Not long ago I received a postcard from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police notifying me that, as my birthday was approaching, it was time to renew my driver’s license. According to the postcard, I could renew my license during the period from one month before my birthday to one month after.
Foreigners in Japan as visitors may drive on an international driver’s license, but foreigners resident in Japan for more than 6 months are required to have a Japanese driver’s license in order to legally operate a motor vehicle.
So, the other day, I dutifully took myself off to the Driver’s License Center in the Samezu District of Shinagawa Ward. The center opens at 8:30 am seven days a week and I went on a Friday morning, hoping to avoid crowds. I still remembered the long lines and long waits from my previous driver’s license renewal five years earlier. The venture had taken more than half a day.
I had intended to arrive a little before 8:30, again, to try to get ahead of any crowd. But I mistook the amount of time it would take me to bicycle there from my house, so I managed to arrive exactly at 8:30. (Their website warns not to go by car, as parking is limited.) Imagine my surprise when I stepped into the recently reconstructed building, all gleaming and new, and not at all crowded.
There were maybe a couple of people ahead of me in the “check in” line, so I was soon checked in, given a brief form to complete and directed to the next window: payment. Although the form was only in Japanese, which was not a problem for me, the sign posting was in the four major languages common in Japan: Japanese, English Korean, and Chinese. All very professional-looking.
After paying, I was directed to register a personal ID number at a nearby computer terminal, a step I could skip since I still had the number I had created five years before.
Next stop, eye check. Here the lines were a little longer, filled with the 20 or 30 people who had arrived before me, but we were all quickly and efficiently whisked through.
Well, there were a few hiccups.
First, one guy in the line was in a wheelchair and the eye checking machinery is designed to be used by people standing. This fellow was taken, quite courteously and professionally, to a separate section behind closed doors where, presumably, he was given an eye test he could complete from the confines of his wheelchair. Curiously, I didn’t see him again.
Since I am tall, the machinery-designed-to-be-used-by-people-standing was a little too short for me and I had to crouch. It seems my mantra in Japan is always to be “it’s a small world”.
I also had one other slight hiccup at this stage. The form I was asked to complete upon arrival included a number of questions about my state of health over the past 5 years. I completed the form by making an “X” in each relevant box. The operator of the eye check machinery made me complete a new form because, according to her, the rules required use of tick marks (X does NOT mark the spot). This kind of formalism–the shape of the indication must be “just so”–is still prevalent in Japanese bureaucracy. (sigh) Fortunately, it only took a second to write out a new form and she stamped the old form “invalid”.
At the next window I turned in my old driver’s license, which was soon returned to me with a big hole punched into it. I was also given a slip of paper telling me I was to have a 30 minute safety talk in a room on the second floor that would begin at 9 am. Time now: 8:45. In the meantime, I was photographed for my new license, which I would be able to pick up after the safety talk.
The so-called safety talk turned out to be a very brief video of accident aftermath and then the presenter’s reminiscences of the bad old days when the driver’s license renewal process required hours of time and then they still had to mail your new license to you two weeks later. As if any of us wanted to remember!
Still, I counted myself lucky that the talk was so brief–really just killing time while the new licenses were prepared. The privilege of attending only a short version of the safety talk was because mine was a “gold” license, meaning I had not had any moving violations in the previous 5 years. Never mind that the primary reason for this is likely that I almost never drive and therefore have next-to-no chance to commit a moving violation.
My poor husband, who, readers may recall, was ticketed for a wrong turn earlier this year, wound up spending an entire day in safety lectures and even had to take another driving test on the course behind the Driver’s License Center when he went to renew his license a couple of months ago. Still, he reported that he was provided with an interpreter for the day (he does not speak Japanese) and the experience was relatively painless, albeit time consuming.
I note that the Driver’s License Center’s website is in multiple languages, catering to Tokyo’s ever increasing diversity. In addition to the quadri-lingual signage noted above, apparently the center is also able to provide real-time support in at least those languages, a far cry from the old days, when one had to engage a professional translator/interpreter separately and/or operate only in Japanese come what may. The times they are a-changin’.
Overall, my license renewal experience was quick and painless. I was back on my bicycle and headed home by 9:35 am, my daily routine barely disturbed. You know what? I haven’t driven since.