For foreigners who want to drive in Japan, there are two options: an international driver's license or a Japanese license.
The former, an international drivers license, is valid for only one year and cannot be renewed. At that point, you need to take the leap and get a Japanese license. It is known as "menkyo kirikae" in Japanese.
If you are from the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, most European countries, and other countries that have a reciprocal arrangement with Japan, all you have to do is go to the licensing center, fill out forms, and then pay for the newly minted license.
If however you are from the United States, China, Brazil, Morocco, and almost anywhere else, brace yourself for a long, complex, and sometimes maddening process. Rumors abound. Ignore most of them. Here is how in three days (or more), you can be the proud owner of a Japanese driver's license. (We followed this process in Kyoto, but it should be applicable throughout Japan in the same form.)
Day 1 (Collect Forms, make reservation at driving center)
Step 1: Go the local Japan Auto Federation (JAF) office to have your home country driver's translated. (If you do not have a license in your home country, you need to go to driving school in Japan.) This costs 3,000 yen and takes about one hour.
Step 2: Get your Juminhyo (proof of residence form) at your ward office in the area in which you live. It costs 350 yen and will be issued in very little time. You will need to take these forms and your driver's license, valid passport (and expired ones if you still have them), alien registration card, and one 3 x 2.4 cm photo of your face to the licensing center. (Take copies of all of the above just to be sure.)
Step 3: Call the license center in your prefecture to schedule an appointment to submit the above forms and take a written test.
Note: you may be asked to prove that you resided in your home country after obtaining your driver's license. Really. A high school or college diploma, tax form, etc. should do the trick.
Day 2 (Submit Documents, Take Written Test)
If you do not speak Japanese, bring a translator.
Step 1: Go the driving center in your prefecture on the appointed day and time. Go early. Find the "menkyo kirikae" window. You will be asked to fill out a simple form and submit the forms you prepared (see above, Step 2).
Step 2: After a wait of an hour or so, you will be called and given separate forms. Write your name and address on multiple forms. Then you must go downstairs and buy 2200 yen of stamps. Bring those stamped and signed forms back up to the window where you received the forms.
Step 3: After a short wait of 15 minutes or so, you will be called again. A worker - all of whom are local cops - will direct you in the direction of the test room for the written exam.
Step 4: At the appointed time, which was 11:30 am in Kyoto, you and a few other gaijin will be ushered into a large room and given a simple test. It will be in Japanese and English. You have 10 minutes to answer 10 questions. To pass, you have to get 7 or more correct (they are all "yes" or "no" true-false questions.) If you pass that is the end of Day 2. since the deadline for taking the actual driving test is 9 am; thus, you will need at least another day at the license center.
Note: In those forms, at the back, you receive upon passing the written exam is the map of the course you will be asked to drive. There is more than one course. Memorize this one.
Day 3 (Driving Test)
Step 1. Go to the license center by about 8 am on a weekday (there are no reservations for the driving test). The windows open at 8:30, but there will be a long line before that.
Step 2. What to Bring: The forms you received when you passed the written exam, passport, alien registration card, driver's license from home country, personal seal （印鑑）*, money (10,000 to be safe).
Step 3. Buy tickets at window 2B (in Kyoto) to pay for the license test (1,550 yen).
Step 4. Submit your stamped documents at window 5 (in Kyoto).
Step 5. You will be told which "dock" - the test cars are parked in front of the building in front of numbered signs - and the time.
Step 6. You will take the test, probably with another test taker sitting in the back seat. The policeman who is judging you will not give you directions. You have to memorize the route.
*We do have a seal but do not think it is required for applicants from a non-Kanji country.
1. The route of the exam is prescribed. However, the instructor will not tell you where to go; indeed, he will hardly speak. Thus, you need to know - no, you need to memorize - the route.
2. To do this, go very early - around 7 am - and you can walk the route before testing begins.
1. Learn Japanese traffic signs from the guide book you will receive at JAF.
2. Take 2-3 hours of lessons at the "koshu jo" driving school at the license center to prepare for the driving test. The lessons cost 7500 yen for 50 minutes, and the instructors will teach how you to drive the course and give you other tips.
3. No matter how experienced a driver you are, you do NOT know how to drive the course the way the cops want you to UNLESS you take these lessons. What is required to pass the test bears little resemblance to ordinary on the road driving. It involves strange braking (pumping), a ludicrous amount of mirror checking, nitpicking over how many centimeters you drive from the lines. And you have to do this while keeping in mind the course with no guidance from the cop sitting next to you.
4. Be humble. Sarcasm, irony, and being smart-alecky do not translate in Japan. You will fail if you have a bad attitude. Live with it.
Guide Books on Tokyo & Japan