The Fun of a Japanese Driver’s License Test

Unlike America where a driver's license is easier to get than a dog license, Japan makes you go through a lot of very time consuming, expensive pain (roughly five thousand dollars worth) before you can get a license.

Wonderfully, though, it used to be that if you had an international driver's permit, you could pretty much drive indefinitely on that (with minimal cost each year to renew it in your home country). And, if you had the foreign license and met a few simple criteria, you could just pay a few bucks and get a Japanese license issued from it. This was super nice for the visiting foreigner (or the Japanese who had been abroad for “long enough” — six months — to qualify).

However, as of recently, you can drive on an international permit for at most one year; any longer and you need a Japanese driver's licence. And, now instead of just giving you a Japanese license, you must take a (somewhat reduced) written and driving test before they let you convert an American license. (The licenses of some countries, such as Canada and Germany, do not require the test, because those governments have submitted the proper applications to the Japanese government.)

The written test is kindly offered in English, is only 10 questions, and contains such brain teasers as “True or false: it's important to know traffic rules in order to drive safely?”. I think I might be able to squeak by on this one.

The driving test, on the other hand, is notoriously difficult, with a first-attempt passing rate of just 30%. The thing is that it does not test whether you can drive safely, but whether you can pass the test. There is one way to do things (which is not necessarily intuitive nor safe, in some cases), and only if you can do every move exactly perfectly, and don't make a heinous mistake (such as chewing gum while taking the test), you can pass. Otherwise, you fail.

So, there are places that let you practice the test, teaching what to do in order to pass the test. With the 70% first-time failure rate in the forefront of my mind, last week I plunked down $50 for an hour-long practice session at the Kyoto Prefecture southern driver's licence testing center near Nagaokakyou City.

With the instructor's kind permission, I'd tape-recorded the entire thing, and so what follows is are some of the advice he provided along the way:

(Note: Japan drives on the left side of the road, like England/Australia, and unlike mainland Europe and North America)

  • Before getting into the car, conspicuously check in front of it and behind it, and all around it, looking to ensure that it is clear of obstructions.

  • Before actually opening the car door to get in, make a show of looking both ways (toward the direction where the car is facing, and the opposite way as well) to ensure that it's not dangerous to open the door (that a scooter isn't about to fly right past the spot on which you're standing, for example).

  • After getting into the car, do these steps in this specific order:

    1. close door
    2. lock the door
    3. adjust the seat
    4. check/adjust the mirrors

      (now ready to start)

    5. hold down brake pedal and...
    6. release the parking brake, and
    7. start the engine

      (when told to start moving...)

    8. make a show of looking forward and backward to ensure it's safe to move the car. Conspicuously check mirrors.
    9. release the break pedal
    10. pull out

  • When turning right, the left side of the car should pass just inside (to the right) of the center of the intersection. The center of most intersections at the test center are marked with a large orange painted dot the size of a beach ball — you'll want to just graze it on the smooth arc of path from the rightmost lane of the road you're turning from to the leftmost lane of the road you're turning onto.

  • When turning, don't accelerate. Accelerate after the turn is complete.

  • When turning left, be sure to not briefly counter-steer out toward the right just before the sharp turn to the left. I had this tendency (to provide a better approach angle), but he said that a turn should begin from a straight-on position.

  • When turning (especially left), go slow. Very, very (walking-speed) slow. I kept going way to fast, even though I went much slower than I thought was reasonable.

  • When approaching an intersection at which you intend to turn left, drift over to the left side of the lane to pinch off the side of the road such that it's less inviting for a scooter/motorcycle to try to zip past you between you and the curb. (This helps avoid them speeding along the side of the road and impaling themselves into your car door as you suddenly turn.)

  • Note that there are very few places on the test track where you must stop. There is one railroad crossing (which is really just some lines painted on the ground — be sure to remember that they're supposed to represent a railroad crossing!), and one stop sign. You don't stop at any other place unless other traffic dictates (e.g. when you're on a smaller road and wish to enter a larger road that currently has traffic).

    I had to fight the test-taking try-to-exaggerate-safety urge to stop more often. At the test track where I did the practice, there was in intersection with traffic signals, but the lights were not in use. I don't know if this is because they were broken, or because they are not used for the test. In any case, unlike America, an unworking traffic light is apparently taken as a no-stop situation (while in America, an unworking traffic light is taken as an all-way stop).

  • When you do stop somewhere, stop just before the line (but exaggerate a bit, so that it's clear you're clearly not on/over the line).

  • Before changing lanes:

    1. Turn on turn signal
    2. Look behind over your shoulder, on the side you'll be turning (to see whether where you intend to go is empty/safe)
    3. Start and complete the lane change.

    You want about 3 seconds to elapse from #1 to #3. Be sure to pause slightly between each step (I have the habit of doing the first two at the same time). Be sure the lane change is smooth.

  • When preparing to turn, turn on turn signal 30m (visualize 3 full-size tour bus lengths) before you turn, even if there are other intersections, turnoffs, or 90-degree bends in the road during that 30m. (I think it is quite dangerous, as it means that you are required to go straight through some intersections with your blinker running.)

    Follow the steps above... 1) at 30m before the intended turn, turn on the turn signal, then 2) look back over your shoulder to check for safety, then 3) continue forward until the turn point and turn.

  • If you're on a road which has two lanes in the direction you're traveling, you'll want to generally run in the left lane (since that's the “slow lane”). If you intend to turn right at an intersection, you'll need to move to the right lane before doing the turn. You'll want to pick a point to start the lane change such that when you're done, you'll be about 30m from the intersection. Thus, you'll have your turn signal on for three seconds (for the lane change), and by the time you're done you'll need it on because you're about 30m from the intersection, so the turn signal stays on the whole time. (I wanted to turn it off for a moment in between, to differentiate my actions from someone forgetting to have turned the turn signal off).

  • When preparing to stop, don't just slowly get onto the brakes until you stop, but rather do it in a few steps (e.g. letting off them for a bit halfway through a slow slowdown). The reason for this is to cause your brake lights to flash a time or two, thus being more attention-getting to those behind you. (In the test car, on the dash in front of the instructor, are lights which indicate your use of the break, accelerator, turn signals, etc., so during the test, no action or inaction will escape notice.)

  • When making a turn which requires quite a bit of steering-wheel movement, be sure to turn it with a hand-over-hand motion, not a shuffle-shuffle type of turning. (Tip from someone at JAF, the Japanese version of AAA).

  • When coming to a stop, complete the stop and then make a show of looking both ways to ensure it's safe to move forward. Be sure you're well and truly stopped (say, for two or three seconds at least while you're looking around). Only then can you start to move forward.

  • When stopping at the pretend railroad crossing, put down your window a bit to listen for sound from the (nonexistent) crossing signal.

  • When approaching an intersection where you don't have the right of way, if there's any other traffic even remotely close, stop and wait for them. Be sure to wait back at the line where you're supposed to wait, and not up sort of closer to the intersection where everyone actually does wait in real life (or, where they would, were they to actually ever wait for someone else.)

  • Some of the small roads are so narrow that I instinctively placed the car in the center of the lane-width road, but (unless it's a one-way street) if there's no centerline you at least want to be toward the left side of the road. So, be sure to note if there are any one-ways on the course you'll take, and if not, don't mistakenly drive in the center of the small roads.

  • After parking at the end of the test:

    1. engage parking break
    2. put car in park
    3. engine off
    4. seat-belt off


Some other random comments:

  • The test for gaimenkirikae (the converting of a foreign license) is pretty short and simple, with a few intersections and turns (including one cramped “S” curve encased in tall traffic cones just waiting to be bumped), but no backing up or parking.

  • You really need to memorize the route (you'll be given a map when you file your paperwork and take the written test). The tester may well tell you “turn left at #14” (in Japanese, of course), but by the time he says it, it may well be too late. So, memorize the course.

  • You can walk the actual course during lunchtime, when it is otherwise closed.

  • There may be other traffic on the course while you take the test.

The site www.japandriverslicense.com has a lot of information in English about Japanese driver's licenses, and driving. It's very helpful.


All 14 comments so far, oldest first...

Great information. Americans do have it the worst. I have actually won a lawsuit though recently. Though the Japanese won’t admit it, there is some discrimination. 75% is passing. Also they like to ask you if you practiced the course and how many times. I knew this from a friend who had been driving in Japan for 12 years with the military license. He failed the first time. Why, they couldn’t say. Just not ready for the road yet. He told me about the question about practicing the course. There is not a instructor with you during the practice and no stamp saying you practiced or not. Just pay the money and practice. I never practiced, but I told the instructor I practiced 20 times. I also told him that my friend was a driving instructor and came to watch the test. I intentionally made common mistakes and tried to fail the first test. Guess what? I passed with 100%. That is all I needed to take the yellow man to court. Now the rules have changed here in Hokkaido and the center is scared. They dont like me either, but oh well. I have been driving since I was sixteen and was not going to listen to there bullshit. The paper test they give is a joke. I have taken the real test, it is hard. The one for foreigners is so easy my son could pass it. But yet the driving test is so hard? Not is my book. Great site man.

— comment by Stephen Hunter on May 21st, 2005 at 5:02pm JST (12 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

Fantastic! I’m planning on taking the manual automobile driving test in Tokyo (Samezu) next week. The 10 questions were cake, the people were actually very friendly and things generally went pretty smooth. This is just fantastic.

I didn’t know about the 3 month rule though, so I just had taken the motorcycle license test in California 1 month before coming to Japan. So, gonna have to take the harder skills test I guess.

Any advice for that?

— comment by Kevin Coyle on July 1st, 2005 at 3:32pm JST (12 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Hi.

I’ve heard 10 questions. But I took the scooter license and it was 48 questions. Any ideas?

thanks.
robert

— comment by Robert on November 28th, 2005 at 6:23pm JST (12 years ago) comment permalink

I don’t know, Robert, but if I were forced to speculate, I would guess that the “10 questions” refers to when getting a Japanese car license based upon a foreign one. I would guess further that there is no such method to get a scooter license (or, at least, no shortcut’d test), so I’m guessing that you simply took the standard scooter license test. (It’s my understanding that a scooter-only license is substantially more easy to get than a car license; a car license includes the right to drive a scooter.)

— comment by Jeffrey Friedl on November 28th, 2005 at 6:59pm JST (12 years ago) comment permalink

Just got my license on the first try, in large part to the advice in your column! Thanks! The test in Kumamoto was a little different with 53 questions, mostly the same thing over and over…Do you like to drive when you are mad?, Does passing cars make you feel powerful? ; ]
The company I work for had an additional step where I had to drive around with an instructor for 4 hours…after riding with me for 10 minutes, we started talking about Elvis and North Korea.

thanks for the info!

Dave

— comment by HemiDave on April 3rd, 2007 at 12:27pm JST (10 years, 8 months ago) comment permalink

Thanks so much for this information—it was so helpful! You might want to add fastening the seat belt to the start up stuff. I have a few questions–sometimes I’m a bit retarded in understanding.

1) About the “beach ball dot”–,,,”you’ll want to just graze it on the smooth arc of path from the rightmost lane of the road you’re turning from to the leftmost lane of the road you’re turning onto.” Not quite able to picture what you mean by the “smooth arc of path” and onwards. Do you mean that one stays to the right of it, just grazing the edge?

Yes, Susan, stay to the right of the paint. Don’t go over the paint, nor stray far from it.

2) What does “shuffle-shuffle” kind of movement mean? Today, when driving with a friend, I asked her to watch me closely and when I crossed my arms when making a long turn, she said I shouldn’t do that.

Imagine turning to the left. At some point in turning the wheel to the left you’ll want to reposition your hands. In doing this, do not let go with the left hand, cross the right, to reclutch the handle and continue the turn. Rather, loosen your grip with the right hand slightly and slide it right to the normal position on the wheel, then while holding with your right hand, loosen the grip with your left hand and slide to the top of the wheel. You can then turn the wheel further to the left. Rinse and repeat. The point is that you always keep two hands on the wheel. They like to see that.

3) As you said, in many places, you can’t actually see if traffic is coming if you stop at the line. Now, if I stop at the line and can’t see and then move up and then see someone and stop again, will this be a problem?

I don’t know how the test-takers will view it, but unless you hear otherwise, I’d do what you think is safest.

4) What kind of car do you test in? I drive one of these super tiny cheap cars and I’m afraid that if I’m driving a bigger car, or even a different car, I’ll have trouble gauging distances as well in turning.

They use a non-descript sedan similar to the Toyota Crown model used by most taxi companies. Very plane, but larger than a kei. Since they’ll likely fail you several times no matter what, you’ll get some time in it during the first runs. If your area is the same as here, you can also take the sample test from a private company ahead of time. That’s how I got most of my information, from having spent 6,000 yen or whatever it was for my hour of instruction. Was well worth it. —Jeffrey

Okay, know I’m trying to get a lot of mileage out of this nice free info–sorry if I asked too many questions!

Thanks again for what you’ve given. It’s been a real help!

Susan

— comment by Susan Allen on June 11th, 2007 at 7:41pm JST (10 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer, Jeffrey! Your blog has been so helpful! Very dismaying about the big car…!

— comment by Susan Allen on June 12th, 2007 at 8:07pm JST (10 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

I’ve got the driving licence for ordinary vehicle,big bike,big truck,bus,and i am going to take the licence for tire shobel.If somebody has questions you can ask me how i didn it.The thing is i spent alot of money…200.000 yeni for driving classes,i had to because i wanted to understand the teacher’s points.I got the licences not from the first time-car=3 times,bike=2 times , truck=5 times,trowing=2 times(tractor)…and that was a lot of money too.I had the test in Kyoto and this was happening since 1 month ago.I was takeing the truck test from monday to friday,everyday…it was shamed but i learned good things.

— comment by JOHN on August 22nd, 2007 at 9:43pm JST (10 years, 4 months ago) comment permalink

Hey thanks a lot for this. I’m going to be taking my paper test in the next couple of days. And the driving test soon. Will study your comments. Thanks again!

— comment by Yoshi on September 11th, 2007 at 11:49pm JST (10 years, 3 months ago) comment permalink

I just got my license on the first try largely due to the advice on this page. I live in Oita-ken and took my test in Oita-shi. Here are some comments on my experience:

The first thing they did was interview me about my driving history and asked a lot of details about the process I went through to get my initial license 23 years ago. I am still not sure what the purpose of that was.

Second was the 10 questions. They were mostly easy but the English translations weren’t the best so I missed 1 question. I think you are allowed to miss 3.

They do a vision test. I am blind in one eye so to pass the test, I had to pass a field of vision test to see how far left and right my vision goes when focusing straight ahead. I don’t know if they normally do that test, but they did for me and I passed it with no problem.

For the actual driving portion, they gave me a map and told me I had to memorize the route. The test facilitator does not tell you where to go. During the test, he is completely silent and you are supposed to remember the route by yourself.

Before taking the test, the facilitator actually drives you through the course once and tells you exactly what you have to do to pass the test. His instructions are all in Japanese though so if you are not fluent, you should have someone along to translate. In my case, my wife rode with us and she translated everything the guy said. The test is more about whether you do everything he says to do and less about actual driving ability so if you can’t understand what he is saying, you will probably not pass. In my case, he was happy (actually shocked) that I did nearly everything he said so he gave me a pass.

A week before my test, I did go to the driving center and practiced on the actual course. This proved to be essential for me as it gave me a chance to practice the very tight S curves and L curves. Without that practice, I would not have been able to pass.

Anyway — thank you Jeffrey for this page and this information. It was very helpful.

— comment by Darren on March 2nd, 2008 at 9:12am JST (9 years, 9 months ago) comment permalink

I just had my written test today, and I passed.

but i couldnt do my driving test cos it was full. so i have to go there again next 2 weeks.

but i have been wondering where my original application form is..
i just have the copy of it right now.
do you guys remember whether they took your original application form after you made an appointment to the driving test?

im so nervous about the driving test, bcos nobody said its easy.

thanks for your advices.

any other advice?

— comment by bian on May 8th, 2008 at 10:36pm JST (9 years, 7 months ago) comment permalink

Wow, this is how you are describing swedish driver license test!
its exactly same procedure when driving, you have to check everything!
Thats why japanese driver license can be converted to swedish.

— comment by Marcus on February 7th, 2012 at 11:42pm JST (5 years, 10 months ago) comment permalink

If you are moving to Tochigi, you are just bleeped. The pass rate on the test from my observations is between 5% and 10%. The fewest I’ve heard of is passing on the fifth try. The most is 22 and counting. The average is around 10. The evaluators simply make stuff each time, and never tell you anything more than you were too fast or two slow or not far enough to the left or right when turning, inevitably contradicting what they said on your last failure or what the guy at the driving school told you during your practice runs. I’ve never encountered anything this incompetent and obviously corrupt in government except American immigration…and that is saying a lot.

A lot of people around here have just given up, after wasting days of vacation time (each fail takes a FULL day off work, despite the test only being 15 minutes) and tens of thousands of yen. The US government should hold Japan’s feet to the fire over this. Most states do not require Japanese to take a driving test, and those that do only require a test designed for 16 year old’s with minimal driving experience that even they overwhelmingly pass.

The one problem with that last part is that there is no “US driver’s license”… each state does it itself. The Japanese government is not going to negotiate with 50 separate state licensing agencies, so in the end the mismatch between government setups of Japan and the United States makes for less-than-favored-nation status for US license holders. —Jeffrey

— comment by Chad on June 25th, 2013 at 10:50pm JST (4 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink

hi jeffrey just wanna ask couple of question im really struggling in my drivers license test. dont know where did i go wrong or if im mistaken or not;(
heres my question
1. if your engine is in high gear, braking force inceases?
2. when traveling in gravel road, it is recommended to use brakes or throttle as much as possible?
3.when choosing motor vehicle it is recommended that your toes touches the ground when you seated?
4. you may not use automobile or moped without third party insurance or mutual relief insurance?
im taking in (osaka)specificaly kadoma license center, i really hope to get an answer thank you !

You should really ask a Japanese driving instructor, since the answers they want may be different from the answers that make sense. —Jeffrey

— comment by ken ichiro on June 27th, 2013 at 11:05pm JST (4 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink
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