How to Pass the Japanese Drivers License Test  or How to Save Yourself a Hell of a  lot of Time, Frustration, and Money.

Today was my day.  After spending in excess of 23,000 for testing fees, license fees, translation fees, alien registration copy fees, pictures, driving school fees, and train and bus fares not to mention the four working days and 44+ hours of waiting in the testing center waiting room and the time it took to get to and from the center, and after four attempts I finally passed the Japanese driving test and received my license.  Am I bitter, no I'm not bitter.  No, this whole experience has only made me grateful that I can drive a car and not have to bike or walk everywhere.  The front of the license has your basic info like name, date of birth- in the Japanese year, country of citizenship, address, date of test, the green bar means you're a beginning driver- if you have a silver bar that means you have been driving accident or violation free for 5 years and gold means 10 years, the date in the bar is the expiration date in the Japanese year which is three years from your birthday this year so if you take the test after your birthday you're good for three years but if you take if before like me then you only get two years out of it before needing to renew it, AT means I can only drive automatic transmission cars since I opted to take the auto instead of 5 speed test, the three rows of numbers at the bottom from top to bottom are for scooter, car, and heavy vehicles, and the red area has a kanji for Regular for regular car license.  The back has a line saying I've driven in Japan for more than one year and therefore am not required to post one of those yellow and green leaf stickers on my car as a warning to other drivers, if they had a leaf sticker for dangerous gaijin I'd put that on my car.

But I'm glad there were colored arrows in the waiting room of the test center otherwise I don't know how I'd get out of there without getting lost especially after having spent four whole days in that building.  I mean if I go straight with the white arrow then I'll be going upstairs and if I choose the red arrow to the right I'll be going downstairs, it's all too confusing.

Today there were four foreigners taking the test for the first time, if only they knew, and then there was another guy and myself both of us there for our fourth time.  His name is Peter, real nice guy and is from Hungary, speaks fluent English, Japanese, and German too.  Since his Japanese wife was with him today I didn't have to worry about translations.  So anyway as expected the four first timers failed and fortunately for Peter and I we passed.  Essentially I did everything exactly like I did the first three times but technique wise it was a little different, just enough to make the difference between a Go and a No Go.  The road conditions were very different today though.  It was raining and there were at least six driving school cars driving around the course.  Afterwards Peter and I got our pictures taken for our licenses.  The clerk told me twice "No smile" but I was just so relieved and happy that it was hard not to.  Finally, I made a straight enough face for the "serious" photo.  Peter and his wife even gave me a ride to the train station saving me some time and a bus ride. 

With this journal entry I hope to help other foreigners and JETs out there in their attempt to get a Japanese Drivers License as painlessly as possible.  OK, so here in as much detail as I can remember is what you will need to do to successfully get your Japanese drivers license which you will cherish forever. "No smile."

A little background info first:
On July 9th we Fukushima JETs got the following e-mail from the CIR folks in Fukushima City:

"As some of you may know, some fairly major changes to Japan's 'Road Traffic Law' came into effect on June 1 of this year. Of particular concern to JETs are the changes that have come into effect regarding International Driving Permits and using them in Japan. CLAIR has outlined these changes in an information release addressed to all of the Prefectures. Below is a translation of the release (with thanks to the Gifu International Association, who actually performed the translation):

TO: All Prefectures and Designated Cities JET Programme Supervisors Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) Manager Guidance and Counseling Division

JET Programme Participants Drivers Licenses

The revised Road Traffic Law came into effect on 1st June 2002. There have been changes to the sections that apply to international drivers licenses. CLAIR requests that Prefecture inform all contracting organizations and JET participants of the following changes:

1.In order to drive a car in Japan, foreigners must posses one of the following drivers licenses:
A Japanese drivers license
An international drivers license
A drivers license that has been issued in a country that is recognized as having a drivers licensing system of the same level as Japan (currently only Switzerland, Germany and France have been recognized as having such a system). A Japanese translation prepared by a government approved translation agency must accompany such licenses.

2.The period for which foreigners are permitted to drive in Japan
Japanese drivers licenses (Please see 1. above) : Only during the period that the license is
valid for.
International drivers licenses or licenses issued in a foreign country (Please see 1. above):
Foreigners are only permitted to drive in Japan on an international drivers license for a period of one year from the date they arrived in Japan, or for the period their license is valid, whichever is the shorter period of time. If a foreigner leaves Japan and re-enters after a period of less than three months, the date they re-entered Japan will NOT be recognized as the date from which their international drivers license can be renewed [i.e. in order to renew an international license, foreigners must leave Japan for a period longer than three months].

3.Obtaining a Japanese drivers license
Foreigners who posses a drivers license that has been issued overseas can apply for a Japanese drivers license and be exempt from some sections of the drivers license examinations. The content of the examinations, the language that the examination can be
taken in, and the documents that are necessary to make an application all depend on the applicants country of origin and the region they reside in Japan.  Foreigners who wish to obtain a Japanese drivers license should inquire at the drivers license center in their prefecture.

This is a lot to take in, but the long and short of it for JETs in Fukushima is that it is illegal to use International Drivers Licenses in Japan BEYOND YOUR FIRST YEAR OF RESIDENCE. Whether or not you have been driving at all up to this point, or whether or not your international license is still valid are secondary concerns - if you have been a resident in Japan for a year or more (i.e. all of those JETs entering their second or third contract years in
July/August) you are excluded from using an IDP in Japan.

It is often pointed out that many JETs' home countries will simply re-issue IDPs on request. This is true, and completely legal from the issuing country's point of view. But please note that each individual country sets the conditions for using IDPs within its own borders. In Japan's case, foreign residents can only use them for their first year in the country.  After that, a Japanese license must be obtained.  It should also be noted that insurance companies will likely not cover the costs of an accident involving a foreign resident driving on an IDP beyond his or her first year."

Bottom Line:  Say you arrive in Japan Aug 1, 2002, after Aug 1, 2003 you cannot use an IDP to drive in Japan. Period.  The only exception being if you left the country for three full months and re-entered and no JET has that much vacation time.

Step 1:  Translate your foreign license

1.  Make a photocopy of your American license.

2.  Mail it to your local Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) office via registered mail for cash to be translated.  Follow the instructions on the page.  It'll cost 3,290 plus the post office fee for registered mail. It's only 3,000 if you take it there and have it done while you wait.

Step 2.  Gather your documents

You'll need your:
American license
JAF translation of the license
Gaijin card
Copy of your gaijin registration from the town or city office you reside in
One Photo (non-smiling) 3.0 x 2.4 cm
IDP if you have one

Step 3:  Go to the Testing Center

1. You have to show up at the Unten Menkyo (Driver's Testing) Center in Fukushima City between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. Mon - Fri.  Yes, within a 30 minute window at a place you've never been to and on a working day.

2.  You'll need to fill out a few forms with stupid questions like what was the engine size in cc of the car you drove in America?  You'll also need to purchase a 2,400 stamped form which is your payment for taking the test and fill out a short medical form.  You'll hand in all that paperwork along with your American license, JAF translation of it, your passport, gaijin card, copy of your gaijin registration from the town or city office you reside in, a photo (non-smiling) but that's just for your grade sheet and application form not the actual license, and your IDP if you have one.

3.  Wait.

4.  About two hours later you'll go into a room where you'll be given an eye test and if you pass that you'll be given a written test with 10 T/F questions in English which has a 10 minute time limit.  The written test is common sense and no real preparation like reading The Rules of the Road book put out by JAF is necessary.  The eye test consists of a "C" or nearly closed "O" in which you have to state the direction of the opened part as in left, right, up, or down (hidari, migi, ue, shita).  There's also a color vision test that's equally simple with blue, red, and green (aoi, akai, midori).

5.  Wait.

6.  About 30 minutes later they'll announce the results of the tests.  If you made the 70% standard on the written test they'll explain a few things about the upcoming driving test.  They'll give you a sheet of paper with the course route on it, see Step 4 below for a picture of it.  They'll tell you to memorize it but when you actually take the test the guy tells you where to turn, etc.  They'll explain that during lunch 11:30 - 12:00 you may walk the course, you should walk it at least a couple of times to familiarize yourself with it, then they'll tell you to meet in the 1st floor waiting area at 1:00 p.m.

7.  Wait.

8.  About 15 - 30 minutes later the driving examiners will show up.  But you won't actually see them till about 2:30 or even later depending on how many other people (non-gaijin) are taking their tests that day.

9.  Finally, after waiting for about 6 hours you will meet the person you will more than likely come to hate, your driving examiner.  On first appearance he seems like a real nice guy but don't believe it for a second because that's how long he'll take to fail you for the most minute thing that he "feels" isn't the right way.  Next, he'll explain some things and put you in your testing order.  By the way if this is your second time or more taking the test you'll be the first in the testing order, lucky you.  Then he'll have you all get in the car and he'll drive the course once explaining what you're supposed to do such as turn left here, etc.  After the little tour you'll get back in your testing order.  There may be one or two people sitting in the back while one person drives.  Once that person is done one of the people from the back will move up to the front and it'll be their turn.  If you're in the back pay attention and try to learn as much as you can from the previous driver's mistakes and anything that the examiner may say to the person who just drove.

Step 4:  Take the Driving Test

The numbers and times of the video correspond to the numbered paragraphs below and the numbers on the picture of the test course to the left.  Print it out, read, and watch.  It's raining and there's a lot of other cars on the track but it's the little and slow moving white car in the center of the screen.

1-2. 0:00 - 0:32
3.    0:33 - 0:45   
4.    0:46 - 1:13 
5.    1:14 - 3:30 
6.    3:31 - 3:54 
7.    3:55 - 4:02 
8.    4:03 - 4:15 
9.    4:16 - 4:36 
10.  4:37 - 5:09 
11.  5:10 - 5:13
12.  5:14 - 5:28 
13.  5:29 - 5:45 
14.  5:46 - 6:05 
15.  6:06 - 6:35 
16.  6:36 - 6:47  
17.  6:48 - 7:04 
18.  7:05 - 7:31 
19.  7:32 - 7:55 
20.  7:56 - 8:33 

1.  Do a walk around of the car looking to make sure that there isn't anything underneath.  Before you open the door look to the front and rear of the car as if you were pulled over on the side of a busy road then get in the car.  Adjust your seat, mirrors, and then fasten your seat belt.  Then wait, the examiner will tell you when to start the car.

2.  Start the engine, check your mirrors, visually check, release the parking brake, then slowly drive forward.  Signal right then once you pass the raised concrete lane dividers put on your left turn signal.  Stop just before the beginning of the course road and look left and right.  When stopping make sure you come to a full and complete stop.  Slowly drive forward, get in and stay in the leftmost lane, make sure you do this slowly as there is a slight curve here.  On curves slowly means less than 10 kph.  Once you are about to get out of the curve and straighten out slowly and gently accelerate.  When accelerating you should give it the gas but not so much that it jerks anyone's head back.  Then accelerate to about 30-40 kph. 

3.  You will come to a slight curve in the road and will need to let off of the gas and gently brake, enough that no one's head jerks forward.  After the curve you will see some white dashed center lines and 30 meters before that signal right then once you come to them change to the right lane.  When changing lanes or turning execute the following four step safety verification.  This should be a smooth 1-2-3-4 type of automatic action:
1.  turn on your blinker (30 meters before a turn)
2.  then immediately check your rear view mirror
3.  then your side mirror (on the same side as the direction of the turn)
4.  then look over your shoulder for bikes, cars, etc. in your blind spot (on the same side as the direction of the turn).

4.  A little ways further down the road you will need to turn right at sign #12 again using the turning method described above.  Also, when planning a turn - ease over to that side of the lane immediately after turning on your blinker and doing your first safety verification. The objective of this is to prevent a bike or motorcycle from entering into that area which might prevent you from safely turning. This is also true when planning to turn when approaching a stop sign or traffic light.  The course road is quite narrow so you almost don't really move over any significant amount.  You just kind of move slightly towards the center line or white line on the side of the lane.

As soon as you make the right turn you will enter a slight curve so again make sure you are going slow.  A little further up is the crank.

5.  Signal and turn left at the blue crank sign, it's the furthest one, the other is red and nearer.  Enter the crank as slow as you are comfortable with.  It looks impossible and I thought it would be the hardest part of the entire test but each of the four times I went through it without any problem and if you've driven for more than a day on Japan's narrow roads you shouldn't have a problem either.  You are allowed to stop and reverse, adjust your steering wheel, and then continue forward through the crank.  But you are only allowed to go in reverse once.  If you have to go in reverse just put it in reverse and slowly go back without any adjustment to the steering wheel, once you've gone back far enough put it back in drive and then adjust the steering.  If you adjust the steering while going in reverse you may put yourself out of alignment.  I find it helps if you sit up as straight and high as possible so you have a better view of the road and the black and yellow barrier bars that are all along the sides of the crank.  If you touch one of those bars even a little bit the test is an automatic failure.  Just before you finish with the crank make a complete stop.

6.  At the stop execute a left turn and slowly pull out making sure that you do not go over the center line that divides the two lanes.  Go slow and kind of tight to do this, if you go over the center line that will fail you because a car could be coming at you in the opposite lane.  Gently accelerate on the short straight-away.  Very soon you will come to your first real curve.  The other curves where just small short ones.

7.  Follow these steps when driving through a curve:
1.  take your foot off of the accelerator- the first blue arrow in the picture to the left
2.  allow the car to coast- the second blue arrow
3.  gently but firmly brake making sure it's not so much that your passenger's head whips forward- the red arrow
4.  at this point you should be going slow, slower than 10 kph and you will just coast through- the yellow arrow
5.  once you start to drive out of the curve the part that begins to straighten out gently accelerate- the next blue arrow
6.  once you are out of the curve and starting on the straight-away give it the gas but again not so much that it whips your passenger's head backwards

Take the curves seriously remember less than 10 kilos, it seems to be the one thing that has failed so many of us.  In this case right after the crank you will go through the above curve then there will be a little straight-away but to me it's just too short to give it any real gas so be careful and don't over accelerate here.  Then you will come to another curve right after the little straight-away.  Follow the same curve method described above.

8.  Now you're back on the straight-away where you'll pick up some speed.  About speed, there is no "speed limit" on the course so you have to drive appropriately depending on the length of the straight-away, perhaps 30 kph on the short ones and 40 kph on the long ones. 

9.  Next you'll execute a left turn at sign #11.  This is the turn just before the S Curve.

10.  You'll execute a right turn into the S Curve and just like the crank go slow. 

11.  At the end of the S Curve you will come to a blind spot made by a big wall of sheet metal to your right.  Make sure when approaching the exit of the S Curve that you stop a meter back from the obstruction walls. Then gradually inch the car forward while checking in both directions until you (and the testing official) can clearly see in both directions before proceeding. 

12.  Next make a slow left turn out of the S Curve and immediately signal right and change to the right lane.  Come to a complete stop at least .5 meters before the white line at the blinking red traffic signal.  If you are too close, on top of, or past the white line you will fail.  This is also the case at stop signs.

13.  Once it's clear slowly accelerate through the traffic signal making your right turn.  Go straight slowly through the next intersection (no traffic light) as there is an air traffic control tower looking building there that creates a blind spot on your left.

14.  Next you will come to another intersection that does have a traffic light.  Depending of the color of the traffic signal stop or turn left.  There is a bicycle lane sign painted on the road just before the traffic signal.  Make sure you are not to the right of it, you should be to the left actually driving over the sign, if you're too far to the right that will fail you.

15.  Go straight and stop at the stop sign, the only one on your course.  When it's alright slowly make a left turn.

16.  After the turn you will very soon come to your next turn, it's almost too short to really accelerate.  Make a left at sign #6.

17.  Continue going straight until you come to the intersection.  Slow down and make a right turn.  Make sure you're in the leftmost lane.

18.  Now you're on a short straight-away.  Soon you'll come to another curve, again use the curve method.  Right after the curve you will see a stalled car in the left lane.  Change into the right lane and slowly drive around the stalled car.  Then change lanes back into the left lane all the while using the proper lane change/turn procedure. 

19.  Now you need to slow down even more because there is another small curve ahead.  After you exit that curve gently accelerate to about 40-50 kph, this is the long straight-away.  On this particular course there are three dashed white lines on the left hand side of the left lane, the distance is just about right so I use that as my signal to begin the curve procedures.  There is one small and final curve at the end of this straight-away, again make sure you are going less than 10 kph through it. 

20.  Immediately after going through the curve signal left and you will make your way off the course and into the parking area by making a left turn.  Slowly drive through the parking area and at this point the examiner will tell you which number to stop at.  So for example, if he says #3 slowly drive the car until the front left edge of the car is just to the right of and even with the yellow and black pole.  Make it a complete stop.  Then he will tell you to continue and you will just slowly drive forward until you come to the point where you first started about midway through the raised concrete lane dividers.  Stop there, put it in park, turn off the engine, and apply the parking brake.

21.  If you messed up he may or may not explain where and how.  Unless you completely screwed up he won't tell you you failed.  You'll just have to worry and wait till the office clerk tells you.  Now you will be told to go up to the 3rd floor where you did all your paperwork and wait.  Before exiting the car make sure you look to the front and rear of the car just like you did before you entered the car.  Also, make sure you close the door even if the next driver is waiting.  I've heard that you start the test with 100 points and for everything you do wrong a certain number of points are deducted and 70 points are needed to pass, however, you are never clearly told what you did wrong and in fact not doing everything precisely the write way will result in failure.  So really just doing one thing wrong will fail you.

22.  Once all the day's foreign drivers have finished you all will wait for about 20 minutes.  Then the clerk will come out and announce two sets of names.  The first group of people to be called will hear "Zannen desu" or "that's too bad" meaning you failed, join the club.  The second group will hear "Omedeto gozaimasu" or "congratulations" meaning you passed.  If you failed you'll get all your paperwork back and be told that you can come back M-F before 11:30 and retake the test, you'll need to purchase another 2,400 stamp and fill out the medical form again, but you will only need to take the driving portion which will be again late in the afternoon.  If you passed then you will go downstairs to the 1st floor and buy yourself a 1,750 stamp which will cover the cost of the photo and license.  You'll hand that stamp in and wait about 30 more minutes.  During that time the clerk will take you to a room to have your mug shot taken.  He'll say "no smile, no smile".  Then later he'll come back with your paperwork and your new Japanese license.  He'll have you look it over to make sure your name is spelled right and the other info is correct.  Then he'll explain a couple things about the license like if you've driven for less than a year in Japan you'll need to post one of those green and yellow leaf stickers for beginning drivers on your car, he'll also tell you that it's "Dame" to drink and drive in Japan like it's OK or something to do that in America.  Then you go home and drink a beer or two like a good American.  If you didn't pass you can expect to be there till about 3 or 4 p.m. and if you did pass you can expect to be there till as late as 4:30 or 5 p.m. so you should bring a good book to read or a lot of CDs to listen to, it's also a good idea to bring some snacks.

If you don't make it on the first or second or even the third time and if you're feeling homicidal or suicidal about the whole experience of getting your license here in Japan then you can take some comfort in knowing that Japanese face similar difficulties or at least this one guy did when trying to get his American license.

Finally, I would recommend you spend the hour and 4,000 or so to practice the above on a course similar to the test course at a nearby Driving School.  I think had I done that I would have been a first time Go on the test.  I would also recommend you bring a Japanese speaking friend with you to help fill out the various forms.  "Gambatte!"