Getting A Japanese Driver’s License – Part 2

If you’re reading this post, I’m assuming you have already finished Part 1 of Getting A Japanese Driver’s License. This post continues from that one and goes over the remainder of the process, so be sure to check that one out before reading on!

At this point, you have handed in all of your paperwork, and the administrative part of the process is out of the way. For the most part, this first half is straightforward, albeit cumbersome. The next steps are where the real work begins: the tests!

Step 2: The Written Test

I feel I’ve built up some hype here, so let me begin by saying the written test is (in this writer’s humble opinion) a joke. At the Samezu driving center in Tokyo, the test was comprised of 10 questions. It was all in English. And, assuming you have even a minuscule amount of driving experience, was pretty much a gimme. You will need to get at least 7 questions correct, but I strongly feel that with a review session or two this should be no problem at all.

For context, one of the questions asked whether I should drive in an intoxicated state. If the answer to this question is difficult for you, I imagine you should not be driving in any country. I found that the remaining 9 questions weren’t much more difficult. In fact, I finished the test in less than two minutes and had to wait for the test center agent to confirm I had finished. That being said, I did get one question wrong, which asked me to identify a sign I had never seen before. So again, be sure to have at least one or two review sessions in which you look up the various road signs in Japan.

The following two resources are pretty helpful for getting familiar with the test beforehand:

Step 3: The Driving Test

If the written test is the mini-boss of the game, then the driving test is the secret boss which makes the games final boss look like cake. Coming from the states, and from what I can remember from my first driving test, I can tell you that the Japanese driving test is definitely much harder. The level of scrutiny, the required skills tested and the overall level of driving skill needed to pass are all held to a much higher standard than in Pennsylvania USA. (I hear that Japanese Citizens actually have to take an even more rigorous test, but I have no way of confirming this.)

Couple that with the incredibly structured way in which the test is implemented, and it’s easy to see why most people are intimidated by the test. That being said, I definitely feel the level of pressure and fear surrounding the test is a bit much, and that the actual test is much more reasonable than it’s made out to be. So, to demystify and hopefully reduce the level of anxiety on the subject, I present to you my experience with the driving test. I should quickly note that I failed my first time around (completely my fault and had nothing to do with the difficulty of the test), and will be describing my second attempt.

The Arrival

Upon arriving at the designated test area in the driver’s center, I was told to wait in a medium size “classroom”. There were about 20 or so other test takers and together we waited until a staff member came in to tell us all what was going on. Once someone did arrive, they called our names one by one, handed us a test sheet and had us sit in an ordered fashion in three different groups. (The number of groups will depend on the number of people taking the test, and whether there are people taking the manual test.)

The Introduction

From here, the staff member launched into a presentation of the test, some of the basic things they would be looking for during the test, as well as the procedures for test takers. The explanation was entirely in Japanese, however, they do give us the opportunity to ask questions to clarify afterward.

My Japanese is far from perfect, so I couldn’t catch everything. That being said, the short presentation was pretty simple with very clear visuals. Some of the things I definitely did understand were:

  • Be sure to stop behind the line when approaching a stop sign, traffic light, or blinking red light thingy.
  • When turning left, stick to the left side of the lane.
  • When turning right, stick to the right side of the lane.
  • If another car is approaching, be sure to understand the concept of right-of-way.
  • Do not touch the curb, ever.
  • After the crank (more on this later), when turning right, make sure to turn into the left-most lane.

I don’t think there were any other points that weren’t immediately obvious to me. Aside from these, perhaps the only other important thing to understand was the process of taking the test itself and the waiting that’s involved.

The Wait

To start, the tester(s) took 2 people from each group with them to the car. In Samezu, this was outside on the second floor. The way it worked was fairly systematic. Test taker A sat in the driver’s seat, while test taker B sat in the back. Once test taker A finished their test, they exited the vehicle and test taker B moved to the front. In the interim, test taker C was called out via an on-screen message to enter the vehicle as the next passenger. This happened over and over again until all test takers finished their tests.

From inside the room, we basically sat and chatted until our number appeared on a large screen at the front of the room. Honestly, this waiting made the experience a bit more stressful than it needed to be, but in the end was quite efficient. The benefit of not going first, obviously, is that you get to watch the test taker before you take the test. This means you get to feel out the course and see what you are in for. For the most part, your test will be almost identical to the persons before you. If you happen to be first, tough luck I suppose. Although, if you just take your time and relax, I’m sure there won’t be any problems.

The Test

When it finally was my turn, I found the tester to be very quiet. Aside from giving directions, there was little else said. The test itself was pretty straightforward: I simply listened to where I needed to turn or go straight, then did it. If you aren’t very good at Japanese, you will only need to know your numbers as well as the words for right, left and straight (migi, hidari and mou sugu). The course will have numbered roads which the tester will tell you to turn right or left into.

There are two points here which I think might be worth discussing in more detail. That is the s-turn and crank. The s-turn is hopefully self-explanatory. You turn into an s-shaped road. However this road is very narrow, and driving through it at a normal speed will more than likely cause you to hit a curb and fail. So take your time here. Do not go at a normal speed. In fact, it is expected for you to drive cautiously and slowly through it.

As for the crank (two 90 degree turns in the shape of a crank), pretty much the same advice applies. Take it slow! One other thing worth mentioning that it seems most testers will not tell you is it is okay to back up while you are in the middle of both the s-turn and the crank. You don’t have to make it in one go, so feel free to back up a total of three times I believe. I ended up having to back up during the crank twice, once at each 90-degree turn.

The first time I failed, was because, after the crank, I turned right into the right-most lane instead of the left-most. A rookie mistake by all accounts and definitely entirely my fault.

Aside from this foolish mistake, I’d say a few things to be aware of are:

  • The tester expects you to drive cautiously, so actively look around and inspect your surroundings.
  • There are a few long stretches of road (Or at least relative to the other roads on the course). Here you will want to speed up to about 30-40.
  • There may be another car on the road. You might have to interact with it or you might not. It’s not always a part of the test (As its another test taker).

The Results

So you’ve finished your test and have exited the vehicle after parking at the designated start/stop area. Next, you will go to the passenger seat and receive a piece of paper from the tester. If this paper is yellow, you have failed the test and must reschedule at the designated counter. If it is pink, you have passed and must wait in the same classroom where you received instructions.

If you fail the test, you will need to pay 2200 yen in order to make your next attempt. If you pass your test, congratulations, the hard work is done. Now all that is left to do is wait for everyone to finish, then follow the tester(s) to another area of the building where they will collect your paperwork and get you set up for a photo. I’d go into more detail here, but this part is pretty much going to point A, follow some instructions then going to point B. Rinse and repeat until you are told to wait for about an hour or two. At some point, you will also have to pay 2100 yen in order to get your actual license card.

Once you’ve done all of this, you will be led to another area where you can collect your brand-spankin’ new Japanese driver’s license. All that will be left for you to do is get a car and hit the mean streets of Japan!

Getting A Japanese Driver’s License – Part 1

For a long while, the idea of getting a Japanese driver’s license was enigmatic for me. I had heard lots of rumors of how difficult it was and of the complications imposed on you when you actually did get one (apparently for Italians, once you get your Japanese driver’s license your Italian license is revoked). And so when it came time to get mine, I was admittedly very anxious. But to my surprise, while the process was a bit cumbersome, I was pleased to discover it was very manageable.

Before diving into the process, I should probably mention getting a driver’s license is different depending on which country you are from. For example, if you are from Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Monaco, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, The United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Taiwan, or South Korea, you are not required to take any tests. (US citizens of either Maryland or Washington are also exempt from taking the test.) Furthermore, if you didn’t have a license in your home country for more than 3 months before moving to Japan, you will have to go through an entirely different process altogether.

So to clarify, I am a US citizen, I had been driving for almost 10 years before moving to Japan, and I live in Tokyo. So in my case, I simply converted my US drivers license into a Japanese one. The remainder of this post will outline the steps I took to get there, the necessary documents, and what I experienced each step of the way.

Step 1: The Documents

The documents you will need are as follows:

  • Valid foreign drivers license
  • Residence card
  • A Japanese translation of your foreign license (more on this follows)
  • A residence certificate (Juminhyo) (also more on this follows)
  • Passport + A document proving you lived in your home country for at least 3 months while you had your license
  • A photo

Most of this is pretty straightforward if you live here. Your residence card and passport are documents you must have while living in Japan anyway. Hopefully, you still have your foreign drivers license and it is not expired. As for the photo, this can be taken at any of the photo booths found in most large stations. There is also likely one at the drivers licensing center you will be going to. Perhaps the trickiest parts here are the translation and residence certificate.

The Juminhyo

Your residence certificate can be found at your local ward office. You must be sure to go to the ward office associated with the ward you are a resident of. This may sound silly, but living between two wards can be a bit tricky, so be sure to double check! The cost for me was something like 300 yen. And because I went during a weekday while everyone was working, the wait time was pretty minimal. (I advise you do the same, but in my experience, even during peak hours ward offices aren’t too bad.)

The Translation

There are two places for you to obtain a Japanese translation of your foreign driver’s license:

  1. JAF
  2. Your Embassy in Japan

JAF happened to be closer to my apartment, so I went with them. When you go for the translation, be sure you set aside a good half day. The process will take anywhere from 2-3 hours so bring a book or plan to do something nearby. (their website claims that the translation can take up to two weeks, but I haven’t heard of anyone having to wait that long.) You will need to bring your residence card, your foreign driver’s license, and a completed application form for the Japanese Translation . Once you bring all of the required documentation, the translation will cost around 3000 yen as of the writing of this post.

After you’ve put together all of the documents for your Japanese driver’s license, you will need to make a trip out to a Driving License Testing and Issuing center. It’s very important that you verify the center you visit is a Testing and Issuing center as some do not provide these services.

Here, a bit of Japanese comprehension will go a long way. For me, the staff did not even attempt to speak English. Most of the employees wouldn’t even slow their rate of speech. If your Japanese isn’t up to snuff though, don’t worry, just be patient and keep asking them to repeat themselves. There is no penalty for asking too many questions. At this point, you will simply be going from window to window filling out paperwork, submitting paperwork, waiting for verification, and at some point making a payment of about 1800 yen. Also, during the visit you will be required to take an eye exam, so make sure to have your glasses or contact lenses if you need them.

One problem I ran into while I was handing in all of my paperwork was that my passport had been renewed just before I moved to Japan, and so I didn’t have proper documentation showing I had lived in my home country for at least 3 months prior to moving to Japan. This caused a huge fuss. I found that the staff were very quick to dismiss me and assume I had absolutely no way of obtaining such a document on the spot. However, after a very stressful exchange of words and a lot of google searching, I found I could print out my driving history from my state’s driver’s licensing center website, which did the trick. If you take anything away from this, it’s to be sure you have that proof BEFORE you get to the center.

It was pretty interesting going through this stage. It almost felt like I was doing a small stamp rally:
going from floor to floor to the various counters and making a small exchange, to then move on to another window on another floor. In any case, once you’ve finished the process, you will be scheduled for the next leg of the journey, the tests.