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.