Get a Driver’s License in Japan, How to Pass the Driving Test

Getting your Japanese driver’s license can be intimidating, especially when you hear stories about people failing their driving tests multiple times. Here are some tips to help you pass your test the first time.

My purpose is to provide practical information based on my own experience. I have a current US driver’s license, so I was eligible for a simplified process (paperwork, fees, an easy written test, and a “simple” driving test on an enclosed course). I will describe all of this in detail below, including information that may help you pass the driving test on your first or second try. I completed this process at the Kanagawa Licensing Center in Yokohama, but the principles should apply at other licensing centers.

People used to drive on International Driver’s Licenses for years in Japan, but the law changed years ago. Now you’ll have to pay a hefty fine if you are caught driving with an International Driver’s License after living here for more than a year.

UPDATE AND CAVEAT:  I have heard from MANY people over the years who say this advice helped them to pass their driving tests on the first try, and I think the advice and principles still apply today despite having written the following more than 10 years ago. Some things change very slowly in Japan. In 2011, there was a story on the CNN travel website that confirmed my page, and they even used my image of the course map (see below). That being said, supplement what I’ve written with your own research.  If you read this and have input, please leave a comment.

PART ONE: REQUIREMENTS FOR GETTING A JAPANESE DRIVER’S LICENSE

1. If you have a valid, current drivers license from an approved country and you drove there for a period of time (I think 6 months) before coming to Japan, then you qualify for a simplified process. They call this “exchanging” your foreign driver’s license for a Japanese license, although you don’t actually give up your foreign license. In some cases, you may need to provide documentation that you actually lived in the other country during the time that you were license to drive there. You’re not supposed to get a driver’s license while on vacation and then use it to shortcut the process (although that may be worth a try if your desperate). If you qualify for the simplified process, then scroll down to the next section.

2. If you don’t qualify for the simplified process, then you’ll need to go through the same steps that a Japanese person must take to get a driver’s license. It’s a very long, tedious and expensive process. Fortunately, I know next to nothing about it, but scroll down to the bottom of this page and you’ll find some links that will help you get started.

PART TWO: THE SIMPLIFIED PROCESS FOR PEOPLE HOLDING A VALID, CURRENT DRIVER’S LICENSE FROM AN APPROVED COUNTRY THAT THEY USED FOR AT LEAST 6 MONTHS BEFORE COMING TO JAPAN

NOTE: YOU MAY NOT HAVE TO TAKE THE DRIVING TEST. Canadian and Australian citizens don’t have to take the driving test, and this may apply to citizens from some other countries as well. Some countries have worked out special arrangements for their citizens. If you are a citizen of the USA, then unfortunately you DO have to take the driving test. According to the US Embassy they are working with Japan to change this, but Japan requires a fairly monumental amount of paperwork (even by Japanese standards) before they’ll give US citizens this exemption.

BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE

You need a translation of your foreign driver’s license through an approved source. Most people use the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF), which is like Triple A in the USA. You can either mail them a copy of your foreign license (and it takes several days), or go to a JAF office and get your translation done while you wait. You’ll find a link for JAF at the bottom of this page.

DAY 1

Go to the Licensing Center that serves your area. For example, the entire Kanagawa Prefecture is served by the licensing center in Futamatagawa, and all of Tokyo is served by the licensing center in Fuchyu. There are other licensing centers, but foreigners must go to the main branches. The Kanagawa center accepts paperwork from 8:30am to 10:00am, then from 1pm to 4:00(?). Get there before 10:00 if at all possible.

Bring with you:
– Your current passport
– Your foreign driver’s license
– The translation of your foreign driver’s license
– Your Gaikokujin Torokushou (foreigners ID card)
– Money

Once you turn in your paperwork, they’ll have you wait awhile (get used to waiting a lot). Then they’ll guide you through several steps. You’ll need to go to another window to pay a fee (get used to that window). Then you’ll take an eye test. If you don’t speak Japanese this may be awkward, but you’ll figure out what you need to do. Eventually, you’ll take a simple written test that almost everyone passes. I’ll include a few tips below so you can make sure you’re not one of the rare people to fail.

If you pass your written test, you’ll be scheduled for your driving test. I received a paper with the time and date of the driving test. If you want to reschedule, then you may be able to do that on the spot. Otherwise, you’ll need to reschedule very soon over the phone. You should also receive a map of the driving course (you can see the Kanagawa Course map here). If the course is open for walking (usually it is during the hour before a testing block begins), then I suggest you quickly walk it once before going home.

DAY 2

Show up early for your driving test. During the hour before the test, you should be able to walk the course. You should do that if possible. At the Kanagawa center, there was a machine by a set of windows where I paid 1,100 yen and got a ticket. This was a car rental fee. Shortly before my testing time began, I took this ticket to a window. They took all my accumulated paperwork and gave me a paper with a number on it. I also had to pay another fee for the test itself (about 1,800 yen I think).

I then went to a special waiting area where I found that my driving test was not at a specific time. It was just the beginning of a two hour block of time. All the foreigners were tested in one group, and it turned out we were at the end of the time block. So we all waited for almost two hours before getting to go outside and do the test.

I’ll say more about the actual test below. Basically, though, you get in the car and drive the prescribed course. The tester only speaks to you in Japanese. The commands are very simple, so you’ll be all right with some basic knowledge of the language. Whether you understand Japanese or not, it’s best to have all the turns and elements of the course memorized so you don’t even need to listen to the commands anyway. It’s really a simple course. In fact, the Japanese people taking the test drive about twice as far and their test is more complicated. But there are many small details that the testers are looking for, and it’s very important that you know these details (rules/tricks) or you won’t pass.

If you make a “major” mistake, then you will fail immediately. The tester will simply tell you it’s over and you’ll have to return to the starting point directly without finishing the course. If you try to keep driving (for example, if you don’t understand what the tester just said), the tester will stop the car (using a separate brake) and make sure you understand.

About 9 out of 10 people fail the driving test on their first try. On my first day, only one person finished the course, and she passed. The rest of us all had to try again. Some of the people had no idea about the little rules and details the tester was looking for, so they were completely stunned when they suddenly failed. That’s why I’ve written this page and included the tips below, so that you’ll have a better chance of passing sooner.

Whether you pass or not, you need to go inside and wait for the results. If you don’t pass, you’ll be given a paper with another scheduled date to try again. You may be able to change the date on the spot if that day/time doesn’t work for you.

If you DO pass, then you should be able to complete the process and go home with your official license on the same day. You’ll need to pay another fee (1,750 yen I think), take a picture and then wait for the official license.

DAY 3

If you don’t pass, then Day 3 (and 4 etc.) are basically the same as Day 2. I had to pay a fee of 2,400 yen when I took the driving test for the second time, which was a bit more than the fee they charged the first time. Most people don’t pass until their third or fourth try, and I have heard of people trying many more times. I passed on my second try, even though I had never driven in Japan before, mainly because of all the tips I received from other people. (The first time I failed because of a nervous mistake that involved driving on the wrong side of the road…)

PART THREE: TIPS FOR PASSING THE WRITTEN TEST AND DRIVING TEST

TIPS FOR PASSING THE WRITTEN TEST

The written test that I took was quite easy. There were 10 multiple choice questions. About 7 were common sense answers. I thought for awhile about the other 3 and managed to get all of them right. You can buy an English Edition of the “Rules of the Road” (e.g., on Day 1). If you read/skim that book, you should be able to pass the written test. See my driving test tips below for principles that may help on your written test.

TIPS FOR PASSING THE DRIVING TEST

Driving-map-1200

Course Map from the Futamatagawa license center in Kanagawa

1. Learn the detailed rules/tricks to pass the driving test. You can read what I know below. I think there is enough information here so you can pass.

2. The Kanagawa center offers a one hour practice driving session on Saturdays for 8,000 yen. That’s a lot of money, but it may save you from several more wasted days. During this session you’ll become familiar with the course, and the person who drives with you can tell you the secrets of passing the test. Of course, it will help if you understand Japanese. The only person who passed in our group on her first try had done a practice session. If you are very nervous about the driving test or have a hard time learning by reading this page, then maybe you should take a practice session.

3. If possible, walk the course at least once before the test. You may be able to walk the course on Day 1, and the course should be open for walking during the hour before your testing time. (Don’t walk the course if cars are on it. Ask if you’re not sure.)

4. Remind yourself that you’re driving. Try to imagine that you’re on a real road where any mistake may cause an accident, and just be extra aware. I’m about to give you lots of detailed tips, and you’ll need to learn them. However, if you think about the details too much and forget your driving a car, you may end up driving on the wrong side of the road (like I did in my first test), instead of passing the test.

5. Don’t think too much about the person giving the test. He/she may be cold, rude or friendly. It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about him/her, but drive the car and do your best to finish the course.

6. Ok, here are some important PRINCIPLES that apply throughout the whole driving test:

Stay to the left. The left lane is for driving and the right lane is for passing. If you see a wide lane that could fit two cars, then consider it as 2 lanes whether it’s marked or not. If you drive down the center of a double wide lane you’ll fail the test for sure. Don’t drive in the gutter either, but stay within about meter or so of the left gutter. When you need to get in the right lane (for example to make a right turn), then signal in advance, check your mirrors, glance back over your right shoulder and change lanes.

Show the instructor that you are looking everywhere. Move your head all around in an exaggerated way to show you are looking in your mirrors and checking over your shoulder. If turning right or changing lanes to the right, look over your right shoulder. If turning left, look down the left side of your car (to make sure you aren’t going to run over a bicycle or pedestrian). When passing cross streets or intersecting streets obviously turn your head just to make sure some crazy, imaginary driver isn’t going to suddenly emerge. One person told me his neck was sore from bobbing all around after finally passing his test.

Stop with your bumper behind the line at stop lights and stop signs. Apparently, testers like to feel you pumping the breaks gently. Slow down in advance so you don’t jerk to a stop at the line. Don’t stop too soon. One person in my group failed for stopping too soon at a stop sign. (Stopping early may not have resulted in a fail. The problem was that he should have stopped again when he reached the sign. He didn’t, so the tester considered that rolling through the stop sign.)

Be cautious and drive slowly. Unless you take this to extremes, they won’t fail you for being to careful or driving too slowly. There is only one part of the course where they want you to speed up to 40km/hour. Even there, you don’t need to rush into it. They’ll tell you if they think you need to speed up.

Make good, clean turns at all times. Don’t swerve right before turning left, or vice versa. And be careful not to hit the curb when turning. If you ever run up on a curb that’s an instant fail.

7. Finally, here are detailed tips for specific parts of the driving test. Remember these are tips for the driving course at the Kanagawa testing center, and they may not apply to other center (or in the future or if you are testing with a standard gear shift).

When you get in the car the tester will tell you to make your preparations. You should adjust your seat, fasten your seat belt, lock the door, then look around and become familiar with where everything is (the clutch, etc.). Make sure the emergency brake is on, and be obvious about all these things. When the tester seems ready, put your foot on the brake and start the car. Holding the brake down with your right foot, put the car in gear, and then release the emergency brake. Use your turn signal to signal away from the curb where you are parked. Look in the mirror (assume you are entering traffic), and then go straight forward. (On the map, the starting point is on the left side and marked with an “S”.) The course starts in multiple lanes. Don’t change lanes here, but go straight forward to the street. Signal a right turn. Stop, look both ways, and turn. Note: In this case, you are going to turn right again almost immediately, so it’s ok to turn into the right lane.

Drive to the intersection marked “15” on the map. Signal a right turn. When it’s a green light, check both ways briefly, then pull straight forward into the intersection. Don’t turn right too quickly. Go to almost the halfway point of the intersection and then turn into the left lane.

Drive from “15” to “7” staying in the left lane. Signal a left turn as you approach “7”. Look in your mirrors and quickly over your left shoulder (for possible bicycles or pedestrians) before turning left. Turn left and stay to the left side of that wide lane. Note: The street that you are turning onto has a wide lane with no center marking, so you must stay on left side leaving room for a car to pass on your right.

You will pass through an intersection at “8” and then turn right at “9” (the number “9” is covered on the map here, but you can see where the right turn is). After passing through the intersection at “8”, then signal, look in your mirrors and over your right shoulder, and then move to the right lane in preparation to turn right. Continue to signal and look carefully as you turn right (again, turn into the left side of that lane).

Go slowly toward “3” glancing as you cross a small intersecting street, then stop at a stop sign and signal left.

Just after turning left there is a sign that means “Caution/Slow Down.” Just before the sign slow way down (to a crawl). As you very slowly move forward, make a nice show of looking carefully at the intersecting small streets to the left. After passing all these intersecting streets, speed up a little. As you approach “18” signal a left turn, then carefully turn left when you reach the turn. Be very careful not to clip the curb. And again, turn into the left side of the lane.

When you’re about halfway to “9” (the next right turn), signal a right lane change, check your mirrors, look over your shoulder and move to the right lane. Turn right at “9” and signal for a left turn as you approach “12”.

At “12” you are turning from a small side street onto a wider street. There is not stop sign, but some markings painted on the road as you approach “12” indicate that you are supposed to yield. So you should approach this turn very slowly and cautiously, looking carefully to your right. If any cars are coming, even if they are pretty far away, stop and let them pass. I know someone who failed because she turned when a car was coming, even though it was moving slowly and far away.

When you turn at “12” stay on the left side of the lane, but quickly signal for a right lane change. You will be turning right into a very narrow street just before “13” (between the smaller numbers 4 and 5 on the map). This simulates the narrow streets of Japan. On this narrow street you’ll need to make 2 sharp turns. If you run over a curb or miss the turn you’ll fail the test. The trick here is to go super slowly. For the first turn, stay left as long as you can before turning right. For the second turn, stay to the right as long as you can before turning left. Sorry, I don’t have either space or knowledge to teach you how to make these turns, but I will say for sure that the cars will fit. Someone told me that you are allowed to back up. If you sense you are touching the curb, stop and don’t run up on it. Back up slightly and correct the problem. If you do this, you may avoid failing. If you continue over a curb, you’ll fail instantly.

After making it though the narrow turns, you’ll turn left onto another wide road. Look very carefully and yield to any oncoming traffic. Again, turn into the left side of the lane, and be sure not to clip the curb as you come out of this narrow street.

You’ll cross an intersection at “16” (give a cautious look as you pass there), and then your turn into another narrow street. This one is easier. It snakes left and right. Just be careful and drive very slowly.

Then you’ll turn left again. Again, yield and be sure to stay to the left side of the lane.

Drive forward to “12” where you’ll signal and carefully turn left. Once again, turn into the left side of the lane. Immediately signal right, though, and move to the right side of the lane. Keep the right turn signal on. At “17” you must yield (again, the yield markers are painted on the road approaching this turn). Once again, there are other cars on the course, so stop if any are approaching and wait for them to pass.

When it’s clear, turn right. Go all the way to the left side of the road as usual.

The first curve in the road after “17” is a fairly sharp right curve. There isn’t a sign, but you are supposed to treat this like a blind curve and slow way down. The truth is that you can see just fine, but the trick is to slow down to a crawl as you go around the corner and make a show of looking carefully as you go.

Once around the corner you can speed up a little. However, at “11” there were cones on the left side of the road marking some sort of road hazard. As you approach these cones, signal right, look in your mirrors and over your shoulder, and switch lanes completely to the right lane. As you pass the cones, then signal left immediately, look again in your mirrors and over your left shoulder, and switch back to the left lane.

Once you pass the cones, they may ask you to speed up. Don’t speed up too much, but you may want to show you are complying by speeding up a bit. As you come around the long curve and approach “3” gradually increase speed to 40km/hour (the 40km/hour zone starts at “3” where you’ll see a sign indicated that). Don’t go too fast. Hold 40km/hour just a few seconds and then decrease speed.

At the end of the 40km/hour zone, at “1”, there was another set of cones. Slow down before the cones, signal right, look in your mirrors and over your right shoulder, and switch to the right lane. There is no need to switch back to the left lane, because you will be turning right at this point and heading back to the finish. However, slow way down and yield carefully before crossing the wide road and heading back to the finish.

At the finish you’ll head back to the same place where you started. Hopefully, you at least know your numbers in Japanese, because the tester will be telling you at the point the lane number where you should return. Pull up the the curb (don’t hit the curb now though!), and stop the car. Keep your right foot on the brake while shifting into “park.” Then turn off the engine and set the emergency brake (hand brake).

You’re done! If all went very well, the tester won’t say anything to you all all. If the tester explains an error or two, then that means you lost points. It’s still possible that you passed. One of the women in my group had two small errors and still passed, so don’t give up hope.

Finally, you should confirm all these tips as much as possible. If something doesn’t seem right, then it’s possible that the course could have changed. If that happens then please let me know.

Good luck! Leave a comment and let me know how you did.

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