Serious-faced samurai from Japan’s past are helping spread the word/smiles.

Getting a driver’s license is no easy feat in Japan, so if you’ve finally passed all the tests by listening for phantom trains and answering questions about motorcycles and towing 2,000-kilogram loads, odds are you’re going to be overjoyed. So it’s nice that Japan now legally allows you to smile for your driver’s license photo, at least in some parts of the country.

In Japan, the issuing of driver’s licenses falls under the jurisdiction of the police department. Last fall, the National Police Agency asked local departments to review their driver’s license photo regulations and ease unnecessary restrictions. Osaka, known as the center of Japanese comedy, quickly decided to drop its prohibition against smiling for your photo, and Tokyo came to the same decision shortly thereafter.

Ostensibly, the no-smiling rule had been put in place so that the license photo would present the bearer’s facial expression in a natural, undistorted way. As a result, while Tokyo and Osaka drivers can now smile for the camera, they can’t smile too big, The corners of your mouth can curve up, but you have to keep your lips closed, and your eyes must remain wide open as well.

Still, a little levity is now allowed, and as a reminder Japan’s Photo-Me brand of photo booths, which offer driver’s license-size photos that can be used in applications and renewals, are spreading the word with a tongue-in-cheek, smile-on-face awareness campaign starring two well-known but dour faces from Japanese history.

First up is Sakamoto Ryoma, 19th century samurai and progressive political thinker. Ryoma’s famous portrait shows him with his gaze fixed far in the distance, perhaps imagining a Japan no longer ruled by the shogunate’s feudal form …continue reading