Today I went to renew my driver's license.

The Japanese system is radically different from the system in my home country. Back in the UK, we take a test at the age of 17 and then the Driver And Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) lets us drive until we're well past retirement age with no further testing or hoops to jump through. The Japanese system of periodic checks always seemed more sensible to me.

Since I've avoided any accidents or offenses in the last two years, I qualify for a "GOLD" license, which is valid for five years. It wasn't terribly hard for me to avoid prangs and misdemeanors — I don't think I've driven a car on more than a dozen occasions in the last two years.


The latest generation Japanese driver's license features an IC chip that contains some personal data (the family register location). By encoding this information and not displaying it, the Japanese authorities hope to protect sensitive information and reduce the risk of identity theft. If you want to see the data that's stored on your card, you can view it by using a special kiosk at the license renewal center. However, you will need to remember your 8 digit PIN. (Good luck with that).

The Japanese authorities seem to take a rather moralistic attitude to the whole driver's license renewal business. They hand out lots of pamphlets about new regulations, good driving manners and so on — The production qualities and the tone of these materials remind me of the booklets of some religious organizations.

The big news this year? My ordinary driver's license now qualifies me to drive a 29 seat bus. (Look out!)


In addition, I get a strong sense of the license renewal process as "penance" to be paid, depending on the magnitude of one's sins.

A "Good" driver:

  • Receives a "gold" license
  • Doesn't have to renew his license for five years
  • Can complete the renewal process within 45 minutes (including a 20 minute video presentation)
  • Can go to any one of several conveniently located renewal centers to renew his license

The license renewal centers are decorated with the same battleship grey furniture and walls that one sees in many Japanese government buildings and old-fashioned offices. But the atmosphere is quite upbeat. Everyone has been "Good". And there are plenty of staff to deal with the small number of drivers (at least, that's how it was at 8.30am today).

At the end of today's short refresher course in safe driving,  the official gave me a friendly smile and handed me my new license.

Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to photograph the inside of the renewal center, so here's a photograph of the exterior – with a big poster of "Peope", the cuddly mascot of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police force


By contrast, a "Bad" driver (or someone renewing his license for the first time):

  • Receives a "blue" license
  • Must reappear for license renewal after two years
  • Must attend two hours of lectures about safe driving in addition to eye tests etc.
  • Must go to a major test center (usually inconveniently located, so there's enough space for a test circuit)

My experiences of the major test centers in the Tokyo area have been rather unpleasant. When I've visited, they have been crowded and dehumanizing in a "Brazil" sort of way. After hanging around in long queues to get photos taken and eye tests performed, one attends a two hour lecture in a room, which is full of drivers who have flouted the law and are required to get a re-education in proper road manners. And then one waits about 30 minutes for one's number to be called, before finally being able to collect one's new license.

Perhaps this perception of "sin" and "penance" stems from my Catholic upbringing rather than from any intent on the part of the Japanese authorities.

If the reinforcement of "reward" and "punishment" is an effective way of improving driving standards and road safety, then I'm in favor. However, what  puzzles me is that the UK appears to have more success with improving road safety than Japan. How can that be?