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Getting A Japanese Drivers License From Scratch

Author:Michael Mozzhechkov, Issue: June 2003, Topic: Cars

If you have a valid drivers license issued in your country and you stayed in your country for at least 3 months after the license was issued - no problem. Get it translated by JAF or your embassy, and go to the driving test. The written test is only 10 questions, which are too easy to be worried about. It is available in English and, if you live in Tokyo, even in Russian. The driving test is not that difficult, but be prepared to fail and pass it only on the 3rd or 4th attempt, as you pay over 3,000 yen each time and the Japanese government needs money. This procedure is fairly well-known, so today I want to talk about how to obtain the driving license from scratch.

Imagine that you never had a drivers license before, or, like me, arrived in Japan many years ago and your original license expired. Then you need to go back to your country for at least 3 months, which is impossible in most cases, or you have to pass the same exams as Japanese people do.

Most Japanese go to driving schools, which takes over a month and costs about 300,000 yen. This is one of the most expensive fees in the world. You can avoid it, as you have the right to take the exam without going to the driving school. Japanese do not use this opportunity, but we, aliens, have our own ways.

The only problem here is that everything is in Japanese. There are several places in Japan (2 of which are in Tokyo) that have the complete exams in English. Ibaraki prefecture does not. I tried to pass a written test in Japanese (50 questions) in Mito, but even though I have lived in Japan for over 10 years, I got only 70% of the answers right. Those questions were designed to trick native Japanese, so foreigners do not stand a chance.

The problem here is that even though Ibaraki does not have an English test, this does not mean that you can go to Tokyo and pass the test there. No. You have to LIVE in Tokyo. I asked a boss at the Mito driving test site:

Q1. Does that mean that foreigner in Ibaraki cannot get a driving license, if he cannot read Japanese.
A1. No

Q2. But you have to pass a written Japanese test to get the license?
A2. Yes

Q3. That means, if I do not read Japanese, I cannot get a driving license?
A3. No.

Q4. (???)
No comment.

Anyhow, bureaucrats are same in every country. It turns out that Ibaraki aliens are inferior to Tokyo aliens. Discrimination? You bet. As a decent alien, I went to my flying saucer and migrated to Tokyo. I changed my alien registration to my friend's address in Tokyo. You just need a friend who lives in Tokyo. You go together to the municipal office and change your address on your alien registration card. This legal trick allowed me to take a driving test in Tokyo in English!

Now about the exam itself:

  1. Written exam (3000 yen) - 50 questions, you need 45 right answers to pass.
  2. Driving test (1000 yen) If you fail driving test - next time you pay 4.000 yen. I asked why, the answer was that officially you also need to pass a written test again, but they are so kind, that you pay the money for both tests, but take only the driving test...
  3. At this point you get a Temporary Drivers License and for 1 week you need to practice driving with an instructor, or your friend, who has at least 3 years of driving experience and a valid Japanese license. There is a small booklet, where he writes and signs dates and time of your training. You need to practice at least 10 hours. You cannot drive with this license alone. Only with the instructor and a special sign affixed on your car.
  4. Written exam (3000 yen) - 95 questions (5 of them are multi-answer tough ones), you need 90 right answers to pass.
  5. Driving test on the street (1000 yen). If you fail the driving test, next time you pay 4000 yen. Same reason.

Fortunately I was able to pass all on the first attempt. Some advice for the driving test:

  • Do not be too confident. Look scared, they like it.
  • Do every movement as in the tea ceremony - so they understand your intentions. If you need to look in the side mirror, turn your head to the extreme, so that you can hear a crack in the neck. There is no over-playing or being unnatural. Check Japanese TV drama...
  • Before entering a car - look beneath it from the rear and front, to check if any children or police officers are playing under the car.
  • Before opening the car door - look left-right to see if any cars are approaching.
  • During the test drive slowly. Better 10 km/h than 45.

After you pass the exams - you pay another 14,000 yen for attending a whole-day training at the driving school of your choice. This is another bureaucratic whim, as for the whole training you really drive outside only 5 minutes, than 20 minutes on the driving simulation device (three TV screens and a driving wheel) and then you watch some really old safety instruction movies in Japanese. Relax; take it as a part of a tea ceremony. After all, those instructors, who play the videotapes for you, need to feed their families.

Finally you pay 1,700 yen for the document itself. They take your picture and the license is ready within 1 hour. Fast, if not to mention that you cannot get it on the same day as the driving school training. You need to come the next day. As a conclusion, if you are lucky and pass every step from the first time as I did - it will take you 6 half-days of your time and about 24,000 yen. This license will last for 3 years...oops...this is Japan; nothing is too easy...so it will last until your 3rd birthday since the license was issued. In my case this is 2 years 7 months. Why not make it 3 years? Good question. Look at the beauty of the bonsai tree, enjoy ikebana and you will see - there is some inner beauty in every rule. Good luck.

In Tokyo I personally recommend SAMEZU driving test facility. It is not far from Shinagawa station. Tel. 03-3474-1374

<< Letter to the Editor: Optical Illusion | Master Index | Converting a Foreign Drivers License to a Japanese License >>


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