If you want to drive in Japan (and a lot of Japanese and foreigns don't care to), the first thing to have to do is have a U.S. driver's license.
The second thing you have to do is attend the Driver's Class on the last day of orientation. The class is basically a review of the driver's handbook that we received on the first day of class. We go over driver safety, basic rules, and road signs. Then, after our lunch break, we get to take the written portion of the exam which consists of 50 multiple-choice questions. If you pass the written exam, you get to schedule a time to take the driving portion of the test the following week. Then, if you pass both the written and driving portions, you are issued a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) driver's license. The license is good for 3 years and a 1-year extension.
You can find a test booklet online if you look around for safety documents.
Japanese rules and road signs are not all that different from what we are used to in the U.S., so a lot of the signs are easy to figure out with some common sense. They do drive on the left-hand side of the road and that is the major thing to get used to. Here are some other things I learned that stood out to me:
- The Japanese drive with other people's safety in mind. It's not like the U.S. where everyone is trying to get ahead. You won't drive well in Japan unless you are patient and courteous.
- The Japanese drive slower than we do. The average speed limit on Japanese roads is 60 KMP which is about 37 MPH in the U.S..
- If you have an accident in Japan, the blame is shared by everyone involved. If you get rear-ended, it's not just the fault of the person who rear-ended you. The responsibility for driving well is shared by everyone. However, even if you have to share the blame, the responsibility isn't necessarily split 50/50. If the other person was obviously not driving well, they will shoulder more of the blame.
- There are signs for cars that let all other drivers know if you are a beginner (less than a year of driving), elderly (70 years old; mandatory on cars if you are 75 or older), disabled, or hearing impaired. If you see one of these stickers on someone's car, you are supposed to be even more patient and courteous - giving them more room to drive and/or make mistakes. Wouldn't that be helpful in the U.S.? Also, if you have an accident with one of these drivers, you will assume more responsibility for the accident.
I was also disappointed to find out that the bicycle trailer we purchased right before moving is not exactly street legal in Japan. We can use it on-base, but not off-base. However, the instructor of our driving class said that not all the bicycle laws are always enforced and we'll probably see some bicycle trailers around. So, we just have to use our own judgement about taking it off-base.
I know you're all wondering if I passed my written exam and to my surprise, I DID! Yay! So, assuming I pass the driving portion too, here's what will happen next. On base, there is a parking lot known as the "lemon lot," where you'll find a lot of vehicles for sale from people who are moving out of Japan. You can get a small coupe for about $1500 and a van for anywhere between $2000-$5000. Unless it has already been done, the car will need a base inspection and Japanese Compulsory Insurance (JCI). Sometimes, you can find cars with an inspection and JCI good for a couple more years so you don't have to worry about paying for these for a while. You also have to go the exchange to get liability insurance. And unlike in the U.S., your insurance policy is PAID UP FRONT - not deducted from your total each month.
After you have bought a car and gotten all the insurance and inspections taken care of, you have to go register your vehicle. The process for this will be slightly different depending on whether you live on- or off-base. However, both involve you going to the base Vehicle Registration Office, Yokosuka City Hall to get your plates, the Land Transportation Office, and if you are off-base, your local police station to get the parking space at your home inspected. The police will measure your car and your space to make sure your car is going to fit.
Yes, it's kind of a hassle. And honestly, if I didn't have kids, I might not even attempt to get a license. The use of bicycles and public transportation is what a lot of Japanese use to get around. And if you have a driver's license, the Japanese consider you a "professional driver." It's just a tad bit intimidating. I probably won't drive very much, actually. I'd like to walk most places - which is very easy to do in Japan - and I expect to need the car only when I have to take the kids to the main base. Who knows? I might not even pass the driving exam and then I won't have a choice but to walk or bike. Ha.