Bureaucracy and Me: Renewing My Japanese Driver’s License

Seeing as how I haven’t been doing much travel recently, the next few posts will be focused on daily life in Japan, which is an adventure of a different sort. The following is an article I wrote for a website that I contribute to, but the feedback that I received was that it was too critical of government officials. That may be true, but so was the experience!

Despite what some may think, moving to Japan isn’t all anime and sushi. Sure, living abroad has its fair share of excitement, travel and discovery, but it also has its fair share of mundane admin. Readers of this blog may be already aware of the many blunders I’ve committed along the way, including getting my drivers license, moving to a new apartment, and receiving unemployment benefits.

Recently, it was time to renew my Japanese driver’s license. Upon passing my exam, I had been given the green license for new drivers which expires within three years. Getting that license had such an odyssey, there was no way I was about to let it expire, and I’d heard that the renewal process was quite simple. However, previous experience had taught me that the Japanese driver’s license centers are some of the most bureaucratic, rule-abiding, and least English-friendly offices in the country, so I was prepared for there to be some surprises along the way.

If you have a Japanese driver’s license, you will be notified by mail when it’s time to renew. My address had changed since I’d gotten my license, so first I needed to update it. Conveniently, there are offices set up in most local police stations for this purpose. Driver’s licenses come under the jurisdiction of roads and traffic laws, so the police handle some of the administrative details. At the station, the kind folks in the Driver’s License Update Room were patient and understanding with me, and walked me through all of the different parts of the form and checking on me to make sure I was ok. After only 15 minutes, Step 1 was complete.

In early October, I received my reminder card. Although the green license is good for up to three years, you will have to renew around the time of your birthday, regardless of whether you’ve actually had the license for three years or not. Once your license is close to expiring, you’ll have a two-month window in which to renew it. My birthday was coming up on November 24th, so I could renew my license anytime between October 24-December 24. No appointment is necessary for renewal. On the reminder card, there were various charts and boxes containing tons of information, and I wasn’t sure what applied to me. The one thing that was clear was the renewal cost of ¥3,850. But I had the card, and so Step 2 was complete.

Despite the fact that there must be millions of drivers in Tokyo, to renew my license I could only go to the renewal center in Koto, way out in East Tokyo, or Fuchu, way out in West Tokyo. I found this out the hard way when I tried to go to the center in Shinjuku and was denied. So, on to Koto I went. Step 3 was off to a false start. 

The Koto Drivers License Renewal center is a massive, unremarkable gray building. I’d heard that the process should be simple, just a form to fill out, but I was worried that it would only be in Japanese, so I brought along a bilingual friend for language support. We stepped inside, expecting long lines and lengthy waits, but were shocked by how streamlined and efficient everything was. The counters were all well-labeled, with arrows and signs guiding you to the next one. At the first counter, we received the form, quickly filled it in, and then we moved along down the assembly line. Next was the payment window, followed by the eye test. After that, the information was double checked before my old license was voided. I got my picture taken, and then we were instructed to go upstairs. I was impressed. Of all the things I had expected from this errand, speed and efficiency were not among them. Step 3 was in progress. 

The drab exterior of the Koto Drivers License Renewal Center.

Once upstairs, the other shoe dropped. This floor was a lot more bustling, and an old man gave us an envelope with some booklets and told us to take our seats for a two-hour lecture on safe driving. Surprise!! Worried about whether I’d have to take a quiz afterward, we asked if there was any English option. We were told that “even if she doesn’t understand it, she’ll have to attend anyway.” We took our seats in the back of a cramped, old-fashioned lecture room.

Count the sleepers! (photo taken during break)

My friend attempted to translate at first, but obviously the whole thing was a joke since it didn’t even matter if I understood or not. The lecture was conducted by a crusty old man with a countryside dialect who was a pro in the Japanese art of taking forever to say nothing at all. He was extremely concerned with road safety and statistics, and kept talking about bicycles and bicycle insurance. I only caught a small portion of what he was saying, and passed the time by counting how many people were falling asleep. Surprisingly, most people actually looked like they were playing along. 

Something about turns and blind spots.

Part of the course was a short film titled “Aiming To Eradicate Traffic Accidents”. It went through many intricate details about road safety, that included scenarios of mock accidents with a wonderfully cheesy soundtrack and over-the-top performances. There was a short break after the film, and I noticed that everyone had grabbed a form and pencil from the front of the room, so I got one too. This was some kind of self-assessment of your driving habits, with sentences like “Sometimes I eat while driving” and “I consider myself a nervous driver.” I went ahead and answered a few questions, but the questions were worded strangely, and it wasn’t even mandatory, so I quickly gave up. After the break, I completely checked out. Sure, some of the information would have been great for new, inexperienced drivers, but as a driver with 15 years of experience and a clean record, I considered it a complete and total waste of my time. Step 3 was turning out to be a lot more than I’d bargained for. 

The pointless questionnaire about driving habits.

Once the “lecture” finally concluded, we were guided up to the third floor, where I was finally presented with my renewed license. Step 3 was at long last complete. I am now the proud owner of a blue license, the regular Japanese drivers license. After five years, I will have the option of renewing it to trade up for the coveted gold license. We’ll see if I make it that far!

Safe and Happy Travels, even if it’s just to the license center,

Mo