If you live in a major city in Japan you do not need much in the way of a car or scooter to get around. The public transportation system is pretty convenient, and will generally get you where you need to go.
There are times in the city when a scooter is convenient, such as when lugging a weeks’ worth of groceries home on the subway, but if you live in a small town simple scooter can make a huge difference in your quality of life and the good news is; getting a 50cc or smaller scooter-only license is fairly painless.
If getting licensed to drive a car is your aim, this is not the article for you, but you can find more information on that subject at Japan Drivers License. If you are already licensed to drive a “regular car,” the standard driving license in Japan, you are already licensed to ride a scooter of the size discussed in this article; 50cc or less. Congratulations, you are now free to move about the country on your scooter.
If that is not the case, you will need to get licensed to ride a scooter. For the purposes of Japanese law, a scooter is a two wheeled vehicle with an engine size of less than 50cc. Anything else is a motorcycle, and you need a separate license that is much harder and more expensive to get. The “large scooters” you see cruising the streets are not classified as scooters, but “automatic transmission motorcycles,” and you will need a special license to drive one.
Getting a 50cc engine or below scooter license requires somewhere between 4,000-12,000 yen, and depending on where you are about a half a day of your time. Getting a motorcycle license, on the other hand, will cost 10x that amount to start with, increasing in increments of time and money based on engine size.
To start with , you must take a 50 question written test at the local driver’s licensing center. The test is not especially difficult, but they may or may not be available in English depending on where you live. If they are in English, understanding exactly what they are asking can often still be a challenge as many prefectures use direct or “automatic” translations of the questions. The best way to prepare for this exam is to read “Rules of the Road”, available from the Japan Auto Federation. Many of the questions are common sense, but there will also be some very specific questions about basic rules of the road, and some specific to proper scooter operation and safety.
After passing the test , you will be taken to a classroom for a driving safety class. It takes about an hour, and is conducted in Japanese. Just nod and smile; they will probably assume you do not understand but it wont matter, this is not a graded exercise and as long as you stay awake you should be OK.
After the class you will be taken to a driving course for your 3 hour Safe Driving Course, where you will be introduced to the basics of the scooter: how to use the kickstand, start it, accelerate, brake, etc. At the conclusion of the class you will get your license if you have managed not to hurt yourself or others.