I read that you are soliciting information on experiences of foreigners in obtaining a Japanese driver's license. I guess I am one of those lucky few. I converted my US license to a Japanese one on the first try. It was Wed., Oct. 16, at the licensing center in Mito. I did not have an international license (my oversight before leaving the US), so I had not been behind the wheel for 1.5 months, and had never driven in Japan prior to taking the driving test. I think it helped that I can speak and read Japanese fairly fluently.
How did I prepare?
1. I accustomed myself to driving on the left by bicycling. 2. I picked up a copy of the rules of the road (in Japanese), at the Tsukuba central police station. I studied the whole thing but did not memorize every detail. 3. The day before the test, a neighbor allowed me to sit in the driver's seat of his car. I learned that although the steering wheel was on the opposite side from in the US the foot pedals were in the same places I was used to (big relief). 4. Mentally, I prepared by reminding myself often of how my first driver's test had been in the US. The attention to detail, to "doing things right", and the ambiance of subservience to the examiner.
Experiences during the test:
All spoken exchanges reported below took place in Japanese (but I was given an English version of the written test).
At the first window, when registering to take the test, the examiner assured me that the driving test was very difficult. I explained to him that I had studied the rules properly and needed a car to function in Tsukuba, so I would just have to do my best. I had been thinking of taking the test in a manual transmission car, but the examiner assured me that would be even harder, so I opted for the automatic.
The 10-question written test was a breeze. I would have passed even if I hadn't studied the driver's manual. The examiner assured me that it would be more difficult from here on.
About 20 foreigners went to the drive test waiting room and were assigned an order (I think it was the order in which we registered), and I was one of the last. He explained the test course. If memory serves, three people ride in the car -- the examiner, the testee, and the next testee. I got quite nervous as I watched the vehicles maneuvering precisely. I had to do some relaxation and centering exercises and tell myself that there was no reason I couldn't do what was required, with a little good luck. Eventually I stopped watching and wrote a letter (bring something to read or write!). Shortly before it would be my turn, lunch break was announced. The examiner suggested that those of us left take some time during lunch to walk around the test course. After a not-so-tasty curry rice, I did walk the course. I found this very helpful, pretending to use the turn signal, etc. Finally it was my turn to passenger. The driver ahead of me did well, which again helped me understand the course.
At last it was my turn to drive. I knew to check in front and behind the car before getting in. Then I adjusted the seat, checked and adjusted the mirrors, familiarized myself with the location of various controls, and got ready to drive. The first thing I intended to do was signal before checking my blind spot and pulling out. What do you think I did? That's right, I turned on the wipers by mistake. I thought, "It's all over now. The rest of this will just be practice for my next attempt. Failed without even leaving the parking place!" I had the impression that my mistake would mean an automatic failure. I thought I had turned off the wipers, when to my chagrin I found they were on intermittent. Finally with the wipers off, I signalled correctly and drove the course, not nearly as nervous as before. I concentrated intensely on keeping left, and on using the correct hand for the turn signal. The hardest part of the course were the two right angle turns on the narrow road with the metal bars hanging down on each side. Maneuvering precisely in tight quarters is not my forte, and the test cars are not small. I slowed way down, and in one instance I even had to back up and adjust my position (I apologized for this). I can't imagine backing up is viewed well by examiners, but it's got to be better than hitting a bar or going off the road.
I was told by the examiner to wait. I didn't realize that that meant I had passed, but some Taiwanese graduate students tipped me off to that effect. They helped me negotiate the ensuing maze of getting the photo (it was hard to keep the self-satisfied look off my face), the eye test, and paying the fee. They also gave me a ride back to Tsukuba, so I didn't need to wait for the 4:30 bus. The examiner dropped some of his previously stern manner, and asked me some questions:
1. You seem to be a very experienced driver. Do you drive a lot?
Answer: In the US, a lot, but not yet once in Japan.
2. Then how did you practice for the test?
Answer: On my bicycle, and I read the driver's manual.
3. Be careful about confusing the turn signal and the wipers.
Answer: Yes-- I intend to practice carefully now that I will have a license and can buy a car.
By the way, I have been described as "majime na hito" (a serious/earnest person). I don't know if it's possible to influence the response of the examiner by personal attitude, but I do know that I made some mistakes and I still passed.
That's the end of my driver's license experience. I hope it is useful for other foreigners trying to pass the test.
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