Much has been said about the difficulty of Americans getting a Japanese drivers license. “They like to fail American drivers… especially the first three times.” is the most common complaint. Even though I don’t have a car, the option of being able to drive has prompted my husband and I into getting our own Japanese license. After all, who doesn’t like a road trip? So I started to read about the tricks for passing the drivers test on the first, or failing that, at least the second try.
Before you are allowed to take the driving skills test, first you must pass an interview. You must bring with you a copy of your drivers’ license translated into Japanese (http://www.jaf.or.jp/inter/translation/index_e.htm), a proof of address from city hall (called Juuminhyo(住民票); not your residency card), your passport, and your international drivers license. During the interview you will be asked about the process you went through to obtain your original drivers license. If possible, it is also useful to know the current process and terms in case things had changed since you had obtained it. Then after the interview you will need to wait a week or two for paperwork to get filed (and for the U.S. Embassy to be contacted) before you can be scheduled for the skills test.
When the day of the test comes, you need to bring all the paperwork from the interview with you (along with a photo), and you will need to take a simple vision test and then a 10 question true/false written test (available in English). When I asked if there was anything I needed to study, I was told, “No, they are common sense questions”. And they are. Just make sure you know about Japan’s basic driving rules and study some road signs. These ten questions come from the 100 questions that the Japanese need to take in order to proceed to the skills part of the test. Once you pass that with a 70%, it is time to watch the 30 minute video (in Japanese). The most important part to pay attention to is the “this will cause you to automatically fail the test” section. You will also be given a handout to study with some basic tips for the drivers test.
Now let me take a moment to talk about the driving skills test and why there are so many stories about how the test is “dumb, unfair, and insulting”. After all, we know how to drive and have been doing it for years (in my case, 18). Some Americans have even been driving since the day they arrived in Japan and only have to take the test because their international permit will be expiring. So why can’t we just switch it over like the Canadians? (Most Americans understand the easy switch between the countries that drive on the left-side of the road. But Canada? They drive on the right like us!) The answer is simple: it is easier to negotiate terms with a country with 13 provinces and territories than a country with 50 states and 5 territories. Then there are the complaints about the test itself: “the s-curve road is ridiculous because roads like that don’t exist, nor do the 90-degree roads”; “I drove a flawless test, how did I not pass?!?”. The reason for this is also simple: we are taking this test while thinking like an American.
The fact is, Japan does acknowledge the fact that we do know how to drive. That is why we only need to take a 10 question test and not the full 100 questions. Also, we get a reduced course. We aren’t asked to parallel park, back-in park, stop for train tracks, or come to a blind curve since they assume we already know how to do them. They are testing us on the four most important aspects of driving in Japan.
1: Driving on the left side of the road. This is the number 1 reason why Americans fail the test the 1st time they take it. If it isn’t instinctual to turn into the left-most lane by the time you take the test, then you haven’t had enough practice. Turn into the right lane in the real world and there could be an accident. So turning into the right lane is an automatic failure. (This actually happened to my husband. But since it was early in the course, the instructor actually let him continue the test course so he could have experience and practice for the next time he took the test.)
2: Driving on mountains – the s-curve road. Almost everything I have read about the test involving the s-curve includes the comment “These roads don’t exist in real life, so I don’t know why it’s included.” But as I was driving this part of the test, I was able to understand its purpose. It felt like I was driving on a winding mountain, and mountains are everywhere in Japan. If you fall off the road and continue going forward you will automatically fail. Why? If you drive off the road on the side of the mountain and continue driving forward you will most likely die. So stop and back up. There is still a chance of passing (you only lose 20 points for this).
3: Driving in inaka (countryside) or big-city neighborhoods – the 90 degree road. Yes, there are roads that curve that sharply. My cousin lives at the end of one in Tokyo. Also, there are some smaller roads in smaller towns that curve that sharply. The concept is the same about not driving off the road. And this is where I failed my first test – I drove off the road “and into a rice field”. (No, I did not continue going forward, but I did have an awkward time in reversing and did lose at least 20 points. And no, there was no actual rice field on the test course, but that is the idea of it.)
4: Safety. This is the most important part of the test, and what can fail you even if you stay on the left side of the road without falling off it. Japan is a country with heavy pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and they often share the road with cars. There are also a lot of mopeds. Especially in the countryside (inaka) and smaller towns, and this is where most Americans wanting to drive live. This is the part of the test that can cost you the most points. Are you turning your head to look over your shoulder to make sure that a moped isn’t in your blind spot when you are wanting to lane shift or make that right hand turn? Are you doing the same to make sure there isn’t a bicyclist or pedestrian on your left while you are making the turn?
Are you signaling in enough time to let those mopeds/bicyclists/pedestrians know that you will be turning? Are you glancing out the windows, as well as using your mirrors? Are you checking to make sure you drove past the car parked on the side of the road before you start to get back over? Are you looking behind you while backing up , and not just using your mirrors, to make sure no one is behind you? If the examiner doesn’t think you are diligent enough in your driving, then they will fail you even if you thought you drove a perfect course. (This is the reason why most Americans don’t understand.)
Hidden factor: Your attitude. If you come with an arrogant attitude, then the examiner might not think you understand the importance of the test, and it can affect how they view you as a safe driver. If you are receptive and humble, it can help. They won’t tell you right away if you pass or fail (unless the failure is obvious). The will deliberate, and let you know about 10 or so minutes later. I thought I was going to fail again my second time because I missed a turn. I couldn’t see the number he told me to turn right at (all the numbers on the course were low to the ground except for this one, and in my nervousness I didn’t see it until I was at it and in the wrong lane to turn from unless I wanted to ensure my failure), and I stopped on the course for clarification. He led me on a detour around so I could come to the turn again. When I was done and he explained my mistakes (going out a tad too far after the s-curve and not looking over my shoulder when I was in reverse), and again I apologized for missing the number and explained why I missed it. He looked at the course and did the “Ah, I see” reaction. Needless to say, I was very surprised when later he told me that I passed with a big smile on his face. He (and my tester from the day before) was very impressed with my “safe driving”. It wasn’t enough to save me from driving off the rice field, but it was enough to forgive my missing a turn.
It is important for an American to be in a Japanese mindset when taking the Japanese driving skills test and not an American one. If you approach the test thinking like the Japanese, then your chances of passing are greatly increased. After all, the test instructor just wants to make sure that you don’t get into a head-on collision, drive off a mountain, drive into a rice field, or hit any pedestrians.
If you have any questions about the test, don’t hesitate to drop us a line.
Until next time, stay awesome!