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The Trials of Obtaining a Japanese Driver’s License

Getting a driver's license in Japan puts you directly in contact with the hierarchical nature of Japanese society.

By 5 min read 48

Let’s face it: for those of us who are staying in Japan for a decent length of time, getting a Japanese driver’s license is nearly essential. Sometimes it’s just more convenient to drive than to take a train or bus, especially considering that trains and buses make frequent stops and may not necessarily be close to where you want to go.

Japan does not have a bilateral agreement with many countries to allow direct transferal of our home country’s driver’s license to a Japanese driver’s license without first taking a driver’s test (to see which countries do have this agreement with Japan in addition to other helpful tips for driving in Japan, click here.)

For Americans and many other foreigners, we are required to take a written and practical exam, in addition to obligatory hearing and sight tests. All but one of these are incredibly simple in both procedure and difficulty, and of course the one that is incredibly difficult is none other than the practical driving exam.

This exam is intentionally made difficult, and even veteran drivers are rarely allowed to pass

This exam is intentionally made difficult, and even veteran drivers are rarely allowed to pass on their first, and more often than not, second and third attempts at passing the exam. Please take a listen to my experience.

During the pre-exam explanation, my driving instructor explained in detail all of the things that were required to be done. “Make sure you check the mirrors and your blind spots when you turn,” she said. “Make sure you stop before the stop line.”

While the explanation was incredibly detailed, it all made sense to me as to why these requirements were in the test. They want to make sure that you are a capable and safe driver and are taking all the necessary precautions. With this in mind and 10 years of driving in America with few issues under my belt, “this should be easy,” I thought to myself.

Upon getting in the car before heading out, I made sure to check everything and said out loud what I was doing, in Japanese of course. “Okay, starting up the engine. Mirrors, check. Start engine, check. Turning on blinker, make sure no one is coming. Okay, I’m turning and going out now.”

In this fashion, I did everything right and narrated every action. I always checked before turning, made sure to stop before the stop line, and maneuvered around the sharp turn section with no issues. During the stretch of road where it was required to go 50 kph, I did so (but got up to 52 kph.)

After reaching the end of the course, the driving instructor said “Okay, that’s it for today. Unfortunately though, you didn’t pass. The reason why is, your handling in returning the wheel after a turn was too slow and during the acceleration section you were going way too fast at almost 60 kmph.”

I tried to argue both of these points. If my handling of the wheel after my turn truly was too slow, I would have ended up making too wide of a turn and not been in the lane I was supposed to. I argued that I was not going almost 60 kmph, but had just barely gone above 50. This was pointless, and she did not listen to me.

Have you considered taking our driving school courses?

“Have you considered taking our driving school courses?” At this point, I was convinced that this had nothing to do with the silly “mistakes” I made during my test and had everything to do with money and how many times I’d forced to retake the test.

Upon relaying the results to my wife (which she confirmed with the instructor), she agreed with my conclusion. These reasons simply weren’t legitimate, and they had to come up with them to give a reason as to why they weren’t going to pass me.

Accounts from others across Japan bear similar results; a friend of mine living in Kyushu had to take the test 6 times before they finally passed him on the 7th attempt. An overwhelming response from Japanese people I consulted about these frustrating results all resounded with similar commentary:

“After all, driving schools are businesses too.”
“They want to make sure you know that it’s not easy to get a driver’s license in Japan.”
“At a certain point, it’s more about how many times you’ve taken the test (and paid the fee) than how well and safe you drive.”

However, we should be clear about one thing: this does not mean that they don’t care about the core points of safe driving. If you hit one of the floating poles during the sharp turns section, it is an instant fail. If you do not stop before the stop line and pass it even a little bit, it is an instant fail. If you don’t check your turns, it will count as points against you.

You may also have to deal with somewhat condescending commentary from your driving instructor that you need to not take personally. They may say things about going to driving school because you haven’t studied enough, which can add insult to injury especially if you have done nothing wrong.

My personal assessment is that you must follow the core basics and expect seemingly insignificant points to be used against you if you are still on your first two to three attempts on the practical driving exam. If you manage to get your driver’s license within these first two to three attempts, consider yourself lucky as some of us have had to endure many more times than that.

In the end, you must put in the time and “earn your stripes” in order to eventually get your Japanese driver’s license by coming back, paying the fees and trying again if they fail you. You must consider it part of the process, lest you lose your patience and give up because of the established system which is intentionally pitted against you.

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  • May says:

    Good morning, I’m Taking my examination in Tokyo. And I failed 10x times. I’m loosing my faith, some of the there words or term was so confusing,,, please advice me .
    Written test 1/100.
    Thank you

  • tokyo gaijin says:

    My wife and I moved from the Us to Tokyo three months ago. While we have international licenses, we wanted to get a Japanese ones right away. We read all the posts but decided not to take any classes given the cost and loss of free time. Additionally, I decided to try to take the test on a manual although I have not driven a manual in 5 years or so and never with the steering wheel on the right. I passed without any issues. My wife failed but only because her instructor kept telling her to turn left on a red light with no arrow and she should have waited, but got nervous. While the test was in Japanese, it is easy to figure out what they want you to do as they point. Just learn Japanese for right, left, straight, go and stop. Knowing your numbers 1-20 helps too. Don`t run the red light, use your mirrors, check your blind spot on turns and lane changes, emphasizing your movements and you will pass. It helps to get luck with the instructor as well as there was a large difference between the two that I saw. Good luck

  • Bronson says:

    sounds pretty sketchy

  • Bryan Takano says:

    Decided to renew my American license two months before coming to Japan(worst mistake ever) because it was going to expire later this year. So now it only shows I was there for two months before coming over. Are there any ways/documents other than your license that are acceptable for the gaimen kurikae method (they probably wouldn’t accept my old one with a hole punch in it)? Thanks in advance for any advice.

  • Shrikant Atre says:

    Gaimenkirikae or changing from IDP to Japanese one is better and faster way. But in order to prove that you were a better driver in home country, you need to have clear record at home. Why US and China on their hit list, because you drive on the other side of road and doing the Japanese way (they think) is difficult for you. For British and Indians they cant give this lame reason. Hence in the 4 attempts I was failed I got reasons like “You did not follow lane, you did accelerate slowly, you did not move your neck in 90 degrees while turning and only made use of eyes and you did not stop quickly when I told you so”. It did frustrate me, but when I think now (it was 1999) and after 6 years of driving in Japan and coming back to home country India, that they are better in following minuscule rules. I drive here in India daily with rule breakers and feel that we need a harsher licensing authority like Japan, even if they make going to school compulsory.

  • Tasmate says:

    Well if they keep failing you with insulting comments at the end of each test, would you go back to them? Driving school on the other hand is an instant pass by paying about 300,000 yen. Just need to pass written exam at the police but you can take them in English unless you live in the remote areas.

  • Tasmate says:

    International drivers license is an agreement bind in 1949 and Japan is a contracting state/country. what’s is wrong driving with a international license?

  • Tasmate says:

    You may pass first time if luck is in your side. Nicest proctor in a good mood ready to pass you otherwise it’s hell and torture. I’m already feeling depressed and sad after 2nd try even though I have been driving 11 years in Australia and Singapore without a single ticket. I’m I a bad driver? Or I’m born to fail such a simple test? My wife and friends are told me it’s not the case but just exactly what Kyle said above! My money, time spent and mental health problems just because of one disagreement with 2 government.

    • Jopet Garcia says:

      Have you tried taking a practice practical test at a local driving school? I’ve been driving for over 25 years and consider myself an excellent driver and had a very confident attitude towards taking what I first considered a “silly” test. But after doing more research, I found out following the traditional ways of taking the driving test is just if not more important than your driving ability and the only way you will know the ins and outs of this is to practice at these driving schools. I took one practice test before my actual driving exam, I wanted to take another but didn’t have the time.

      • Tasmate says:

        Thanks mate. I just did. I bought 4 lessons and will be going for my first one next mon. It cost me 32,000 yen or $320. My wife a Japanese keep telling me it’s not about driving skills but knowing what the proctor is looking for. I have no bad meaning but it still makes no sense to me that Japan keep Singapore and US outside the non-test countries. I’m sure many Japanese whom have lived in Singapore knows the hard it is to pass and obtain a driving license there. It’s impossible to ‘buy’ one unlike in China or perhaps India. Again no offense but just hear these from my Indian n Chinese friends.

  • John Smith says:

    If you are from the UK you just have to pass a quick eye test, no practical test.

  • Suzanne Samson Mahlik says:

    It took my father an
    ex-marine who retired in Japan, who had been driving many many years with a military license many tries….he insisted on taking the written test in the native japanese language because he had too much pride……after about ten tries he passed…..he didn’t even need the license since he had one with the military…..for him it was a matter of living and doing the “right” thing…my mother was japanese and went to driving school and had a license but after spending many years in the US it was expired…..she was content to just use her military base license…..

  • Robby D Jones says:

    I got mine on the 2nd try and got a manual transmission license. I practiced with an instructor for about 2 hours and it helped. There are some things you just won’t know unless someone tells you.

  • kietero says:

    I’ve read so many comments down below and I found myself both nodding and shaking my head at the same time. A couple of things to consider.

    1: If you want to pass the first time around, GO TO YOUR LOCAL DRIVING SCHOOL and ask the instructors to give you a 1 to 2 hour test prep course. The cost varies per school. Do this FIRST BEFORE you begin the process (or while the paperwork is in transit of being processed). I say this because each driving school will teach to the test of the local driving center. They know what you can expect and they will drill you as many times as they seem fit while you’re paying them on the clock. Listen to their advice (bring a translator or your spouse if you don’t speak Japanese) and keep all of their recommendations in mind. You will need almost all of them.

    2: Don’t worry about your dress code. They won’t be impressed if you’re wearing a suit. They may handcuff you if you’re naked though…

    3: Don’t get upset if they fail you the first time and you feel you’re perfect. Chances are, you’ll probably have to revisit point 1 to see what you did wrong if you think you did everything perfectly. I didn’t my first time around but when I went to driving school, they showed me that I was doing EVERYTHING wrong (wrong according to the instructors at the licensing and test center).

    4: JAPANESE IS A MUST! At least, a fair command of the rudimentary basics of the language. Sorry, everyone with 0 Japanese – no one’s going to be able to translate for you except those in your class so make friends. I say this because…

    5: Listen to your instructor! They are basically going to give you a cheat on how to pass the test. Before you even start the engine or do ANYTHING, once the officer gets in the car, turn to him or her, BOW, and say, “Yoroshiku Onegai-itashimasu” (the extra *ita* is SUPER polite and will show the officer that you’re ready to respect the Japanese way of things). Give it a second after the ritual – the officer will respond either with a head bow, will return the gesture in kind, or will simply tell you to go ahead and begin with whatever instruction is next. If it’s the very last one and it seems like your gesture was received coldly, trust me: it wasn’t! It’s MORE than appreciative.

    That’s more or less it.

    Don’t listen to ANYONE who says, “I got it on my first try!” More than likely the advice they’ll give is bad advice. There ARE cases where foreigners get it on their first try. There are also some cases where foreigners are failed, just because. If they say, “Go to a driving school,” it’s not because you suck – it’s because the tests are designed a specific way and if you’re too cocky going into it on the first attempt without taking a test drill course, the officer will fail you out of spite.

    Ignore Japanese custom and you also could be failed out of spite. The best practice is to get to know the test before taking it – that means yes, spend the 10,000JPY or 20,000JPY or whatever to take a 1 to 2 hour crash course at a driving school. That means to remember to be polite, bow, and even if you are working with 0 Japanese, know the basics of the nuances and remember, “Yoroshiku onegai-itashimasu” goes A LONG way, even if it’s not openly received (rest assured, it WILL be received).

    And good luck!

    • Jopet Garcia says:

      Overall good comment but please don’t generalize those who got their license on the first attempt. I studied and prepared for the test, made sure I understood and respected the customs, did my homework and got my license on the first try. I agree with your points and would love to share my experiences with others to help them pass whether it’s their first, second or nth time.

      • danish mir says:

        Jopet, Could you speak Japanese at time of your test? I want to take text but cannot speak any japanese

  • Sherine Mah says:

    Got my license on the third test at Okayama Prefecture. The reason why I failed for the first and the second tests was I drive way too fast (40km/h). Later, i learnt that the driving speed on a straight road is around 25-40km/h. Turning speed at visible junction is about 20km/h and 10km/h for the non-visible junction. But I guess these speed limits differ according to which prefecture are you going to take the test. I have met foreigners who pass the test on the 18th, 13th, 10th, and also on the 1st try.

  • Jopet Garcia says:

    I took a one hour driving lesson at our local driving school. It played a huge part in my passing the practical exam. I prepared as well by reading every article, taking online tests but the driving lesson was key in my opinion.

  • Jopet Garcia says:

    Great article. Articles such as this helped me prepare for the practical exam. I moved to Japan in April and finally got my driver’s license just this August. The process took about a month and a half from calling to set the initial appointment (I had my documents translated prior to calling for the appointment though I hit a small snag when I got to the driving center) to the practical exam. Having read all the horror stories from other foreigners trying to get their license, it was definitely a stressful experience on the day of the practical exam. Luckily, I was prepared and passed the first time.

  • Asto Warne says:

    This is really great post on driving licence. thank you
    How much is driving school in campbell

  • Tokyo5 says:

    After 30 years of having to drive hours per day, every day of my life, for every little thing, and having spent a small fortune in insurance which I never needed to use, my greatest joy in the seven years I lived in Japan was having access to the worlds finest public transit system and never needing to worry about car ownership.
    I never could understand why anyone in urban Japan would ever consider car ownership a sinsible option. I have literally seen every nook and cranny of Japan, and did it for a pittance with public transit and a bicycle. Just give up the car culture that you came from and you will discover an amazing freedom. It’s really liberating for someone who’s been tied to a car thier whole life.

    • Jopet Garcia says:

      I agree with you. If you live and work in urban Japan, public transportation is the way to go. Most stores deliver for free (small fees at times) so buying huge items isn’t so much of a hassle. Parking space is crazy expensive as well. However driving in rural Japan is a definite MUST. Trains pass by every half hour, stores are so far away from the train or bus stops. Riding your bike just limits you so much though it did wonders with my sore knees.

    • Ashwin Campbell says:

      Those transit fees add up though. I spend a minimum of about ¥1,000,000 (10,000 dollars) a year on public transportation in Japan. Bus costs about ¥120,000 a year, subway and local trains add a large chunk at ¥680,000, then the Shinkansen fills it out at around ¥200,000. I write off all of it though!

      • Mr. Gilbert says:

        My commuter pass was only ¥10000 ($100) per month, paid for by my employer, just like every body else in Tokyo. It meant I could ride completely free between my home and work and any destination in between. For me, that covered most of Tokyo, even on my leasure time. If I was going somewhere within about five miles, I preferred to ride a bike.
        Not sure how you spent so much. My out of pocket transportation costs were under $500 per year, and that’s just because I like to travel. You don’t have to ride the expensive Shinkansen. One long Shinkansen ride can easily cost more than my yearly travel budget.

    • Tess de la Serna says:

      I wish United States have a good public transit system. Where I live, we have to drive. I can’t get to work without a car and riding with someone is more of a pain since some would want to stop by somewhere before going home or I can’t go where I want to go because I don’t want others to get inconvenience. Transit system in Japan is one of the attractions that I want to live there. Four seasons is one of them.

  • Allyson Aldam-Tajima says:

    Passed on my second try at Mito, Ibaraki, as did a friend with an American license. Feel that the article is somewhat harsh as, although we got the distinct impression that having done a few hours at the driving school helped (2 before and 2 after the initial fail), they were focusing more on following the procedure, which, in their minds, means sending out another safe driver onto the roads. Gotta say all were really nice and accommodating, but, I had to show commitment to the cause. 😉 As others have mentioned, research is the key.
    My husband’s funniest story: One of his new grads (Japanese) refused to buy into the “system” choosing to try a new approach. He went for the driving test only, failing NINE TIMES. His argument was it cost a lot less to take the test ten times than pay the driving school fees. Love that guy!

  • GeneralObvious says:

    I passed it on the first try. I researched on online the requirements to pass and the things that could potentially fail me instantly. I also hired someone for the day to take me through the course and tell me what I was doing wrong. It only took me about 2 hours to memorize both courses and correct all of my mistakes. If I didn’t get that help, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have failed.

    It’s pretty simple. The Japanese test has very specific guidelines that must be followed (regardless of your nationality or the number of years you’ve been driving). You can look up these rules online. If you follow their rules you’ll get the license, if you don’t then you won’t. Nothing much else to say about it.

    • Shane nokishita says:

      If you won’t mind Mr. Generalobvious can you give me the site on where to look for the online requirements to pass pls….

      • GeneralObvious says:

        It was a couple years ago. Just search google for information on passing the Japanese driving test. There are tons of people who have posted about the topic on various forums and blogs.

        • danish mir says:

          GeneralObvious, how did you hired the person? I want to take the test, and help from “hiring a person” will be extremely helpful, can you please help me how and where (any online mode, or phone contact) can I find such person?

          • Mimi says:

            Hi danish mir
            You can find a private driving instructor who might be able to communicate in English. Go to Google and use these words: 外免 教習. Some instructors have an English pages on their HP. If you are in Tokyo, I know at least two instructors teach in English.

    • Kyle Von Lanken says:

      Thanks for your comment, General. I think one thing I have learned from all of the comments on this article is that, while I’m sure research does help a fairly large part of whether or pass or fail also seems to be dependent on where you take the test. If you look at some of the other people’s comments to this, you’ll also see that some people were in fact prepared and still were not passed.

      After the first time I failed this exam I studied a lot more. Memorized the course more thoroughly, followed other people’s advice about narrating through and exaggerating motions, and even then I still got the “you need to study more” bit with lame excuses as to why I didn’t pass. Judging from the mixed response for this article in comparison to my own experience I am going to say with a fair amount of certainty that it also depends on *where* you take the test, not just how much you’ve studied and prepared.

      • Tasmate says:

        Yes mate, absolutely!

      • GeneralObvious says:

        I disagree completely. The location is irrelevant. There are a lot of variables involved in something like this (weather, time of day, the vehicle, your physical appearance, your attitude, etc.); the 2 main contributors however, are how well you prepare for the test and the police officer grading you.

        I’m actually the only person who passed on the first try out of everyone I’ve met in this area. One person took the test 7 times and only got it on the last try because the officer made a mistake during his test and told him to take a wrong turn.

        Just because someone prepares for the test, doesn’t mean they are prepared for it. Especially if the person did those preparations on their own, based entirely off of things they’ve read. Without proper guidance from someone who knows exactly what they officer’s are looking for and actual physical practice on the course it’s nearly impossible to pass.

        • Winnie the Pooh says:

          Gonna side with @kylevonlanken:disqus on this: police departments of different cities all have different amounts of staff, need funding, and acquire it in different ways. It’s not practical to say location has no effect here. One might imagine that in suburban or country areas of Japan, police forces are smaller w/ less people on standby. They are easier to fund by conventional means, and their license test centers have less administrative overhead, employees, costs (cars, other facilities), etc.

          @GeneralObvious:disqus, where did you take the test? Kyle, where did you take it?

          The test centers near Tokyo (especially Fuchu?) are well known for regularly failing highly experienced drivers for illegitimate reasons. Each time, they invariably refer you to their driving classes, which also have employees whose salaries need to be paid. The test centers need to make sure bookings are always full. It is their business.

          At Fuchu, Samezu, & Koto, it is not an option to hire someone to take you through the course. The courses are part of police stations; the only way you get in there is to take the test.

          In general, how does it make sense that a person who has gone through a JP driving school (the domestic way to get a license), on contrived courses & with only a nominal amount of actual public road experience (maybe a couple or few times at best), should be able to receive a full-blown license after their school is complete? To put it another way: if you pay a bunch of money and spend a bunch of time at a school, where you drive almost entirely on empty, contrived course roads (whose only traffic are fellow students), you can receive a license without a driving test at the police station. Sure, you do a ‘test’ at the school, but how many people do you think fail after spending the time & money? The [lack of] failure rate is pretty well documented.

          In Japan, as people here are probably aware, there’s a thing called a “paper driver” — one who holds a license, but doesn’t own a car and hasn’t really driven aside from driving school and maybe occasional vehicle rental for day trips (if even that). These “paper drivers”, who mostly have licenses for option value, have a tendency to rent cars around the holidays and cause a bunch of accidents. If everyone actually needed practical driving experience (e.g. learner’s permit) to become fully licensed, this would be less of an issue…

          • GeneralObvious says:

            Unless your Japanese is above N3 you won’t be taking it anywhere but a city. Only major DMV’s offices have English speaking proctors and they won’t let you signup in the small satellite offices unless you are fluent Japanese. I had to drive to the capital city of my prefecture when I took the test.

            In my area most of the other teachers took between 4 and 7 times to pass it. 1 other person and myself passed it on the first try. People like to make excuses for their failures; personal responsibility is hard to come by these days.

  • SconeClone says:

    You didn’t explain something. Are the tests given by a driving school instead of by the government, or does the government sell driving classes?

    • GeneralObvious says:

      Every city has a driving center run by the police where you can take the test. Every city also has independent driving schools, some of which offer testing.

  • Jeffrey Belciña Bahian says:

    It took me 6 months of preparation – hours of scouring the internet for resources each day and studying them, and 1 50-minute driving school session, and hands on practice with my car using my international drivers license – to pass the exam the first time only. It wasn’t luck at all. It was all those hours of study and practice that did it. Tip: exaggerate your body movements during the exam.

    • GeneralObvious says:

      It took me a 2 practice session with a hired ‘teacher’ and 30 minutes of practice the night before memorizing the order to do everything. I passed on the first try also.

  • qbkitsune says:

    I’m a little confused as to which prefectural licensing center you went to. Mine does not offer driving school courses, as that is a clear conflict of interest.

    Passing the test was as easy as reading extensively online about the test. It’s all about how well you follow the test procedure, not how well you drive. If you follow procedure to the letter, it is absolutely possible to pass on the first try. I passed on my first try without going to a school or doing any practice sessions. I know others who have done the same. One of the best resources is your prefectural JET website or forum, even if you are not affiliated with the JET program. Most people post their practical test tips and suggestions there, as many rural JETs need to drive.

    The renewals are certainly easier, though they seem to assume that all blue menkyo people are people who have lost points on their license and treated us all like criminals. The gold menkyo renewal was basically like a first aid course with some little reminders about the rules.

  • Amit Sagrolikar says:

    I was lucky to get mine on the first attempt!!

  • カップス クリス says:

    I always wanted to know about this thank for posting this article when I go to Japan I will be a little more prepared.

  • Jesse says:

    One try and no drivers test. good thing I had my Japan miltary license.

  • Mark Kennedy says:

    All true! It took 7 trips to the driver’s license facility for me the first time around (although the first 3 trips involved snafus with the paperwork), but the renewals have been much easier.



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