Like many things in Japan, getting your driver’s license is a show, and the speed and ease with which you get your license is directly proportional to how well you play your part. But, like it or not, you are unfortunately expected to play a part and it is easy to play the wrong one. I have no doubt that there are many ways to find success with this process, and what follows is simply one that worked for me. It is a path that emphasizes speed and low levels of stress more than anything else. It is neither the cheapest (or the most expensive) way that someone can take the test. But, for me, the time and aggravation that I saved by passing the test the first time was well worth the marginally higher cost. I hope it is helpful to you.
There are a couple of basic elements that you should know before you begin to take the test. First, the Japanese drivers license center believes that its test is better (and harder) than foreign tests. Therefore, regardless of how long you have been driving, they unfortunately think of you as an inferior driver. You must convince them otherwise. Second, Japanese people routinely spend 200,000 or 300,000 yen specifically to avoid the trouble and learn how to take a test that foreigners have been trying to take cold. The test is difficult, and there are lots of small things to remember. However, if you are patient and do some small, subtle things you can significantly increase your chances of passing. Third, you won’t even get close to taking the test without having your paperwork 100 percent in order. Part of my theory for why I was able to pass the first time is because they simply had no reason to fail me. If your paperwork is out of order and you have return to the driving center a couple of times simply to get through your paper work, you are going to have a hard time passing the driving part of the test the first time. If you have your paperwork together, silly as it sounds, it shows them that you are serious, and that you have thought about what needs to be done.
You will need to get your driver’s license translated at JAF. This will cost some money, but you have no choice. Do it well before you want to start taking the test. They can do it the same day for you, but save yourself the time, aggravation and money of doing it this way and have them mail it to you. It will take about two weeks. For more information on this part of the process, click here.
If you have any paperwork out of the ordinary it will need to be translated, but it doesn’t need to be professionally translated. My drivers license was issued less than 90 days before I left to come to Japan. I avoided any problems with this by going on the Internet and ordering a detailed driving history for my previous driver’s license (this took two weeks). I just asked one of my English teachers to translate it, sign it, date it and clearly write their job title and phone number at the bottom of the paper. This gives the driving center the opportunity to call the person to ask questions and lets them know that someone is confident enough with the translation to put their name on it (which is basically all they want).
Pre-driving center notes
- The people who give you the test are actual police officers. They are not happy to be there and they are even less happy dealing with foreigners. Accordingly, it will help you a lot to show a great deal of respect to them.
- Never show up late. In fact, show up early (refer to the schedule below).
- Dress up as professionally as possible every time you go to the center. Ties and jackets for guys. Subdued professional for woman.
- Bring a translator and ask them to dress up too. Specifically, tell them before that you need them to be as “majime” as possible, they will understand.
- Prepare yourself to be as frustrated as you have ever been but not to get upset or show a negative emotion. If you need to, put something in a pocket that you can squeeze, but do not ever get upset or emotional (it is the death kiss of the whole process).
- Make sure that you will have a translator that you trust to go with you and ask them well ahead of time. I had a different person translate for me on the first and second day. One was an older, well-educated, professional woman. The other person was a young, respectful and well-educated woman. The first spoke fluent English, the second not as well. What mattered is that they were both really serious and respectful (to both me and the police officer) and represented me well.
About the test
The absolute minimum amount of days that you must go to the test center is two; the first is to set up the test and give them the paperwork, the second is to review the paperwork and take the tests. You do not need an appointment for the first day. You will need an appointment for the second day, and the appointments for foreigners can only be made in the afternoon at 1 or 3 p.m. What this means is that you may not be able to get an appointment for a few days; be prepared for this.
As I said before, passing this test quickly is all about recognizing the part that you have to play and playing it well. Please keep this in mind when you read the schedule below, as there many things that may seem needless or silly, but I really believe made the difference. I chose to begin the process on a Monday for a variety of reasons: you will be rested, they will be rested and it will be less crowded at the center. I also tried to schedule the test for a Friday at 1 p.m. This appointment is nice because you can then take your second driving lesson from 11 a.m. to noon the same day of your test, walk the real course with your driving instructor, rest and then take the test. If you don’t get the 1 p.m. appointment time, then you have to wait around to take the test because you and the driving instructor can only walk the course from noon to one (and this makes a big difference).
- 10:30 a.m. Arrive at driving center with completed paperwork, gaijin card, international license, passport, native country driver’s license and translator.
- 10:30 to 10:45. Submit your completed paperwork. Schedule your test. You should be able to schedule it the same week (I was able to get an appointment for Friday at 1 p.m.). When you give them your paperwork they will only make sure that everything is there; they won’t review it right away. After you schedule your appointment, have your translator ask the policeman where the driving school is (and have them say that you are planning on taking lessons before the test). The school is pretty obviously right next to the driving center, but the important thing here is that you tell him that you are going there so that he knows that you will have taken lessons.
- 10:45. Walk to the driving school. (They should be able to fit you in right away. An hour lesson is 5000 yen. Your translator can ride in the car with you and should do so. You can also schedule your second hour lesson for the hour before your test at this time.
- 11 to noon. Driving lesson.
- Noon. Return to the driving center. Request to see the police officer again. Your translator should respectfully tell the officer that you have just taken a driving lesson and that the school suggested that you should walk the actual driving course. Your translator should ask permission if it is ok to walk the course and ask for a map. In fact, what you are doing here is telling the police officer that you have spent the money, done the driving lesson and are serious enough about passing that you are going to go and walk the course. If possible your translator should also mention that you already have an appointment for another lesson before your test. Even if the driving school has given you a map of the course, go and do this and ask for another copy of the map from the police officer. As silly as this sounds, I think that it was important.
- Noon to 12:20 p.m. Walk the course. Walk the whole thing. Get a feel for it, because the driving school one is different, and the actual instructors will watch you as you walk. You can walk this course daily from noon to 1 p.m., but the two times after each lesson was plenty for me.
- 12:20. Go home.
Test day (assuming 1 p.m. test time)
- 10:45 a.m. Arrive.
- 11 to noon. Driving lesson. It was really tempting to save the 5000 yen and skip the second lesson, but there are two reasons why I didn’t. First, I felt really comfortable with the course by the end of the second hour in a way that I didn’t in the first. Second, I asked the driving school instructor to go and walk to the actual test course with me following the lesson and it made a big difference. All the actual driving instructors saw me out there walking around with the driving teacher, the driving teacher talked with the driving center people and the teacher showed me the places to be careful about mistakes. They pretty much hook you up, but I got the impression that it doesn’t happen after just one lesson.
- Noon to 12:30 p.m. Walk the driving center course with the driving instructor. You must request this and is a little unusual, so ask nicely.
- 12:30 to 12:50. Eat lunch/relax/meditate.
- 12:50 to 1. Show up early for appointment and wait.
- 1 to 3. Take the test.
Basically the test is broken into three parts: paperwork, written test and driving test. With patience you should have no problem with the first two. Just don’t get upset. Stay relaxed, helpful and confident, even if you don’t feel that way.
You will have reviewed the driving test at the driving school a lot of times before you actually take the test, but basically, if you follow all of the silly rules that the driving school gives you and make sure to avoid catastrophic mistakes, you will be fine.
- No seat belt
- Rolling backward when restarting on the incline
- Rolling through a stop sign or traffic light
- Driving off the road
- Using the brake on the turn
- Driving into oncoming traffic
There are lots of little things that can quickly become catastrophic, and lots of small things that you can do to make it easier on yourself. This is the reason for going to the driving school.
In total, the cost for issuing the driver’s license, the driving school and tolls to and from the driving center were slightly less than 20,000 yen. Not cheap, but the cost of taking the test four or five times is approximately the same, and that doesn’t include the time missed from work and the frustration of not driving.
The whole process is silly, expensive, and unnecessary, but if you want to drive, it has to be done. From all the people that I have talked to, and all the things that I have heard, the worst thing that you can do is give the policeman a reason to fail you. If you are professional, thorough, prepared and a little sneaky, you should be able to pass the test the first time. If you don’t, I am certain that you will have set yourself up to pass on the second. I wish you the best of luck with the test!