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So You Need a Japanese Motorcycle License

For those visiting or living relatively short term in Japan, there is no need to concern yourself with any of the following, as an international license in hand keeps you riding legal for a full year from the time you step foot off the plane. “In hand” is the key takeaway here, as having one sent by mail after arriving in Japan is illegal, and means that your license is technically invalid. Most riders are unaware of this fact. The police are not.

For those staying longer than a year, get a license. Do not listen to anyone trying to convince you otherwise.

Not understanding fully the legality/illegality of riding around for an “extended period” on an international license, I listened while others convincingly explained how difficult, unnecessary, and prohibitively expensive it was to switch over to a Japanese motorcycle license. And so I figured why bother.

WHY BOTHER?
One. For years, police in Japan (specifically within Tokyo) were for the most part either unfamiliar or unconcerned with international licenses, usually opting to wave you on rather than deal with it. This is no more. Police now are all too aware of just how long and who can drive on one. Several officers have explained that they even get daily reminders at briefings. Knowing this, and assuming you do everything right, do you still want to risk huge penalties at some random checkpoint?

Two. Being involved in even the most minor of accidents is a headache. A small fender bender had me in and out of a police station four times, with each visit averaging 5+ hours. That’s right, each visit. You do not want this. And while insurance will most likely still cover you (as liability and legality seem to be handled as two separate issues), there does exist the chance it could be decided that you were, in effect, driving without a license. In which case you are on the hook for whatever costs are incurred.

And so this is intended as a guide for those who may have thought about switching over at one time, but for whatever reason avoided doing so.

japan-motorcycle-license-samezu

THE SPECIFICS
With the reasoning out of the way, let me just say that the much-dreaded test is actually a breeze. And much cheaper than feared. All in, the total was under ¥10,000 (US$80), and this included taking the test a second time (as I inexplicably imagined the traffic light was broken because it remained red for so long on my first attempt. I am often brilliant like this). The process itself took only several hours over 2–3 days spread out over about a week. It really is more a scheduling concern than anything else.

Before doing anything, you will need an official translation of your license. Everyone, every website, and every forum says this is available through your embassy or from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). Everyone is wrong. The U.S. and many other countries’ embassies do not do this. Go through JAF. If you happen to live near one of their many locations just pop in, pay the ¥3,000 (US$25), and leave 15–20 minutes later with translation in hand. Otherwise, mail in your application and expect to receive it within a few weeks, although probably much sooner.

One very important piece of information is that you’re going to need to show that you had your license for at least three months before arriving in Japan. If you have not had to renew since your arrival, this is as simple as showing your Japan entry stamp in your passport alongside the license issue date. If, like many, you have been here some time and renewed, you will need to figure out another way to prove this. The easiest is just to request a “Certificate of License” (or something similarly named) from the issuing government office of your state or country. For example, U.S. license holders would request this from their state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Applications for this are more often than not available online on your state or country’s government website.

Note: The number of days you have had your license is a big deal, and will be written on the back of your Japanese motorcycle license if it is anything less than three years. As well, if the total number of days is under a year then you are not allowed to ride with a passenger or ride on a freeway. Less than three years and you cannot drive with a passenger on the freeway.

While there are a number of testing centers nationwide, the focus here is on the greater Tokyo region, and within this area are Samezu, Koto, and Fuchu. Of these, perhaps the most convenient is Samezu. (Due to construction, some nationalities may need to take the driving test at another location. Check before you go.)

 

Be sure to bring the following with you to the testing center:
– Valid motorcycle license
– Official translation of license
– Proof of three months (if license was renewed during time in Japan)
– Passport (and something showing your current address in Tokyo)
– 2 passport-sized photos (photo booth is available on-site)
– Gaijin card

Show your papers to the information desk when you walk in and the receptionist will direct you to which counter to go to. Stand in line, hand in your paperwork, and wait to be called in to take the “written” test. Without studying you will still probably get a perfect score, as the test is just 10 multiple-choice questions in English given by touchscreen.

Surprising to many is that Japan has three “levels” of motorcycle license:
Kogata (小型), which is good for anything under 125cc
Chugata (中型), for anything under 400cc
Oogata (大型), for anything over 400cc

U.S. motorcycle licenses automatically transfer as a Chugata license, so if you want to ride anything over 400cc be sure to inform the counter staff when handing in your paperwork that you want an Oogata license. Doing so now avoids you having to return for multiple tests (and fees) to “level up” your license later.

The application fee is ¥4,400 (US$35). After the written test, you will need to choose an available date for the driving test. This is usually either later that same week or early the following week. After successfully failing the driving test my first attempt, I scheduled to take it again the Monday after (and passed). Fee for the driving portion of the test is about ¥2,000 (US$16) for the first time (and increases to ¥2,900 (US$23) for the second).

That’s it. That is the entire process. Below are some major points for the driving portion. Study these. If you have spent any amount of time on a bike, then this should be fairly easy. The Samezu Testing Center is supposedly a bit more lax, so that’s a good thing. As well, foreigners get graded differently than Japanese. We only need to do the driving test and are not required to do the “stop and go on a hill” or “pick the heavy-ass bike up from the ground and walk it around in a figure 8.” We also do not have any time restrictions. And we go first. Discrimination can be beautiful.

On the day of testing, bring with you (1) all of your paperwork, (2) a pair of riding gloves, and (3) your helmet. The testing center provides the bike (a Honda 750) as well as protective gear (forearm, shin and chest/back plates; think Road Warrior minus the spikes and you have a general idea).

Before the driving test, the group will be given either an actual walk-through of the course (in which it will be explained all the points to be graded on) or a “virtual” walk-through on a map of the course using a pointer. All of this is in Japanese, but even those with little to no language ability will still most likely find it easy to follow along, so no need to sweat.

There are two courses (A and B). These are the same course, the only difference being which side you enter the “technical portion” of the test. On the left or on the right. Course A seems to be a bit easier, so hope for that one.

japan-samezu-test-course

GETTING ON THE BIKE
If you fail to approach the test bike “properly,” you will fail the test. Period. You will not be informed of this until after you have completed the full test, but you will have failed before you even started. Here is what you need to do:

– Bow slightly to the instructor and give an “Onegai shimasu
– Look (casually) at both front and bike tires
– Put both hands on the handlebar and the front brake
– Flip up the side kickstand with foot
– Get on
– Put right foot on back brake
– Adjust mirrors
– Start the engine (if not already on)
– Look to rear (even though there’s obviously no one there)
– Turn signal to exit
– Go

REGULAR ROAD DRIVING
This part is relatively straightforward. Just be sure to stay on the far left of the lane at all times. Maintain a maximum of 1 m (3 ft) from the “curb,” unless you are turning right, in which case you should be on the far right of the lane.

There is no braking test per se. Instead, on the back straightaway you have to accelerate quickly to 45 kmh (30 mph). The instructor only wants to see that you can control the bike and not slam on the brakes. The remainder of the test you will do in either first or second gear.

Do not touch any yellow lines when turning or any white lines (crosswalk, etc.) at an intersection when coming to a stop. Do not even come close to a line as the instructor is rather far away and might not be able to see all that clearly.

When stopping (and stopped), use both front and back brakes. There are lights on the bike that signal to the instructor that you are doing so.

Grading is basically 1–2 points for most everything. You are allowed a maximum of 30 points before failing. The biggest deduction is for failing to turn your head right and left before turning and switching lanes. Failing to do so will cost you 5 points each time. Just a few of these and you are done. As such, it is best to just avoid using the mirrors. Instead, look left and then look right, signal with your blinker, wait 2–3 seconds, look left and then right again, and then make your turn. Over-exaggerate when doing this so it is painfully clear to anyone watching. Do this each and every time you turn or switch lanes and the few things that you do screw up on will not make much difference.

TECHNICAL DRIVING
The technical portion of the test includes cones, wide slalom, railroad crossings (simulated), and a “bridge.”

Cones
Keep in mind that the test bike has crash bars sticking out on both sides, so give yourself a wide berth when turning. Hit any of the cones and the test is over. Easiest to just stay in first gear, hug the tank with your knees, and then “in and out” the clutch rather than gassing it. (Do not put your feet down at any time.)

Slalom
Do this part of the test in second gear. Give it a little gas and then just back brake/clutch as need be. Doing this in first gear makes it considerably more difficult than it needs to be. Watch the last cone on your exit, as they seem to have cut it short on purpose. Hitting any cone ends the test. (Do not put your feet down at any time.)

Railroad Crossings
A series of metal “bumps,” to pass this section you only need to stand on the pegs. Remaining seated means you fail. Almost dead throttle and “in and out” the clutch a little. (Do not put your feet down at any time.)

“Bridge”
The 10-meter bridge that everyone seems the most concerned about is actually just a concrete “plank” maybe 20 cm (8 in) wide and 4 cm (1.5 in) higher than the ground. While it may look hard at first glance, this is actually probably the easiest portion of the test.

Before getting on the bridge, come to a complete stop and put both of your feet down. This is a must. Line yourself up (if you haven’t already), look behind left and then behind right, and then drive onto the bridge. Once off the bridge, come to another complete stop and put your feet down. Look to the instructor and wait for him to signal you that it is ok to proceed. Before doing so, look behind left and then behind right, and then proceed.

For the bridge itself, hug the tank with your knees and look well ahead. Do not look down or you will most likely ride off. Keep your eyes (and head) up and look toward the horizon.

GETTING OFF THE BIKE
– Put in neutral
– Keep both hands on the handlebar and the front brake
– Get off
– Flip down the side kickstand with foot
– Bow slightly to the instructor and give another “Onegai” or an “Arigato
– Leave the engine running for the next person

  • Habidaccus

    Thanks for this. Im looking at getting myself a motorcycle qualification on my Japanese license, but after reading this I think I should go to a school instead. I have zero experience riding, and while I don’t doubt being able to pick it up, I’ll be killing two birds with one stone at a school. Any advice you can offer about that?