rules such as left turns on red (not allowed!). You need 7/10. Nobody really fails unless there is a language problem, especially if you make any effort to learn the signs. From there, you are done until 13:00, when the driving test begins.

During the interim, you should head out to the course, which is on the other side of the sky bridge. In the classroom at the far end, there is a book of course maps. You will be told which map is valid for that day, and have until one pm to memorize the map and walk around the course. During the test, the instructor will speak in Japanese, telling you “turn right at #11”, etc, so you literally do not need to memorize the map if you speak even minimal Japanese. However, having it memorized or close to it will give you one less thing to focus on during the test, so after having a quick bite to eat, walk the course twice, and then go back upstairs and trace the course in your mind until you know exactly where to turn without thinking about it.

At 13:00, one of the instructors will give a little speech about safety and how important it is to learn the “Japanese rules”, even if you were a safe driver in your home country. After that, you go downstairs, and the tests begin. Unless you are the first person to go, you get to ride in the back seat during the test of the person before you. This gives you one more chance to nail the course pattern. Note that there are generally two cars and one motorcycle on the course at any given moment in time, so you will have a bit of traffic to deal with. It is absolutely insanely important to cede right of way to those other vehicles if they deserve it. If they are at all coming anywhere near you, do not engage in aggressive turns or get close to them or anything. This is insta-fail territory. Even if you are sure you could make the turn, put it in reverse and go backwards, and then repeat the turn a second time before the other car made it to the intersection, WAIT. Do not go.

So what happens during the test? You fail. Period. End of story. Everyone fails the first time. I have never heard of anyone who passed it the first time in Tochigi. No one I know of has heard of such a person either. In fact, the fewest failures I have heard of is four. Plenty of fives, sixes, and sevens. A nine. A twenty-two….and counting! Why will you fail? Because the instructors are looking for details that mortals cannot understand, such as the seven-step mirror-checking and signaling process before making a lane change. Wrong order? Points off. Wrong order a second time? Double points off. Third time? You fail the test. Go home. Or perhaps you manage to do the mirror check dance properly on all twenty or so turns and lane shifts you will make during the test, but bump the curve on the crank or the S-curve. Or perhaps you didn’t hug the outer or center line tight enough on a couple turns, or turned your head too far when checking your blind spot, or checked it too early or too late or too long or too short. Or perhaps you didn’t signal when heading out of the starting parking area (yes, you need to), or you didn’t check for a baby under your car before you got in, or didn’t check for a bicyclist before you opened your door at the end of the test, or didn’t (pretend to) adjust your seat and mirror when you entered the car, or perhaps you forgot to set the parking break before exiting (even though it is flat), or perhaps you went too fast or too slow at some point, or took a turn too wide, or perhaps the instructor just makes stuff up in order to fail people. Or perhaps you signaled too long or too short or too early or too late or perhaps you bumped the wipers instead of the blinker, as is easy to do for an American as the controls are reversed. Or perhaps you are an actual honest-to-goodness inexperienced driver who needs practice. You never know. Anything is possible.

After you fail, you wait until everyone else finishes failing, then head back to the second floor. Around three, they will announce the results (you failed, get over it), give you a little slip of paper stating such, let you pick a new date to try again (which will be in about two weeks, depending on the backlog), and send you home.

Day Three: On your appointed date, bring your little slip that says you passed the eye and written tests but failed the driving test and enough money to pay the re-test fee. Pay at window 13, then put your documents in the box you have lots of experience with. Yes, you have to show up before ten. And yes, you will have to wait until 13:00 for the driving test. Why do you need to be there at 10? Because it’s Tochigi, and they like to waste your time. Repeat the test as before, fail as before, and weep.

Day Four/five/six/seventy: Repeat day three until the gods shine upon you.

So how do you actually pass the test? At this point, I don’t know, because I haven’t done so yet. But it certainly involves heading off to driving school, so you can practice the test. Most major cities have such a school. Unfortunately, outside of Tokyo, you are unlikely to find someone who speaks English, so I hope your Japanese is decent, and that you don’t get a little old guy who speaks thick Tochigi-ben like the last guy I had. For $50 or so, they will take you around a mock test course for an hour and tell you what they guess you are doing wrong. Expect to fork over $50-100 every time you fail at these driving schools. Need I even mention that they are usually owned and staffed by ex or moonlighting cops – the very same people that judge your real driving tests? Oh, and they are typically booked about two weeks in advance, so each time you fail your test, you better run straight to the practice school (located, of course, as far away as possible) to book your reservation before they fill up.

Oh, and as a final kick in the nuts – if your Japanese license is ever to expire for more than six months, you get to do all this again. Because you know you love it! So there you have it, folks – a simple guide to converting your American license into a Japanese one in Tochigi-ken. Best of luck to you, and may you only fail thrice!

Update: I passed in late September on my sixth attempt, five months after starting this miserable process. I can't really say that I got better. It felt more as if you simply got more points for proving you were stubborn. Just follow the guide here and keep plugging away.