How To Pass the Japanese Practical Driving Test in One Attempt

Need to drive in Japan more than the 1 year given to you by your International driving permit? Your going to need a Japanese drivers license.

You could face a fine of up to 300,000 Yen or up to 1 year imprisonment for driving on an expired permit.

This could take several months – so you better get head start my friend because the clock is ticking. Does 3, or 5, or 10 attempts sound crazy? Because the Japanese practical test often presents a challenge to foreigners.

In this post I will tell you how I passed in 1 attempt, with minimal additional training / investment. Hopefully this post offers a nice overview of my own experience and consolidates some information. (Note: What is required depends on what prefecture you live in, your driving history, etc. This is blog post is only my personal experience.)

As an American – it’s more work than simply swapping out a US license for a Japanese one, unfortunately. On the positive side, neither do you have to go through the process that locals go through which includes months of driving school, and likely thousands of dollars in training and fee’s. Yes – they take driver’s licenses very seriously in Japan!

“In a comparison of 20 high-income countries, the United States had the highest rate of crash deaths per population and the highest rate of crash deaths per registered vehicles.” – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – July 8, 2016

The steps you will need to take will look something like this:

  • Setting your initial DMV paperwork appointment
  • Gathering the necessary information and documentation
  • Providing this information to the DMV, and likely a short interview in Japanese
  • At least one drivers training session with an instructor
  • Memorizing the route/map for your practical test
  • Taking a simple written test (true or false)
  • Taking a practical driving test on a track at the DMV
  • Filling out forms and paying fee’s

This doesn’t look very appealing. But it’s not as bad as it seems and it can actually be quite simple provided you do a few things the right way.
My goal in this blog post is to give you some tips on how to get this task completed with the least amount of time and money invested as possible!

Step 1 – Setup Your Paperwork Appointment (Do not wait! This can take a month or more)

The reason this is step one is because of the long wait times. It can take weeks or longer to get your first appointment where you will submit paperwork to see if you are eligible to take the test for a Japanese license. For me this meant going to the biggest city in the prefecture… which is 2 hours away from me, Gifu City. This was required to take the written test in English, and I figured probably they had experience dealing with foreigners. If you are not fluent in Japanese, have someone who is (preferably native) make the appointment call for you. It is a good idea to have someone fluent with you during each visit to the DMV ( 運転免許センター). They will likely give you a long list of information which you will need to bring to make sure you qualify.

Step 2 – Gathering Your Info

While you are waiting for your appointment you should be gathering you information and making copies of everything. Some of the things you will need.

  • Current passport
  • Any prior passports, or evidence of prior passports if there was any
  • Your Japan Residence Card  在留 カード
  • Current U.S. Drivers License + Any old/expired licenses if you still have them somewhere
  • A DMV Record of your driving, for me (California) this meant filing form INF1125
  • A set of small photos, the kind you can get in Japan photo booth or with an App
  • Evidence that you lived in the US at the time your license was issued
    • Any actual rental agreement would be great
    • Utility bills / bank statements
    • Insurance records (Ins. Company can give you a printout of your history!)
    • Anything proving you lived at the address on your US license for longer than 3 months

Let me say before anything else – if you have ANY evidence of your past driving history or record in the US – Save It! Look for that old drivers license if it’s still in a drawer somewhere.

Allow me to explain;
Japan wants to see evidence of your driving history from the date your license was initially issued. I’m talking high-school, 16 year old drivers license issue date (or as much as humanly possible). Additionally you must prove, without question that you lived in the US for at least 3 months (hopefully longer) with your current license before coming to Japan. Why? It is actually to prevent Japanese citizens from going abroad and simply getting an International Drivers Permit and using it in Japan.

For me this meant;
I’ve been driving for 25 years – but the California DMV only keeps records for 10 yrs.  SO let’s start there. For my California driving history I had to immediately request form INF1125 by mail, and mailed to my mothers house (legal residence in the US). If you have it sent to an alternate address make sure you still use your own name. The printed report that they provide actually does list all the years of your driving history. There is also an unofficial online version you can request from the DMV website for $2. Whether or not they will accept the online printout is questionable. If you have no other option, i’d suggest printing out the receipt as well.

Step 3 – Your Paperwork Appointment

Bring every piece of paperwork and evidence you need (and even some things you don’t think you’ll need) with you, as well as:

  • a native speaker to help you with any forms / conversations
  • a humble and respectful attitude with you. If you appear to not respect the process or seriousness  – they notice
  • a book, or something to do while waiting around

Your paperwork will be gathered and taken away to some mystery location where it will be reviewed in a matter of hours. You can wait there… or in my case, I left – but stayed in the area – expecting their call.
Once you’ve received their call, after reviewing the paperwork…  surprise!

The Interview

Now someone will ask you various questions about your driving history and paperwork, basically to verify. I call it the interview because they asked me many questions that i failed to understand the significance.

  • how long did it take to get my license in the mail
  • what things were on my original practical driving test (age 16)
  • how long did i drive under a permit before getting a license
  • how many questions were on my original written test

After a number of questions, I began to suspect that they really wanted to both verify  my history – AND feel me out. How well do I speak Japanese? How careful of a driver am I? I don’t want to call it a personality test, but I think my point is clear. Show what you know, and display an attitude that you are taking this all very seriously.

If accepted you will receive some literature and be able to schedule your test at a point in the near future. Most likely 1-3 weeks depending on the time of year. On the day of the test, you will once again need to bring EVERYTHING in regards to paperwork.

If not-accepted it’s likely because you are missing something required. Take advantage of your time being in the area with the next step.

Step 4 – Drivers Training Class

You will not pass the practical test without at least one driving school session.

I know what your’e going to say. Probably the same thing I said. “That’s crazy! I’ve been driving in the US for 25 years!”, well yes, but there are many little things specific to the test in Japan that a foreigner would never think of. Examples?

  • Examining the car before you enter it
  • How smoothly you are turning the wheel
  • Listening for trains at railroad crossings
  • Having your blinker on almost entirely through the course

There’s many more, and the instructors are picky. They look for you to do some very specific things in order to be sure you’ve prepared. So what is a person to do? In Gifu there is a nearby school which offers the very SAME course as the actual test! This is a huge benefit to you. Most recommend at least 2 hours of training, but i did it with a single 30 minute session. Here’s how:

  • Have a partner ride in the back to observe (record video if allowed)
  • Following the training session, quickly record all your thoughts in a voice memo
  • Try to recall and record every comment your instructor made
  • For $1 you can purchase a very-clear map and route of the course
Sample Course
This is a sample course only. I’m sure it changes often.
Step 5 – Brain Training

Prepare for The Written Test

You’re lucky in this regard. Japanese drivers must take a 100 question test while you get to take a relatively simple and obvious 10 question written test, and you can miss up to 3 questions and still pass. So my opinion is yes, of course, know all your Japanese road signs and basic rules of the road and required distances (signaling, following, etc). But your struggle will not be with the written test. Assuming you pass you’ll be given the practical driving test the same day. If you fail, you will need to reschedule at the time of next availability.

Prepare for The Practical Test

This test consists of you driving one of their vehicles (the same kind of car as the taxi’s you see) around a driving course which is part of the Unten Menyo Center. This is really the key section of this blog post, and the secret to passing the test.

Every day prior to taking the practical test, visualize yourself driving through your memorized course and every precaution that you must take.

I’m serious. Sit in a chair, and pretend it is the drivers seat. Have someone watch you, and explain to them every action. When you lay in bed at night and closer your eyes, see the course. Imagine someone sitting in the back seat and an instructor silently critiquing you. If you are unable to invest in the actual driving school, you must school and judge yourself with repeated visualization of the course and steps to take along the way. Given this – how important is it to learn your weak spots in that initial lesson? I would say – critical.

Step 6  – Test day

On the actual test day you will return with all of the identical, required paperwork. You and a group of others will be lead to a small room where you will take the written test. In my group, 10 out of 10 people passed the written. A good website with sample tests is located here. You’ll then be instructed to head over to the actual testing course located behind the Unten Menkyo center.  Prior to the test, you’ll sit in a small classroom format and the instructor will inform you what will take place.

  • If you are sitting here waiting for the instructor, do not waste time. Use these moments to visually study the course, because you may be the first to go!

Following the instructor explanation, he/she will explain who will go first, second, third, etc. If you are “next” then you have the benefit of riding in the back of the car of the person who is actually testing. Another HUGE benefit to study the course. In my experience, the instructor says very little (unless you crash or test is ended) until you are done. He will offer some limited feedback privately to the test taker.

It’s Your Turn

Now it’s time to let all that visualization training do its job! I hope you’ve memorized the course. Don’t forget to:

  • Check the street before you enter the car
  • Check the car out before getting in
  • Tell the Instructor – Yoroshiku Onegaishimasu!
  • Seatbelt / Adjust Chair / Mirrors/ Blinkers
  • Stay as far to the LEFT as you can without touching the line
  • When preparing to turn, stay as close to the CENTER line as possible
  • When preparing to turn, check both ways AND over-shoulder blind spot
  • Blinkers on 30 meters before turning
  • Check left/right and crosswalks and intersections
  • Get up to 40 when asked to, but not higher
  • If you can’t see due to an obstacle, act appropriately

Following your test, the instructor will offer some criticisms. This doesn’t necessarily mean you failed! I was corrected on 3 different items. Even if you passed you will have to wait around for some time to find out the results.

Congratulations. You passed! Or you failed. If you passed, you’ll pay up some more fee’s for a license. If you failed, you will reschedule for a future date. If you failed – while in the area, it might not hurt to take one or more driving school lessons.

Let me know how your experience went by returning to the blog-post (short version of this page) and leaving a comment!
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