Unlike in some American States, you must carry your license with you at all times if you're operating a motor vehicle. You must also carry the title of the vehicle on the bike, (i.e. the insurance form). A non-Japanese license is not a valid license in Japan -- you must have either a Japanese license or international permit.
INTERNATIONAL If one has an international driver's permit with a motorcycle endorsement and your country's valid license, one may drive any size motorcycle. Japan only allows the use of an international permit for up to one year after your latest entry into the country (even if the international license would otherwise not be expired).
CONVERSION FROM A NON-JAPANESE LICENSE A foreign license may generally be converted to a Japanese license. Any international license, or lack thereof is irrelevant. Note: Non-Japanese must have been in the issuing country for three months after the last-date-of-change on the license for it to be convertible in Japan. For Japanese, the three months become six. A motorcycle endorsement converts to a mid-class motorcycle license.
Basic conversion method: Bring alien registration card, passport, foreign license, and about 2,500 yen to a JAF (Japan Automobile Federation, much like the AAA [American/Australian Automobile Association]). They will "translate" your license, and give you some paperwork.
Bring it all to your prefectural licensing center, stopping at one of the photo shops that should litter the nearby area to get two license standard size photos (3cm x 2.4cm.... they'll know what size to give). B/W ok. Note that neither of these photos will actually appear on the license. I have no idea what the photos are for.
Bring it all, and about 7,000 yen (cost depends on various factors) to the licensing center and fill out appropriate forms. You might have to take a practical test, I'm not sure. Recently, converting a car licence changed to requiring a test (make sure to not hit the cones, and use your mirrors "appropriately") Do what they tell, pay what they want. Receive license. Valid for three years, expiring on your birthday. Some ex-pats have said they have been asked for "Proof of First Issuance" or "Certificate of First Date of Issuance", basically a document indicating when you received your first driver's license in your home country.
DOING IT THE JAPANESE WAY Getting a scooter-only license is apparently trivial. Getting a motorcycle license (mid-class or big-class) is rather difficult, and apparently an exercise in patience and frustration (and money).
Andy Stubbings writes:
"I bought a Japanese book on how to pass the 400cc test and decided to kill two birds with one stone and learn some motoring terms as well as how to ride a bike and take the test. Maybe other people will tell you the test is easy, but having only practiced on a 250 and sitting on a 400 for the first time at the starting gate I was very nervous. It took me a few times to get used to the bike and course, and paying 1700 yen [this amount varies by location] a time is a lot cheaper than going to a school (where you have to pay an entrance fee of 50000, ten lessons at 3000 each hour, 5000 for a test certificate and other charges!). I'm not ashamed to admit it took me 6 times to pass as I get pretty nervous about things that are important for me to get right, and the examiners will stop you for any thing not exactly correct (more than the examiners at a school), such as stalling the engine, hitting a cone on the figure-of-eight, slalom, T-junction and other obstacles, or not going at the correct speed going into the emergency stop. All of these things were very new to me on a bike I had never practiced on before (VFR 400). The bastards also had another bike (a Yamaha I think) that had awful balance. They had most of their failures on that bike!). "A foreign license automatically converts to a 2nd level, but you have the option of going to the test center and going around the course on a 750cc just to impress the tester that you can actually ride a big bike, and they are a bit more lenient in giving you an oogata menkyo. If you don't take the 750cc test there and then you have to apply at a later time and they assume you haven't ridden a big bike before and are very strict (not sure about going to a riding school since I didn't bother).
For more info on costs, try looking at
Tetsuya Nishimura reports on the test skillset:
Required tests for follwing bike sizes:
|Small (50-124cc)||Medium (125-399cc)||Large (400cc+)|
|5 Cone Slalom||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Stopping from:||30 km/h||30 km/h||40 km/h|
|Designated speed in X meters||8m.||10m.||10m.|
|Uneven Pitch Obstacle Course (See Below)||No||No||Yes|
|Start on uphill||No||Yes||Yes|
NARROW BRIDGE: There is a steel bridge (5cm X 30cm X 10 meters) on which a testee passes taking more time than the specified time. Stepping a foot on the ground or falling off from the bridge immediately terminates the test. Crossing the bridge faster than the specified time counts 5 points per second against the testee.
UNEVEN-PITCH OBSTACLE COURSE: There is a series of 8 (or so, I forgot) concrete bars (approx. 7-8cm base/5cm top X 5cm X 100cm) laid parallel to each other with uneven pitches. The testee is required to cross these bars taking as long a time as possible without running off of the bars or dropping the bike. The performance should be done in a standing position on the steps.
RENEWING AND EXPIRATION INFO (FOR JAPANESE LICENSES)
In the middle of the license, in large characters (the largest characters on the whole license), it will have some Japanese, with a number among the characters. That's a year number, and the license expires on your birthday of that year.
Example: If a license says:
HEISEI 14 NEN NO TANJOUBI MADE YUUKOU (平成１４年の誕生日まで有効) "valid until your birthday in Heisei-15" (Heisei 15, or the 14th year of the current Japanese Emperor, is 2003).
You can renew the license in the month preceding your birthday. You'll need the license, pictures as above, and about 5,000 yen.
If you're getting a license for the first time though, waiting until just after your birthday will give you the longest period before it's time to renew it.
NOTE: This page contains Japanese script--if your computer's OS or browser is not set up to read it, many words will simply look like garbage. Try changing the way your browser reads the info - for example, using Firefox, click on "View", then "Character Encoding", then choose something like Japanese Shift_JIS.
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