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How Not to Get a License in Japan

There is, scattered over the web, quite a large amount of information which can assist the resident alien in procuring a Japanese license. From many sources too – I’ve found gems from JET, prefectural governments, JAF (Japan’s FIA affiliated auto federation) and even a few blogs.

Much of it has helped, but it hasn’t saved me from missteps.

There are a startling number of hoops through which one must jump before obtaining that little plastic card. But these are not an obstacle for the organized, thoughtful person.

The obstacle is that nobody has told you what not to do. And thus, an abbreviated list of ways not to get your license:

Don’t be American. Or be from outside Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Korea. Those blessed few have the luxury of exchanging their license in a straightorward manner. Yanks and the like go through a lot more.

Don’t decide not to buy the book. JAF’s “Rules of the Road” is officially unsanctioned, but in reality, the questions on the “knowledge check” and indeed many of the illustrations come right out of the book. And you’ll need to know them. Just buy it, even if someone said you won’t need it.

Don’t believe it when people tell you the written test is a no-brainer. It is short, but what you may find, depending on the version, that it’s filled with trick questions. The format is true-false, and some questions are written to be as confusing as possible. Which means you doubt yourself on the easy ones. A guide: if it seems reasonable, but involves a specific detail, it MAY be false. If it’s obviously true, it really is true. Don’t overthink anything, and do your research.

Don’t be late. Check the reception hours, and go early: even if you’re on time, they may have already reached the limit of the number of people they’ll take for that day.

Here’s some do’s:

Get your picture taken there while you wait. It’s the same price as at photo booths, and you’ll have plenty of time.

Bring a friend to translate the first time you go. Once you get your application in, it will be more or less smooth sailing, but before they give it to you, you may have to answer some tough questions.

Save your money. Pass the knowledge check on the first time, or you’ll pay the ¥2,400 processing fee again. Tale a weekend driving course there as a walk in, and you may wait, but you’ll get solid instruction for ¥5,000. If you can’t understand some Japanese, look elsewhere – Koyama driving school offers English, but at ten times the price.

Forget everything you know about driving: Ride the lane lines. Turn slowly, accelerate quickly once you’ve completed your turn, brake stongly and deliberately. Don’t use your mirrors: Move your head. Smooth is not the object – you want to show the instructor your thought process. Most important: Be methodical, and keep your hands moving on the wheel.

Since my appointment us due to be rained out by typhoon, it will be a while before I cam say how it wen’t. But don’t be surprised if I tell you I need to drive it twice!

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  1. 79rivers
    October 27, 2009 at 4:46 am

    It all seems to depend on the mood of the license center and the testers. With an American license, I didn’t have to go through the mandatory driving school or take the full test (which includes starting your car on a hill). But I did hire an instructor to take me around the center’s test track (no testing on public roads here), and he just fed me constant instructions in Japanese for half an hour (my wife interpreted about a quarter of it). Then I rented one of the center’s cars (they had about ten old Toyota Mark IIs, which they also have you drive for the test) and ran it around the course following the test route which they conveniently provided. There were three of us taking the drivers test together – the other two a Russian housewife and a Japanese college student who got her license in the US (clever: she didn’t have to pay the huge cost for driving school in Japan). The Russian woman clipped a curb, so didn’t pass, but the college student and I made it. We all rode in the car together during the test.
    I don’t know how it is in the Kanto area, but if you can, get a route map before, spend the money to rent one of those old Toyotas (essential if you have only kei-car experience) to get a feel for the route. If you do opt for the on-course instructor, make sure you have some alone-time in the car to unwind. Smile, walk around the car before getting in, put on your belts before starting the engine, make a show of using all three mirrors, smile, and don’t drive too slowly or cautiously.
    Good luck!

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