Upon arrival, driving in Japan may sound like a daunting prospect. The road laws are different, the signs are all in Japanese, and for some of us, everything is flipped! For many JETs, it will be the first time to drive on the left, in a car with the steering wheel on the right.

In fact, it is not nearly as difficult to adjust to driving in Japan as one might think. Road signs are often bilingual or pictographic, and getting used to left-hand driving takes just a week or two. The biggest problem is accidentally putting on the windshield wipers instead of the blinker. Also, not everyone needs to drive. For many rural placements, it is extremely useful (though not necessary!) to have a car. In urban placements, the high cost of parking and the ready availability of public transportation can make cars burdensome rather than useful.

 
 
  • Please, oh please, do not drive without a license.  If you get caught doing so, you will have to pay a large fine and could face jail time.  If you cause an accident while driving without a license, there will be very bad consequences (huge fines, jail time and lightning strikes.  Yes, lightning strikes).
  • Please, oh please, do not drive without insurance.  You should have two types of automobile insurance: Compulsory Liability Insurance and Optional (but also compulsory) Automobile Insurance.
  • Please, oh please (I'm on my knees for this one), do not drink and drive or ride with a driver who has imbibed any amount of alcohol!!!  If you knowingly aid or allow someone who has consumed alcohol to drive, or if you are a passenger of someone who has consumed alcohol, you will be prosecuted just as severely as the driver.  

Most rural JETs end up buying cars. While most ALTs live close to their base schools, they often have visiting schools that may be located far away. Often, there will be sparse or inconvenient buses (or none at all!) to those locations. JETs may live far from grocery stores or other conveniences, as well as far from other JETs and things to do. For these people, having a car makes a lot of sense.

On the other hand, a significant number of JETs are located in Kumamoto city or other urban areas that are serviced with frequent trains and buses. It will not be necessary to use a car to get to work, although it can still be nice to have one for the added freedom it gives to explore Kyushu and Kumamoto.

That said, in rare cases JETs don't have a choice. Some COs have rules on driving, so discussing that with your CO and other area JETs will be your first step. Some places don't allow driving to work, but allow you to have a car for private purposes. Others may give you a car, but limit it to work-related driving. Others may allow driving to work, but request that you use public transportation to go to business trips such as the Skill Development Conference. Chances are any rules will be written in your contract, so read it thoroughly and be sure to clarify any questions that you may have.

Most driving JETs will drive cars, but it is not the only option. Also, there seem to be hundreds of types of cars! What the heck is a “white plate”? Or a “kei car”? The following chart gives an introduction to the most common options.
Scooter (原付, gentsuki)
Under 50cc
Slow, but good for short trips and in urban areas. Cannot be driven with an international driving permit, but it is easy to get a license, as you don't need to take a course.
Small motorcycles
50cc to 125cc
More expensive than scooters. International permits don't cover motorcycles, and an automobile or motorcycle licensing course is required.  If you take the test on a motorcycle this size you cannot drive a standard sized motorcycle.
Motorcycles
126cc and over
More expensive than scooters. International permits don't cover motorcycles. Requires an automobile or motorcycle licensing course.  
Light car (軽自動車,keijidousha), commonly known as yellow plates or kei cars.
Engine displacement under 660cc
Less powerful than an average car, so can be slow on steep hills or when carrying a heavy load. Gas, taxes and tolls are cheaper than for white plate cars. Footprint is small, so easy to maneuver.
Normal car (普通自動車,futsujidosha), commonly known as white plates.
Average sized car, vans, etc.
Easier to handle on hills and mountains or when loaded with things or people. Can be bulky and hard to maneuver on narrow country roads, but are sturdier and safer. Taxes can get expensive.
 
For a cheaper option, many JETs go with kei cars. White plate cars are safer, roomier, and more powerful but significantly more expensive, both when initially buying and when time comes in April to pay the yearly tax. They are also faster, but given the generally low speed limits in Japan kei cars can usually keep up easily.

In the
city, a scooter might be useful and is much, much cheaper than a car. There are JETs who prefer to use scooters even in rural areas. You will often see high school students coming home from school with them, since the driving age for scooters is 16, two years earlier than for cars. There's further information about motorcycles vs. scooters here:http://www.nic-nagoya.or.jp/en/e/archives/4524.
Leasing a car
There are advantages and disadvantages both to leasing and buying a car. Leasing can be cheaper if you plan to stay only one year (especially for kei cars), and are advantageous in that the leasing company will pay for taxes, insurance, shaken, and repairs. (Shaken will be discussed later.) If you get into an accident, the company will provide a lot of help.
 
Payments are on a monthly basis. Unlike when buying, you will never have to make a big payment all at once (such as when buying a car and paying the yearly tax). However, if you stay more than one year it will most likely be cheaper in the long run to buy a car, assuming you don't get into large crashes too frequently. Leasing a kei car will cost around 15,000 to 35,000 yen a month. This includes insurance, and likely includes (check to be sure!) reparations, shaken, and taxes. For a white place, costs might be between 80,000 to 150,000 yen a month.
 
Here are two places to lease a car in Kumamoto:
 
Family Auto (ファミリーオート熊本)
529 Matsubasemachi Toyofuku
Uki, Kumamoto Prefecture 869-0524
Japan
Tel: 0964-32-0471
Fax: 0964-32-0471
 
KURUMA NO MURAOKA (車のムラオカ)
710 Kozenjimachi
Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture 869-4614
Tel: 096-539-0852                                                        
Fax: 096-539-0804

There may be other options, so ask your CO for help.
             
Buying a car
The first step when buying a car is, of course, finding one. Often predecessors or other area JETs will have a car that they will leave or sell to you for relatively cheap. This is the easiest way to find a car, the fastest, and likely one of the cheapest. On the other hand, your predecessor may not have had a car, or it may have been old and riddled with problems. Don't feel obliged to buy a car if it looks awful, and be sure to test drive. If you do buy from your predecessor, ask about shaken – if it is due within the next few months the cost should be much cheaper than if they just had it done.

Even at a dealer, don't buy something just because it's cheap. You can probably manage until your first paycheck by pawning rides off friends and co-workers and using a bicycle. When buying a car, bring someone who knows cars to check that it runs as it should. Be sure that it has working air conditioning and heating. Temperatures get extremely high in summer, and while winter is warmer than much of Japan, an unheated car will be torturous. In mountainous, snowy areas, you will need snow tires for winter.

If your predecessor didn't have a car, moved elsewhere in Japan and kept it, or had one despite it being a death trap, there are lots of ways to find cars. The majority of you will want a used car, which can be found for pretty cheap. Ask your CO to look for cars, or at least where to find used car dealerships. Other options are:
  • The notice board at the international center (between the Kotsu center and Kumamoto castle) or the Kumamoto Facebook group/forum for people selling their cars.
  • The web for good car deals. One recommended site is: www.carciao.com
  • Monthly car magazines. Available in most convenience stores.
Costs of car ownership
  1. Initial cost (assuming at least one year of shaken, cars without shaken should be this minus the shaken cost)  
    A used kei car will likely cost around 60,000 – 250,000 yen. White plates will be more expensive, starting around 100,000 for an older car and going up from there.
  2. Yearly tax (April/May) (自動車税, jidosha-zei)
    White plates: 29,500 yen (under 1,000 cc) – 111,000 yen (over 6,000 cc)
    Kei cars: 7,200 yen (though inexplicably some people's tax is more like 4,000 yen)
    Scooters/Motorcycles: 1,000 yen (50 cc) – 4,000 yen (over 250 cc)
  3. Weight tax, paid as part of shaken (重量税, juryo-zei)
    New white plate (good for 3 years): 37,800 yen – 75,600 yen according to weight
    Used white plate (good for 2 years): 2/3 of the weight tax of a new automobile
    New kei car (good for 3 years): 13,200 yen
    Used kei car (good for 2 years): 8,800 yen
    Motorcycles: the weight tax is based on engine displacement
  4. Compulsory Insurance, one year's worth (自賠責保険, jibaiseki hoken)
    White car: 16,350 yen
    Kei car: 15,600 yen
    Scooters: 7,280 yen
  5. Voluntary Insurance (任意保険, nin'i hoken)
    In general, compulsory insurance covers the car, while optional insurance covers injuries and damages. GET THIS. It's “voluntary” but you will want it, and all drivers are expected to have it. Being in an accident can be very expensive and if you cause any injuries will lead to a long, complicated process. Even if you did not cause the accident, just being on the road means you have to take part of the blame for the accident. The insurance company will help you if this happens.

    If you were found to be the main cause of blame (for example, if you rear-end someone), you will likely have to pay for their repairs as well as your own. This is what voluntary insurance covers. Depending on your insurance plan, they may cover only the repairs to the other person's car, but not your own. In other cases, if the other driver has no insurance, you may have to cover the cost to your car yourself. This can happen under ridiculous circumstances – for example, one JET's car was hit by a drunk driver while it was parked and the JET was in their apartment asleep. Even though she wasn't even driving at the time, the JET's insurance company had to cover the cost and their insurance rate went up just because the drunk driver didn't have insurance.

    The cost of this insurance will depend on the plan and the car. All cover the other car, some cover yours as well, and some cover your car if your friends drive it. Talk with the insurance agent to see which is the best choice, but remember that more protection is better.
  6. Vehicle inspection (車検, shaken)
    Finally we've gotten to shaken. Cars (and motorcycles with an engine displacement over 250cc) must undergo a vehicle inspection periodically. This can be done at a dealer or repair shop. For a new car, shaken is good for three years. After that, it lasts for two years.

    It takes about a week for shaken to be completed. If you need to drive during that time, ask your dealer or repair shop to lend you a substitute vehicle, or daisha (代車).  In addition to the weight tax (listed above), you will have to pay an inspection fee as well as for any repairs. A kei car may cost around 60,000 – 80,000 yen. White plates will be 110,000 – 160,000 yen.

    After a certain point, shaken costs more than the car is worth. This is why old cars and clunkers are rarely seen on the roads in Japan. When a car reaches that point, you will have to pay someone to take it off your hands.
  7. Car ownership transfer cost
    Keep in mind that there is some paperwork and cost associated with changing a car's ownership. If you buy from a dealer, they should do this for you. If you buy from a predecessor, get your CO to help you. This paperwork includes:
    1. Parking Certification (車庫証明, shako shomei).  This certificate, submitted to the local police, proves that you have somewhere to park your car. If your house or apartment doesn't have a parking space, you will have to rent one. The price will vary depending on how urban you are. If you live somewhere very rural, this may not be necessary.
    2. Vehicle Registration (車両登録, sharyo toroku).  All vehicles must be registered, and you must have the registration certificate in your car at all times. You will need to update the registration if you change your name or address, if your vehicle is out of service, or if you leave the country for good. You can likely get your CO to help you with this.

      For more information on transferring car ownership, go to http://www.kumamotojet.com/Driving--and--Cars.php#transfer 

Additional Costs

  • Parking
    In rural areas, most places will have parking available for free. This is not the case in the city. Kumamoto City has a variety of short term parking areas. Only some are 24 hours. Either you get a ticket and pay when you return, or the tires are locked and you enter your number bay into a vending machine to check the cost. The cheapest (24 hour) parking spots in the city are:
    • パスート (Pasuuto, about a 2 - 5 min walk away from the entrance of Kamitori / Shimotori. The parking lot is situated along route 3, very close to the big intersection where route 3 and Densha Dori cross. It is a big yellowish building).  There is also another Pasuuto near the Kotsu Center, but that one is more expensive (although still cheap).
    • ぱーくすりー (PARK THREE, yep, this time written in ひらがな instead of カタカナ) The second cheapest parking in the city and it is situated right beside Pasuuto.
    • パスート (Near the Kotsu Center, and recognizable from a distance by the big P-sign. Right next to Karashima Park.).
      In Pasuuto the costs for parking can depend on the floor you park on. Parking on the first floor is more expensive than when you park on the roof. Sometimes in the evenings parking is priced the same for each floor and that’s when it gets really cheap/less expensive to park in this parking.
  • Tolls
    All expressways are toll roads, and they are costly. It can be very expensive over a long distance, but if you carpool with a couple of friends, it will cut the costs and will probably be cheaper and faster than trains. Toll costs depend on the kind of car and the time of day. For example, from Kumamoto to Fukuoka it costs 2,880 yen in a kei car and 3,420 in a white plate. There is a very helpful toll calculator located at http://www2.kumagaku.ac.jp/teacher/~masden/tolls/.

    ETC (Electronic Toll Collection) readers are useful but may be difficult to get, as they have to be linked to a Japanese credit card. With an ETC card reader, the Fukuoka trip will in a kei car can cost between 1,150 and 1,600 yen depending on time of day.

    For more information on getting a Japanese credit card or for getting an ETC without one, check out these sites:
  • Gas/Petrol
    Obviously to operate a car you will need frequent trips to the gas station, known as “gas stands” in Japanese. There are two types of gas stations – self service and full service. Full service stations cost slightly more but offer services such as window cleaning and trash collection. If they offer you a towel, it is used to wipe the inside of the windows. Self service stations are indicated by the word セルフ.

    Indicated prices are by the liter. In self service stations, you prepay and get your change when you are done. In full service, they will tell you the price after filling up. A very useful word to know is 満タン, or mantan, which means “full tank.” Otherwise you can buy specific amounts of gas; for example 2,000 yen worth.

    Many gas companies have rewards programs where you can use their card to get slightly cheaper gas and also get points. Typically this is 1 point per 100 yen, but on certain days a week they might give 2 or 3 points per 100. Find out which days they are for the station closest to your house. You can use these points to get discounts later. Some cards can be used at multiple stores. For example, the T-point card can be used at Tsutaya (movie and music rentals slash bookstore), Family Mart (convenience store), Eneos (gas station), as well as any number of other companies. 

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As with any country, it is a good idea to become familiar with the rules of the road before you begin driving. You can obtain English language books to help you learn driving rules. A good one is “Rules of the Road” by JAF (1,000 yen). Here are some important things to know:
  • Drive on the left!
  • Keep left if driving slowly; faster cars will overtake you on the right. According to the law, the right lane on an expressway should only be used for passing and should remain open at all other times. People have been pulled over for driving too long on the right. This may or may not result in a ticket.
  • When making a right turn onto a multiple-lane road, turn into the far left lane. This is counter intuitive but it's the law. It's because the right lanes are only supposed to be used as passing lanes.
  • No left turns on red! This is different from the US and Canada, which allow right turns even if the light is red.
  • Pedestrians have right of way, always. Be sure to check for pedestrians before pulling out from a driveway or making a right turn. Watch out for bikes, which are ridden on the sidewalk.
  • Always turn on your headlights in tunnels.
  • Always stop before crossing train tracks.
  • Seatbelts are required for the driver and front passenger. You can get pulled over and ticketed if you are seen without a seatbelt. They are not required for the backseat and many people don't use them.
  • Drivers of scooters and motorcycles are required to wear helmets.
  • Scooters drive on the left side of the road, between the sidewalk and cars. It can be a pretty tight spot, especially when turning.
  • Don't use your cell phone while driving. You can get ticketed and fined for this, whether it's hands-free or not.
  • And last but most important: Don't drive drunk. That deserves another mention: DON'T DRIVE DRUNK. Japan has a zero-tolerance attitude towards drunk driving, and consequences are very strict. Your license will be taken away, you will be fined up to 500,000 yen, and you may be fired and face jail time or deportation. Unlike in some countries where you can have one drink and still be fine, if even the slightest amount of alcohol is found on your breath, you will be charged. You can also be charged if you knowingly let someone else drive after drinking, or bicycle while drunk. Sometimes police will set up checkpoints, where they will check everyone who come by. They can stop anyone, even if you are not driving suspiciously. If you plan on drinking, take a taxi or daiko. Daikos are like taxi services, but they come with two people, one of whom drives your car home for you. 

Japan has some specific road etiquette rules that might differ from what you're used to. Drivers might also not follow some rules that you're used to. Here are some things to keep in mind.
  • If you feel unsure about driving at first, you can get a “new driver” magnet to put on your car. This will let people know that you might drive erratically. (You can see an example below.)
  • People rarely honk here. If you hear a single, quick honk, it's most likely a “thank you” rather than a “get out of my way!”
  • Flashing hazard lights can mean “thank you” or “sorry.” For example, if you let someone in on a busy road they may flash their lights in thanks, or if you cut someone off, you can flash them to say sorry.
  • Flashing lights from someone coming the opposite direction means that they are letting you turn right in front of them.
  • If someone is tailgating you, pull over when you get a chance to let them pass.
  • Yellow lights are short. If you see a pedestrian cross light begin to flash, it might not be a bad idea to slow down, because the light will turn yellow very soon. On the other hand, many drivers use it as a cue to speed up. Many people run red lights, so be careful.
  • There are a lot of blind curves. Use the mirrors on the side of the road. They help you to see if someone is coming.
  • On a narrow road (or especially a narrow tunnel), people will often stop to let someone else pass from the other direction. Give them a nod in thanks.
  • There are also a lot of narrow roads, which is a bigger problem because of the tendency to have deep, uncovered gutters on the sides of the roads. You do not want to drive (or bicycle or jog) into one of these. Chances are your car will be fine, but flat tires and even broken axles have been known to happen. To make matters worse, they are often hard to see because of vegetation, and when they are covered, the covers can sometimes break. These are colloquially known as gaijin traps.
  • Speed limits seem slow, but it is a good idea to obey them. Speeding can have serious, expensive consequences. Speed limits are typically 40 in towns, 50 on bigger roads, and 80 on expressways. Most people speed between 10 and 20 km/hr over the limit, but I would err on the side of caution. As teachers, we represent our cities and schools, and it looks very bad to be caught in a traffic violation.
  • In case of an accident, call the police, your insurance company, and your supervisor. (Or if your Japanese is not as good, call your supervisor and have them call the police and your insurance.) AIU is an insurance company that has good English support. It is also a good idea to make a relationship with a mechanic, and call him/her in case of an accident as well. You might get a better deal on repairs if you know the mechanic already.

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A few points to keep in mind:
  • A thick white line across the road is a stop line – but not in all cases. You may be used to seeing them only in places you have to stop, but they are more common here. You only have to stop if there is a red light, stop sign or とまれ is written on the road.
  • Blinking yellow stop lights mean “yield.” Blinking red should be treated as a stop sign. You may see these at night.
  • Some intersections have stop lights in only one direction. These are usually always green for the main street, with buttons for pedestrians to stop traffic if they need to cross. If you are on the cross street, treat it as a stop sign.
  • Green road signs indicate expressways. You will have to pay for their use, but you can generally get to your destination significantly faster than taking ordinary roads. They are always bilingual.

  • The Wakaba, or Shoshinsha, mark is used to indicate new drivers. It is required to display it on your car for one year after getting a new license. This usually doesn't apply if you transfer a foreign license. The Koreisha mark is displayed on the cars of drivers over 70. This one is not mandatory. They look like this:


  • Here are some of the more common road signs:


 

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If you got an International Driving Permit before coming to Japan, you are all set for a year (unless you plan on driving a motorcycle or scooter). It is valid for 1 year from the date that you arrive in Japan. If you stay for over a year, you will have to get a Japanese license.
 
Note that there are some countries, such as France, Germany, and Switzerland, that issue international permits that are not recognized by Japan. If you have a license from one of those countries, it is possible to drive for one year with an official Japanese translation of your license. You can apply for this at the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). Information can be found here: http://www.jaf.or.jp/e/switch.htm.

If you want to drive in Japan but did not get an International Driving Permit before arrival, it is possible to get it in Japan using your foreign license. Go to the Kumamoto Prefectural Driver's License Center with your driver's license, a 5x4 cm photo (which you can take at the center), inkan, passport, and resident card. It costs 2,650 yen.
 
If you are in Japan for over a year, you will need to get one. You can only use an IDP in Japan for a maximum period of one year from the initial date of entry (arrival in Japan), or until the expiration date on the permit, whichever comes first.  If you don't have a license from your home country or cannot prove that you were in that country for at least three months after getting the license, you will need to take driving courses here in Japan. These can be time consuming and are very expensive. Luckily, most people will be able to transfer a foreign license into a Japanese one.
 
Some countries, such as Ireland, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, France, and Canada, have agreements with Japan that make it very easy to get a Japanese license. People who have received Japanese licenses in the past also fall under this group. All you have to do is go to the Driver's License Center with your documents, take an eye test, and fill out some paperwork.
 
If you don't have a license from one of these countries, the process is a bit more complicated. In addition to all of the same documents, you will need to take a written test and a practical driving test. The written test, which is offered in English, Japanese, and Chinese, is very easy. It consists of ten true or false questions. The driving test is more difficult and often takes multiple tries to pass. If you are curious about how the written test is, you can find some example tests here.
 
It is a good idea to begin this process a few months before your International Permit expires, to accommodate waiting time for the JAF translation and crowded times at the Driver's License Center as many other recontracting ALTs also try to get their licenses.
 
Here is a powerpoint presentation from 2011 about how to convert your foreign license to a Japanese one.  The information is still relevant.  
 
Follow these steps:
 
STEP 1 -  Check that your home country’s license meets certain specific criteria.
  • It must say “date of issue” or “issue date.”  The date of issue must be at least three months prior to your arrival in Japan.
  • If your home license uses a different term to refer to the date you received your license or if it does not include this information at all, you will need to obtain a letter from the licensing center in your home country (state/province) stating the date when your license was issued.
  • If you renewed your license within three months of coming to Japan, you will need to obtain a driving record or letter from the licensing center in your home country (State/Province) stating the date when your first driver’s license was issued.
  • If you received a license for the very first time within three months of coming to Japan, you will not be able to convert to a Japanese license and will need to obtain a Japanese license from the start (i.e. by attending driving school) in order to drive in Japan.
STEP 2 -  You will need to get your home country’s license officially translated into Japanese.
  • This can only be done at your country’s consulate or the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). In Kumamoto, it’s easiest to go with JAF. The translation costs ¥3000 and you can get it by mail or in person at the JAF office. Either way, download the application form at: http://www.jaf.or.jp/inter/translation/index_e.htm
  • By mail (takes one week): send the application form, copy of home license (front and back, in color, and blown up so it is easy to read), and the ¥3000 fee plus ¥392 return postage by genkin kakitome (registered mail for cash) from any post office to the Fukuoka JAF office. The Kumamoto JAF office cannot process translation requests by mail.
    Fukuoka JAF office: 5-12-27 Muromi, Sawara-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 〒814-8505 (〒814-8505 福岡市早良区室見5-12-27)
  • In person at the Kumamoto JAF office (takes about an hour): take the application form, your home license, and the 3000 fee to the JAF office. It is located where Dai 1 Kuko Dori (#1 Rd to the Airport) passes under the Kyushu Express way.
  • If you had to get a letter from your home licensing center, you will likely need to pay to get that translated, as well. Call JAF (096-380-9200) to inquire about the process and fees. JAF can only do certain translations, so you might have to go through your consulate.
JAF Kumamoto
6-30-30 Nagaminehigashi Higashi-ku, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto-ken
Phone: 096-380-9200  

JAF Fukuoka (for requests sent by mail)
5-12-27 Muromi, Sawara-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 〒814-8505
Phone: 092-841-7000
 
STEP 3 -  You will also need to prove that you were physically present in the country where the license was issued for more than 3 months after it was issued.
  • The simplest way for most people to prove they were present in their home country is to provide university transcripts or a reference letter from a previous employer with dates that show you were in your home country for at least 3 months after you got your license. Though the Menkyo Center prefers an original, it is possible to use a photocopy of your transcripts or a reference letter from your JET application if it has an official stamp of authentication (genponshoumei (原本証明) in Japanese) from your Contracting Organization.  (In order for your CO to give you an official stamp of authentication, however, they need your original transcript.)  Finally, if you use a reference letter, this must also be translated into Japanese (doesn’t have to be an official translation, though).
  • Make sure that documents you use provide a start and end date, for example, the date when you started studying at your university and when you graduated. If your university transcript is multiple pages, provide all pages with a stamp on each one. The Menkyo Center may not use your document as proof if it only contains one date.
  • Passports are also acceptable if your home country stamps the dates when you enter and exit the country. However, by practice, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland, and the United Kingdom do not commonly provide exit stamps.
  • Make sure the dates on your documents sync up with the issue date of your license. For example, if you have gotten a new license since leaving university, your university transcript will not be sufficient since the dates on your transcript will be before the issue date of your new license.
STEP 4 - Make an appointment and go take the test!
  • The menkyo center can only take 2-3 non-Japanese residents a day, so make sure to ask your tantosha to call and make an appointment for you.  
  • The number is 096-233-0116.  Make sure your tantosha has your passport and foreign license in hand when she/he calls, as the menkyo center will ask for the date of issue and date of expiry on both items.  
  • Applications for transferring licenses are only accepted between 9:30AM and 11:00AM Monday – Friday. The license transfer process is called 外国免許切替(がいこくめんきょきりかえ) in Japanese.  Reservations can be made up to 3 months before your international driver's permit is set to expire.
  • The driving test for motorcycles is only conducted on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  
  • You cannot take more than one driving test in one day. 
  • When you go to the Menkyo Center, bring the following documents and items:
    • Original driver's license and certificate of the issue date (if it is not shown on the license)
    • Official Japanese translation of original driver's license by the Japan Automobile Federation http://www.jaf.or.jp/inter/translation/index_e.htm.
    • An official document showing that you have been in the country that you received your driver's license from for at least three months after issuance. The best is an official college transcript. If providing copies of documents, make sure they have a stamp of authentication from your Contracting Organization.
    • International Driving Permit (if you have one, to prove that you didn't drive to the center without a license)
    • Residency certificate (住民票, jumin-hyo) issued within the last six months, available from your local city/town hall for 300 yen
    • Residence card
    • Two photographs (3cm x 2.4 cm), which can be taken at the license center
    • Passport
    • Inkan
    • Pen or pencil/eraser for the written test
    • Money (2,200 yen application fee + 2,050 yen issuance fee + 700 yen photo booth fee + extra just in case. You will have to pay the application fee every time you take the test, but the issuance fee only when you pass)
    • Japanese speaker (If needed. Chances are no one at the center will be willing to translate for you.)
*Further information can be found here: http://www.japandriverslicense.com/.
*Tips from an ALT from the Netherlands:
The process took me 3 months (and another ALT from France at least 1 month), people should not do this last minute. Although there seems to be an unwritten rule that the Menkyo center isn’t accepting applications of licenses expiring within 3 months, they’ll process your application. I started in December and got my license in April.  Secondly, the proof of physically being in the country for three months can be quite difficult as the menkyo center is quite picky on the ‘evidence’. The thing that worked quite well for me was to contact my Embassy and let them make a letter, saying that I was physically present in the Netherlands for three months. I think I could have saved 1 to 1.5 months if I had done this right away instead of using it as a last resort. 

Your International Driver's Permit does not entitle you to drive a scooter in Japan.  You MUST obtain a special scooter certification. If you have a Japanese automobile license, you can use that. To get a scooter certification, please follow these steps:
  1. Go to the Licensing Center (menkyo sentaa 免許センター) in Kumamoto City bewteen 8:30 and 9 a.m. on the day you wish to take the scooter course.  No appointment is necessary.  If you are late they will make you come back another day.
  2. Register for the day's scooter course.  You will have to fill out a bit of paperwork (in Japanese) for this.
  3. Take a written exam, in English (poorly translated, but it's understandable), consisting of 10 questions.  It's very easy.
  4. Take an "aptitude" test.  This is nothing more than a vision test.  Bring your glasses if you wear them for driving.
  5. Bring with you these items:
    1. Residence Card
    2. Resident Record, available at your municipal hall.
    3. A passport-sized photo (3cm x 2.4cm).  If you can't get one beforehand, or forget, there's an instant photo booth at the Menkyo Center where you can get these done for ¥700.
    4. Something to write with.  There are, apparently, no pens or pencils at the center, so bring your own.
    5. Money.  The total costs of the course, registration, tests, etc. will be roughly ¥10,000.  Best to shoot a little higher in case a few extra fees pop up.  
    6. Glasses (if you wear them). 
    7. It is recommended that you bring someone to translate if your Japanese isn't very good.
Depending on how long you stay in Japan, you may need to renew your license. You can do this within a month before or after the expiration date (your birthday). You will be sent a reminder 30 days before your birthday. When you go to renew it, your driving record will be checked. If it is clean, a renewed license will be valid for five years. If you have caused an accident or been caught breaking traffic rules, a renewed license will be valid for three years.

When you go to renew your license, you will need the renewal notification you received, your driver's license, and inkan. It will cost around 3,000 yen if nothing is on your record. You will be required to take an eye test and attend a traffic rule lecture (in Japanese). This should take about two hours (future renewals, if there are no violations on your record, are shorter).

If you don't renew it within the renewal period, you can still renew it if you take an aptitude test and attend a traffic rule lecture within 6 months.
 
If your license is lost or damaged, you must go to the Driver's License Center to have it reissued. You will need 3,350 yen, plus a 3cm x 2.4cm photograph and inkan. If it was lost, you will need a report issued by your local police station. If it was damaged, just bring the license. 

According to the menkyo center, it takes an average of 3-4 times for the average non-Japanese resident to pass the practical driving test.  The practical test is difficult because they are very particular about certain things. Many people go to their local driving school and take a course (usually around 3,500 yen an hour) that teaches the exact skills needed to pass the course. The proctors are very particular about certain things, like how close to the curb you are and how soon you turn on your blinker. Even if you are an experienced driver who has never been in an accident, the skills needed for the driving test are rather different from the skills needed for actual driving. Taking a course may be well worth the money, as it might help you pass the test the first or second time so that you can avoid using all of your vacation days on it.  Some people think that proctors do not want people to pass the first time, and deliberately fail people even if they should have passed. There are people who do pass the first time, so it is possible. Just count on failing at least once and make sure you have a few extra vacation days budgeted.
 
Toyofuku Driving School (豊福自動車学校、第2教習所), located near the menkyo center, is a good place to practice.  They charge 5,900 yen for 50 minutes, and are open 8:00-18:00 on weekdays, and 8:00-17:00 on Sundays and Holidays.  They are closed Saturdays.  Reservations are required, so ask you tantosha to help you:  096-388-0509.  

There are other driving schools that offer similar services throughout the prefecture, so if you live far from the menkyo center check with your tantosha to see if there is a driving school nearby.  Good luck!
 
The Menkyo Center is in Kikuyo Town, just north of Kumamoto City.  It is on the same road as the Prefectural Athletic Park (Park Dome/KKWing). Buses leave from platform 14 of the Kotsu Center (main bus terminal). You will want the 鹿4 or 鹿8 buses that say “driver’s license center” on the front. The bus trip will take about 50 minutes and cost about 550 yen. If you choose to drive to the center, there is plenty of free parking.

Please note, if you are taking the test without a valid international drivers license, DO NOT drive to the menkyo center. If you fail, it is possible that you will be observed as you leave. If they catch you driving away without a valid international license, you risk embarrassing yourself, your employer, and you might even get into serious trouble with the police. Have someone drop you off or take the bus to get there and back.

When you arrive at the center, go up the stairs/escalator to the second floor and turn left. The office is on the left, down a small hallway just before the last set of help/payment windows.

Reception hours: weekdays (except national holidays)
8:30 AM – 11 AM and 1 PM – 4 PM
2655 Karakawa, Kikuyō-machi, Kikuchi-gun, Kumamoto-ken
Phone: 096-233-0116
 
 TOP

The Written Test
 
The written test is quite easy and really shouldn't be a cause for much concern. As mentioned above, you can find some practice tests here if you're curious. The test is made up of 10 common sense questions. An example of one such question is:
 
If a police officer is standing in the middle of an intersection in front of your car with his arms spread out horizontally you should:
a. pay attention to the signal only
b. drive past the police officer
c. wait until the police officer signals for you to proceed
d. drive over the police officer

However, if you feel like you want to study up for the written test, you can get a copy of Rules of the Road from JAF for 1,028 yen. The book will also be useful post-test as it helps to explain some of the obscure road markings and signs you may find while driving.
 
Lunch Break

During the lunch break period, the offices will close but the center itself will remain open. There is a restaurant and small convenience store at the center if you need to get food. However, people are also allowed to walk the course during the lunch break as well, which is highly recommended. Walking the course will help you to visualize what you need to do and where you need to do it. In addition, there may be possibly parts of the course that you do not encounter in your day-to-day driving (such as the S-curve and "crank" turn"), so getting familiar with them before driving is best.
 
The Driving Test

Some General Tips (from former Kumamoto JET, Adam Yoshida):
  • Always drive on the left hand side of your lane, near the margin of the emergency lane or the curb. Try to keep your tires within 1km of the lane/curb. If you drive near the center meridian, you will lose points, unless you are making a right turn.
  • Drive slowly at all times. An average of 20 to 25km is best. If the proctor wants you to go faster he will tell you. If he tells you to slow down, you probably have lost some points. You can take the S curve and "crank" turns as slow as you like however.
  • Always slow down at crosswalks and look all around for hazards.
  • Check your mirrors frequently and make it obvious that you are checking your mirrors (possibly by saying “yosh” or “hai” for each mirror you look in). Check your mirrors before you switch lanes, turn corners, or proceed after stopping at signals, stop signs, crosswalks, train crossings, etc...
  • Check your blindspots as well whenever you check your mirrors. (again, make it obvious)
  • Signal 100 feet before your turn and move to the inside of the lane. Signal again 20 feet before you turn
  • Make sure you do not hit the curb. If you do, put the car in reverse and carefully go back. You will not necessarily fail for running into or going onto a curb. But you will fail for running OVER a curb.
  • Don't give up unless the proctor tells you explicitly that you failed and that you are to return to the docking station.
Other points to note:
  • There are two different course routes, which one you drive on depends on which day you take your test.
  • You’ll get to pick which car you want to test with, automatic or manual. Just note that driving in the automatic car means you’re only licensed to drive automatic cars.
  • Other people may be in the testing car with you. This could range from your Japanese friend who can help translate the proctor directions (almost certainly they will just use Japanese), another test taker who will go before/after you, or even another proctor (who will not grade you, but just observe).
  • Depending on how busy the day is, it is possible other cars will be testing on the course at the same time as you.
Course Specific Tips:
 
Starting the Course
The test begins before you enter the car. When you’re on the platform getting ready to go into the car, you’ll need to do a safety check around the car. This means going to the front, looking at the front, looking under the car from the front, going and looking around the left side (the side facing the platform), looking at the back of the car and looking under the back of the car. But before you step out onto the right side of the car, look both ways before stepping into the “busy street”. A lot of the test is a mind game to see if you do safety checks, even if you know in your mind you don’t really need them. After you confirm the “busy street” is safe, check the right side of the car and then get inside.
 
Getting in the Car
Get the car ready for driving. Lock the door. Adjust your seat. Put on and adjust your belt. Confirm the parking brake is on. Confirm the car is in park. Adjust your rear view mirror. Check the side mirrors are okay (even if your car doesn't have a way to actually adjust them). Pump the brake to see it feels right. If all is good, get permission from the proctor (or if they offer it to you), press the brake down and start the car.
 
 
Leaving the Carport
With the car started, remove the parking brake, place the car into drive, and then hit your right signal. Before actually moving though, do a check around the car. Do a check over your left shoulder, check the left mirror, check the rear view, check the right mirror, then check over your right shoulder. If all is good to go, then you can get moving.
 
Changing Lanes
If you’re going to the right lane, check your rear view mirror THEN hit your right signal. But don’t go into the next lane right away. Rather, get close to the right side of your lane (within 30cm), wait for three seconds (if you have the space to do so), check over your right shoulder and then move over into the next lane. Same goes for switching to the left lane (obviously doing everything for the left side). Your signal is going to be on for a while before you actually do a change, which is the intended effect. Be smart about this though. If you know that you have turn coming up in a short distance after the lane change, you don’t have to wait three seconds exactly (and miss your turn). As long as you aren’t making last second swerves and doing all your safety checks, you should be fine.
 
Turning
When making left turns, get really close to the left curb (within 30cm) for a set period (within three seconds is best) before you get to the turning point. In theory, this is to block bicycles/motorbikes/scooters from sneaking up on you on the left. So when you know you have a left turn coming, you’re going to do a similar process to a lane change. Start this well before your turn comes up: Check your rear view mirror, hit the left signal, check over your left shoulder, then get even closer to the left (you have been driving within 1m of the left this whole time, right?) and drive close for 3 seconds or so. Before you make your turn, check for oncoming traffic from the right and do another check over your left shoulder, then turn, making sure you don’t take the left turn too wide (you may be tempted to do so, like me, because you’re really close to the curb) but also make sure you don’t take it so tight you run over the curb with your back tire (which is an instant fail).
 
Right turns follow the similar process, although they’re not as difficult by nature due to left side driving. Also, in theory, bikes shouldn’t be sneaking up on your right anyway. Doing the same process as left turns (rear view check, signal, get close, then re-check before my turn) wouldn't hurt.
 
Know what lane you want to turn into and aim to end up on the left side of it. If for some reason you end up too far on the right (or part of the wrong lane), slowly ease into the left side of the target lane. If you swerve abruptly to get back into the left side, it’s more of a point penalty than easing in (10 points as opposed to 5).
 
If you come across a turn with an obstructed view to your sides, slow the car and slowly inch forward, arching your head forward as you look to your left and right to ensure everything is safe. If you’re making a left turn, make sure to do a left check over the shoulder before you make your turn.
 
Turning into a multi-lane road
Always try and turn into the left-most lane when turning into a multi-lane road. The only exception for this would be if you know you have a right turn coming up right after you turn into the multi-lane road. This means the distance from when you enter the multi-lane road to your right turn doesn’t give you enough to time to do your usual lane changing process (complete with checks and all). If you have enough time to do your complete set of lane changing checks, then turn into the left lane first THEN shift over to the right for your right turn.


Stop sign/light
Stop with your front bumper as close to but still behind the stop line as possible. For a sign, wait three seconds, doing your necessary checks before proceeding. If you’re going straight, check ahead to your left and right before moving. At a light, don’t move right as the light turns green. Do your checks first and then proceed.
 
If you’re approaching a turn and there’s no stop sign/light (also assuming no cars coming your way), you’re going to have to balance doing your checks with moving forward. If you feel unsafe, play it safe and stop to do your checks. It is said you have about five seconds of unnecessary stopping time before points start coming off. Still, if you can manage moving slowly a bit while you do your checks, do so. Obviously, if you do share the course with other cars and cars are coming towards you, it behooves you to stop.
 
The crank
A section of the course with two sharp turns. It’s narrow so you have to be extra careful here as there is a chance for instant failure in this section. This is very much a skill section and you may have problems dealing with the testing car, especially if you drive a different style (like kei) car. The best advice is to take it very slowly. There’s no penalty for going slow here. Get as far to the left as you can before making your right turn (and make it tight!) to clear the first set of poles. This is so you won’t hit your back tire against the curb as you try to navigate your car over. For the second turn, you’re going to want to be on the right side so you have space to make your left turn over.
 
If at any moment you feel like you’re going to hit the poles or you feel yourself hitting the curb, get ready to back up. However, before you actually go back, do a check over BOTH left and right shoulders, then put the car in reverse and move your car to a better position for the turn.
 
S curve
For some this is an easier test than the crank, because the turns are not as sharp and there are no poles to worry out, so you don’t have to obsess over the front of the car. Again, just take it slow and make sure you’re on the right side before you slide over to the left for the first turn. Vice versa for the second.

Road obstacles
If you find an obstacle on the road (such as cones or a broken down car), treat it as changing lanes. You don’t need to go all the way over to the other lane if the obstruction only takes up half the lane, but you’re going to have a distinct set of checks for both avoiding the obstacle and another set for when you return to your original lane. Start your checks/signal for the return right after you pass the obstacle.


Finishing the Course
You’ll be directed back to where you start most likely. As you approach your return lane, turn on your turn signal facing the curb when you’re about 5-7 seconds to parking the car. Ease into your spot. Ideally, you’ll want to be within 30cm of the platform and within 30cm of the pole they ask you to stop at (either ahead or behind is fine, so you technically have 60cm to work with).
 
Press the brake, put the car into park, pull on the parking brake, and then turn off the engine. Doesn’t hurt to push the seat back all the way as well. Before you get out of the car though, open the car door just a crack and then look to both sides. Again, this is part of the “safety check”, even if you know there’s no one within miles.
 
After the Test

Once the test is done, you’ll be brought back to the office to await the results of your test. If you fail, you’re given a brief rundown from your proctor about what went wrong and what you can do better. Some proctors are more forthcoming than others. There are stories of proctors that don’t like giving up too much information (their answer being just go to a driving school if you want to know that much), but it never hurts to ask if you have questions. You’ll then be given the testing forms to prefill out for next time when you return for your retake, which you don’t need a reservation for (just show up before 11:30 that day and ask for a driving test retake at the office).
 
If you pass, you’ll probably still get a few words of advice from your proctor but then the center staff will help you get your license printed within the next 1-2 hours. Congratulations!
 
 
Reminders....
・If you have been to a good English-speaking doctor, please email the PAs about it.

・Good luck with the new semester of classes! 

Important upcoming dates:

・Starting in October - New ES/JHS ALT School Visits  
 
 
KumAJET
Upcoming Events:

・September 5 - Taco Night, 7PM at Tortacos, Kumamoto City
・September 26 & 27 - Ashikita Beach Party, Otachimisaki Park, Ashikita, check-in starts at 4PM
 

kumajet@ajet.net
 
 
Area Guide

 

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