April 24th, 2009
By Tyler Roy
Firstly, if you are British, Australian, Canadian, or any of the other countries who have a special agreement with Japan, you do not have to take the test. If you are an American, you MUST take the test.
I am aware that there are many sites out there explaining the process of getting a Japanese Driverís License, but I really would have appreciated a little more guidance in the preparation of the test, and more detailed turn-by-turn instructions inside the test itself. Before getting my license, I had heard many horror stories of people forgetting to look over their shoulder and failing the test, or forgetting a key piece of paper. Thatís why I have decided to write this guide.
Like many other Americans, I was forced to upgrade my international license to a full Japanese license. Not only will this allow you to drive, but it gives you a lot of street cred when youíre asked to show your ID and you donít have to pull out your gaijin card or passport. If you are an American that is re-contracting who wishes to continue driving in Japan, you MUST get a Japanese driverís license before August. Be aware that July-August is an exceptionally busy time for the driving centers because A) itís summer break, and B) every other foreigner is trying to get their license at the same time, so you may have to make your appointment now in order to get a date to test before August (and the earlier the better, too, since Tokyo has a 35% first-time pass rate for foreigners.)
I took the driving test at the Samezu Licensing Center in Samezu, the largest and busiest licensing center in Japan. If you live in Tokyo, you will take your test there as well. If you do not live in Tokyo, your tests and procedure may be different. For your benefit, Iím going to explain in detail how to prepare for the test, the exact procedure that you need to follow to get to Samezu, what you will be doing inside of the facility, how to pass the written test, and what you need to do in order to pass the road test. The very first thing that you need to do is make your reservation at the driving center. Have your supervisor call the center (or do it yourself, if youíre feeling confident) and ask them to make an appointment for your written test. Be aware that the Samezu is only open on weekdays, discounting national holidays, from 8:00-16:00. If you live exceptionally far away from the center (i.e. on an island), you may be able to convince the person on the phone to allow you to schedule your written test and driving test for the same day. I did that, but it took a second phone call to get another person on the line. Just know that itís not rigidly inflexible, and that it can be done.
Before your appointment date comes, go to one of those little passport photo booths and get your picture taken. This picture will not appear on your license, so donít worry about it being exceptionally good. If you forget to have your picture taken, there are about six gazillion places on the way to the center to have it done that were set up for other procrastinators like yourself (shame on you.)
You will also need your passport, gaijin card, your VALID (non-expired) driverís license from home, about 10,000 yen (to be on the safe side), something to entertain you (youíll be waiting there all day), and a translated copy of your driverís license done by the JAF (Japan Automobile Federation). If you had your license renewed or replaced within 90 days of leaving for Japan (or if you spent less than 90 days in your home country after being licensed ó theyíll check your visas), then you must have a valid (non-expired ó be careful, usually they put a month-long expiration date on them) letter from your Department of Transportation stating that you have, in fact, had your license for more than three months in the past.
If you canít find a JAF near you, I went to the one in Minato-ku. In order to get there, go to Hamamatsucho Station on the Yamanote Line, take the Takeshiba Pier exit, take a left once you get onto the main street, take another left onto the first big main street, keep walking until you cross under the bridge, and it should be the first building on your right. Allow approximately one hour to get your license translation finished (I believe itís about 1,500 yen).
With your asston of materials in hand (gaijin card, passport, money, license, license translation, pictures, book/Nintendo DS/PSP, balls of steel), go to Shinagawa Station via the Yamanote, trade your ticket in at the Keihin-Tohyoku Line ticket window (they havenít automated this part yet), and get on a Local train heading toward Haneda (thatís the one right in front of you, donít cross the tracks.)
If my memory serves me correctly, Samezu is three stops away. It will not be announced on the trainís loudspeaker, so keep your wits about you. Exit the station by taking a RIGHT when you leave the turnstiles, and then take another right when you get out of the station. There should be other people walking the route to the station, and the route is well-marked (granted that itís in kanji). Walk to the end of the street and take a left. Walk until you get to the next street and take another left there. Go one block and take a right. Keep walking until you get to a main road, and then take another right. A couple of blocks ahead on the left youíll see the driving center (itís not easy to miss). Cross the road and youíre there. Do not drive there; thereís no parking.
Inside the Belly of the Beast
Once you enter youíll be inside a maze of bureaucracy that will make you want to give whomever designed the American Departments of Transportation a sexual favor. There are three floors and more than forty different counters, all serving a different purpose. Youíll be visiting several of these on your licensing day. Start by going up to the information desk and telling them that you need to change your international license to a real license. If youíre Canadian, British, or one of those other lucky nations that has a license exchange going with Japan, youíll simply be able to hand them all of your documents, about 4,000 yen, wait about two hours, and walk out with your new license. This is the end of the guide for people from countries that have that option. If youíre American, welcome to Hell.
Or at least the closest earthly equivalent. Youíll be asked to head to the back left window, where youíll hand over your passport, gaijin card, and driverís license. Youíll wait anywhere from ten minutes to two hours at this point, depending on how many other foreigners there are present. What they are doing is checking your licenseís ďissued onĒ date against your passportís visa stamps. This is where they check to make sure you got your driverís license at least 90 days before entering Japan.
If you pass the 90 day test, they then subtract all the time that youíve spent out of your home country during the issued period of your license from the time that youíve spent out of the country (are you following this?) and if the total is less than one year, you get a license with a green stripe on it. What this means is that any car that you drive for the next two years has to have these ugly-ass newbie stickers on the front and back, and if you have any traffic violations, youíre likely to lose your license permanently. Keep in mind that the ďstart dateĒ is from the issue date of that particular driverís license ó not how long youíve been licensed to drive. At the time, Iíd had my license for six years, but because I had lost my wallet and gotten a new license about 13 months earlier, and I had spent a little more than a month out of the country during that time, I ended up having driven for 359 days ó six short of getting my regular license ó and earned an extra two years of driving noobage.
The Written "Test"
After getting your license, passport, and translation back, you will be made to wait again. After a while, youíll be called into the ďtesting roomĒ, which is really just the back part of the international license reception desk, and made to take your True/False ďwritten test.Ē I think you have to get something like 7 out of 10 to pass, but Iíve never heard of anyone actually failing this, and I think the questions are always the same. The only difficult parts of this are that the questions are A) so easy, your brain might trick you into thinking that youíre choosing the wrong one, and B) the questions were written by a Japanese person using an online translator. Here are some example questions:
ďIs it okay to drive if youíve only had a little bit to drink?Ē ďDo you have to come to a full stop at stop signs?Ē ďIs it okay to pass if you canít see ahead of the car in front of you?Ē
There are, however, a few questions that might trip you up if you donít know your Japanese road signs, so STUDY AND MEMORIZE THEM! It would be embarrassing as hell to be the first and only foreigner to have ever failed this thing.
If you were unlucky enough to have your driving test delayed for another day (99% of you), then you must go to the desk, schedule your appointment for another day (possibly weeks from your written test date), and then go home.
Getting Ready for the Road Test
If youíre that lucky 1% that got to schedule your test for that day ? congratulations! Youíll be made to fill out another form, and then asked to pay about 3,600 yen at the desk for your testing fee. Youíll then be moved through an eye test, where you have to provide another form with a picture. You should know the words for ďup, down, left, and right,Ē because that's how Japanese eye tests work (it's a little circle with a chunk taken out of one side). Youíll then go back to your licensing desk and be given your testing time for that day, along with a packet that includes a course map with two possible routes. MEMORIZE THIS MAP! Itís going to be your savior once you get out on the course.
Youíll probably be eating lunch in the cafeteria if itís the same day. If you do, try and find someone that looks like a test administrator (theyíre dressed in uniform), and buddy up with him. Who knows? It might mean the difference between you passing and failing.
Be in the testing room at least 15 minutes before test time. If youíre late, you automatically fail, and you donít get your money back. The instructor will say a lot of stuff in Japanese that you probably wonít understand. Donít worry ? Uncle Trivialís here to help you. Basically, heís explaining the course, and what youíll need to do in order to pass the test.
The "Practical" Test
Youíll be guided into a room outside the building where the instructor will walk your group through the course map, explaining what you need to do at each place. If you donít understand Japanese, just study the map with your eyes, and try to make friends with someone there that does (more than likely theyíll speak English because everyone in your class will have just finished living abroad). Iíll be covering most everything that heíll be saying though, so donít worry too much about it.
He will assign numbers to each person ? this is your testing order. Pray that your number does not come up first, because you wonít be able to watch the course from the backseat of the car. If it does, donít panic. Just follow these instructions to the letter and you WILL pass. He let me go last because I was the only non-Japanese person there. After each person finishes, ask them if they passed or failed, and if they failed, ask what feedback he gave them. Itíll give you an idea of what your particular instructor is looking for.
Youíll get into the backseat before itís your turn, and youíll be allowed to watch the driver ahead of you drive the course, and you can get a feel for the different parts of it. Pay attention to everything here, and youíll have a much better idea of whatís expected of you.
When itís your turn, go to the LEFT side of the car (not the side that would be in traffic, and overexagguratedly check under the front of the car, and then the back of the car (if he doesnít see you do it, it didnít happen, and youíll probably fail). Walk to the right side of the car and look both ways (for any mythical cars that may be coming your way) before stepping out into the road and getting into the driverís seat. Be aware that you will be driving a full-size car (these things are decommissioned taxis), so if youíre used to driving kei cars, youíre going to feel like youíre driving a tank.
Once youíre in the driverís seat, get ready to dance. Give your instructor a big smile and a ďYoroshiku Onegaishimasu!Ē Then, touch your emergency brake as if checking to make sure itís on and say ďyosh,Ē buckle your seatbelt, adjust your seat and mirrors (even if they donít need it), and then ask the instructor for permission to start the car. Fire it up, and do the six-point head spin: look over your right shoulder, into your right mirror, into your rear view mirror, into your left mirror, over your left shoulder, and then back over your right shoulder (you will repeat this about twenty times during your drive. You must do this literally every time you turn). If everything is clear (and it should be), put the car into drive while holding down the brake, THEN release the handbrake (order is important here), and then do another quick look over your shoulder and in your mirror. Turn on your right blinker, pull out, and drive up to the stop sign. When you stop, stop with the nose of your car a few feet behind the line. If your nose crosses the line, you very well may fail. Make sure to PUMP YOUR BRAKES when stopping or slowing down. At no point in this course should you do anything resembling smooth braking. If your head isnít whipping back and forth while braking, youíre not doing it right. Donít be really jerky of course, but definitely make sure you feel the pumping, and that the instructor can feel the pumping too (giggity). Do your six-point head-turn, turn on your right blinker, and then pull out onto the course.
The key to successfully navigating the course is to take the whole thing much more slowly than you think you need to. If the instructor tells you to speed up, do it, but no-oneís ever failed for going too slowly (EXCEPT during the part where he asks you to accelerate to 40 km/h). You must also stay within ONE METER of the left side of the course at all times. This is very counter-intuitive and doesnít feel very safe, but you must do it in order to pass. You have really good mirrors on the car, so use them (you did adjust them, right?!) The whole time I was driving I felt like I was going to run off of the left side of the road. Also, the course is so small that you will almost ALWAYS have your blinkers on.
The first part is easy enough ? just try to get used to the carís dimensions, donít go much faster than an idle, and keep to the left side of the road. The course is designed like a big rectangle with smooth corners and a few roads intersecting in the middle of the course. Thereís everything from traffic lights to ďconstructionĒ. Youíll be starting at the bottom left corner of the rectangle, and driving counter-clockwise (assuming your course layout is the same). When you approach the curve to turn around the bottom-right corner of the rectangle, turn on your blinker (even though you wouldnít do this in the real world), PUMP YOUR BRAKES, and go very slowly around the curve. The girl before me was disqualified because she took the turn too quickly, and she wasnít going much more than 10 km/h! Remember: slow and steady!
Follow the instructorís orders and continue driving around the perimeter of the course. Every time you approach another road intersecting into your road, crane your neck around to make sure no-oneís coming (you should be the only person on the course, but do it anyway, and exaggerate it! Keep your head on the six-point swivel every time you take a curve or turn. You want to look extremely paranoid.
When you reach the top of the rectangle, you will probably have an obstacle, such as some traffic cones set out in a carís dimensions. This is where it gets tricky ? you need to first turn on your right blinker, then perform your six-point turn while still moving, steer into the other lane, and then turn on your left blinker and do your six point turn AGAIN when switching back into your lane. Make sure that you end your six-point turn in the direction that youíre going (so when changing into the right lane, look left first and end over your right shoulder, and when moving back into the left lane, end over your left shoulder). Itís going to feel extremely unsafe taking your eyes off the road for that long, but do it anyway. Itís what they want to see. Once you are back into your lane, continue driving, remembering to stay close to the left side of the road and to take it very slowly. PUMP THOSE BRAKES!
When you reach the bottom-left corner of the course again, the instructor is going to ask you to speed up. You have a very limited space to make it to 40 km/h, and if you donít make it to 40, you will fail, so jam on that accelerator and get up to 40. The second you hit 40, though, start pumping those brakes and slowing down, because youíre going to hit the bottom-right curve really fast if you donít (thus failing). Itís tricky, but if you think about it, you can do it.
Next youíll be asked to take a left into the middle of the course on the right side of the rectangle. When youíre turning, donít forget your blinker, and start your six-point turn on the right side, ending on the left. Make sure your turn doesnít start until you complete the six-pointer (looking over your left shoulder may seem a little redundant, but they want to make sure that youíre not going to hit any bikes that may have pulled up next to you). Once youíre there, make the turn AS TIGHT AND SLOW AS POSSIBLE while staying in your lane. Do NOT pull right first like you normally would to give yourself more room to turn. If you cross into the other lane while turning, you will fail.
Continue until you have almost reached the middle of the course, where there will be a traffic light. You will be asked to turn right here, so pull as far as you can to the RIGHT side of your lane without crossing the line with your mirror. If the light is even barely yellow, make sure you stop at it, and stop well behind (~3 feet) the line. When the light turns green, do your six point turn, and then look both ways again for good measure. Donít just go! When you pull out into the intersection, pull far out into the middle (but donít turn your steering wheel to the left at all), and make as close to a 90-degree turn as possible. Make sure that you donít cross into the right lane!
Now, turn on your left blinker, and get ready to turn onto the top half of the rectangle. Remember to keep it tight, and to pump those brakes! Keep going around the outside of the course until you get to the middle of the left side, where you will have to do turn left into the middle of the course. You now have to face the S-CURVE.
The S-CURVE is a narrow, winding S-shaped curve that is only barely wider than your car. You must pay attention to where your tires are at all times, or else you may hit a curb. If you hit a curb, DONíT PULL OVER IT! If you pull over the curb, you automatically fail the test. If you only pull up onto it, however, you can shift the car into reverse and try again (up to three times). The most difficult part of the S-CURVE is simply entering the curve itself. You have to make a really tight U-Turn to the left, with barely enough room for your tires to avoid hitting the curb. Pull as close as possible to the left side, of the course, and cut the wheel to the left in order to make it ? you should do it just barely. KEEP YOUR BLINKERS ON THE WHOLE TIME IN THE S-CURVE. Your blinkers will probably keep turning off on you, so keep turning them back on! You will go SLOWER THAN IDLE through this part, so keep riding those brakes, and keep watching your mirrors!
Immediately after the S-CURVE is the dreaded CRANK, which is the hardest part of the test. The crank consists of two 90-degree turns that are just barely wide enough to accommodate your behemoth of a vehicle. There are also ďpolesĒ suspended around different parts of the crank in order to simulate walls. If you hit any of these poles, you will automatically fail the test. The key to making it through the crank is to wait until the very last possible second to start turning, and then cut the steering wheel in the direction of the turn. If you mess it up the first time and run up on a curb, donít worry. As long as you didnít go over it, you can back up and try again up to three times. Remember: WATCH YOUR MIRRORS!
Once youíre out of the crank, pat yourself on the back and, sticking as close as possible to the left, do your six-point turn and then turn left. Drive up to the light, do another six-pointer, and go straight. Stop at the stop sign ahead, and turn right onto the right side of the rectangle, which will put you in a clockwise movement. Your instructor will ask you to turn left off of the course, and to stop at a certain numbered line. One of the girls in our group failed because she pulled just past the line. Once you stop, put the car into park, PUT ON THE EMERGENCY BRAKE, and then turn off the engine. Your instructor will then give you an evaluation. If youíve passed, congratulations, you get to wait for another few hours for your license! If you failed, you will be sent back up to the top to reschedule a new testing time.
I Have to Wait AGAIN!?
For those of you that passed, you will have to wait for what seems like a very long time inside of the briefing room outside of the main building while they get everyone set up. You will then be led back to the licensing window, where you will give them your gaijin card and stuff again, and then you will wait until they call your name. Youíll be given your stuff back and a bill as well, so go and pay that. Take your paid bill along with the rest of your things, and head over to the PIN machines that look like miniature ATMs. Put in a PIN number (but not your bank card number) and it will print it out on a piece of paper. Take the paper given to you by the cashier, your pin number, and all your other stuff, and walk down to the photographer room, where they will take a picture of you. The photographer will hand you a piece of paper with a six-digit number. Take your stuff and head upstairs to the third floor where you will wait in a big room with a lot of people for a long time for your six-digit number to come up on the displays. Once it does, go up to the desk, give them your claim ticket, and get your license. Congratulations! Now do a little dance, and e-mail all of your friends to brag to them about how you passed the Japanese driving test on your first try! If you tested at Samezu, consider going outside and giving blood at the blood donor van they have perpetually parked out front.
The whole process took me about seven hours to complete, so make sure you bring that entertainment. Good luck!
Another view of the test is from a survivor in Fukuoka Prefecture:
ďPassing The Driverís TestĒ, or ďI Am So Cool!Ē
The following is a quote from the ex-pat e-zine Unified Front Japan (issue 21 Oct 1999) on taking the driving test.
Thereís boom right now here about JAPANESE DRIVING LICENSE, we received 17 inquires about DL this month. We are posting some Suggestions from THE UFJ archive to list.
Suggestions for Passing the Driving Test in Japan
By: Hershey Wier
Background of My Situation: American trying to obtain a Japanese driverís license. Already holds valid US license and international driving license. Has 20 years driving experience in the US and 8 months driving experience in Japan.
1)First go for one or two driving lessons at a driving school, preferably with an English speaking instructor. Usually a cost of ( 5,000 per hour or so. I spent a total of ( 9,600 for a 2 hour lesson. For Kansai readers, there is a driving instructor in Kobe, listed in the Town Pages, who speaks some English. As always, itís best that the examinee speak some Japanese. Japanese ability also does wonders in putting the driving license examiner at ease during the test.
2)Ask the instructor what the most common mistakes and reasons for failure are.
Remember the marking points when making the ďcrankĒ and ďsĒ curve turns - donít just leave them to chance. There are definite points at which the steering wheel needs to be turned. Know them.
3)Take the driving test as soon as possible after completion of the driving lesson, so what is learned is not forgotten.
4)During the test, verbalize all of your actions from the start of the test to the finish. I actually said (in Japanese): ďLock door, adjust mirrors, put on seatbelt, release emergency brake, put on signal, look left right... Okay, now we need to make a right turn so go to the center line...,Ē etc. There have been many a disagreement and test failure because of the disparity between what the examiner thought and what the examinee thought. Verbalizing minimizes the chance for doubt.
I met several non-Japanese examinees taking their driving test multiple times - at a not so small cost of time, self-confidence and money. The best tip I got was to take a driving lesson before even attempting the test, no matter how many years of driving experience one has.
© 1997-98 United Front Japan
More Suggestions for Passing the Driving Test in Japan
By: A. Uehara
In the November 1997 issue, Hershey Wier wrote about acquiring a Japanese Driverís License. Like her, I possess a legal U.S. license. Unlike her, I havenít actually lived in the U.S. for 15 years. Like her, I possess an international driverís license, which I got on my last trip to the U.S. because I had kept my U.S. license valid. I think I slipped through some government netting here somewhere and thought Iíd better take care of business and get my official Japanese license to make things honest.
As she suggested, I took a one-hour driving class in the mountains for a mere 4,000 yen. Although Iíd been driving regularly down steep grades and backing around curves and having to pass parked cars in entire left lanes, that little practice test was so hard! But, it was good to make mistakes there and not at the test sight.
I also found it useful to practice at an arcade and get wiping out and speeding out of my system. It later snowed heavily and I needed to put chains on my car. This practical experience has nothing to do with the actual test.
The driverís licenses must be translated into Japanese by your local Japan Automotive Federation. This costs 4,000 yen. While waiting, they have a simulation machine to practice on but the motion sickness is for real! I left my imaginary car in the street and jumped off before I embarrassed everyone.
Then one must go make a reservation for the written test, which is only offered twice a day at 8:30a.m. or at 2:00p.m. This costs about 3,000 yen (the first driving test is included I believe). These tests are available in many languages such as English, Urdu, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese,etc. There are only 10 questions that require 1 1/2minutes to complete.
It took me 2 Ĺ hours to get there, after dropping my kids off at a friendís home in another city. You may not take the driving test the same day as the written test.
The driving test is twice a day, at 8:00a.m. and at 1:30 p.m. Each time the test is taken, a fee of 1,000 yen must be paid for processing. Every test after the first requires a fee of 2,000 yen for car usage. I arrived early the first day and was the first to go. Donít do this. The first person must wait to ride in the back of the last personís car. ďThe first person never passes,Ē I was told. Itís true. I met the most interesting people while I was waiting who had divorced and returned to Japan, had studied abroad, foreign nationals working in Japan, Yakuza-looking people, (I wondered if a major scar on my face would help me pass).
I took the test again and passed the second time. Many were there five times! Much money is lost in the process, not to mention time if you are traveling across an entire prefecture to get there! If you have to get a license, look into getting it in a prefecture that is not home to one of the major cities like Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, etc. I was told that Yamagata and Ehime are good places to get it. For all the money I spent, it might have been nice to go skiing in Yamagata and get my new license. Best of luck to future license adventurers.
© 1997-98 United Front Japan
Additional info is also available at Koyama Driving School, as well as from the Japan Auto Federation, the Sendai government and Kamogawa City government, Hirakata City government.