Getting a Driver's License in Japan, an Ordeal

I finally got my proper Japan driver's license, and what an ordeal it's been. Fasten your seatbelts for this one.

The incident

I've been in Japan since 1987 and did not drive for the first 4 or 5 years. I always have kept my US license current, and after getting married, got and started using an international license. Never had a problem buying cars, mopeds, or insurance using the international license. They expire yearly, and recently had always bought them online via AAA, and they'd come in the post a couple weeks later.

I had a couple fender benders and a couple citations over the years, but nothing major, and no cop ever questioned the international license. But about three years ago, it was my lucky day I guess: got pulled over and the cop told me you can only use an int'l for 1 year, meaning, I was driving without a license or guilty of "mumenkyo unten".

Cue getting carted off to the police station in the back of a cruiser, a scary interview process, signing a statement, getting my wife pulled in as well (so sorry) and interviewed because the car's in her name, then finally released. We got called back separately for more interviews and finally they decided to just limit it to me. They could have charged and fined her too, for allowing an unlicensed person to drive her car. We would have really been in trouble had they not been charitable to us in the weeks following.

I was feeling sick for a long time after this. Fearing the absolute worst because this offense can come with prison time, I contacted a lawyer. He told me if I wasn't in cuffs and locked up, it wasn't an arrest per se, albeit of course a serious issue. This eased my mind somewhat. He told me to just be sincere and honest, and advised me not to change the story.

In about a month I had to appear before the prosecutor & judge, paid a 300,000 JPY fine, and had to go to a day's training regarding the rules: there would be no chance of getting a license for 2 years, mandatory 2 day course for people who lose their license. After the course they interview you to make sure you understand, and the cop told it's easiest to stay in US for 90d over a three year period, then convert. Conversion means you hand in a translation of your license and proof that you've been in the US (not sure re other countries) for the required 90 days over three years, take an eye test and simple 10 question written test, and take a driving test. I hear they fail you a few times, but it's a cheap process compared to going to a school. Some countries and some US states (OH, WA, HI I think?) are exempt from the testing; you just do an eye test and bam, you're licensed.

Going to school

I started trying to get the 90 days in the US, and was up to 60 days, but COVID messed with those plans. Eventually my wife got tired of driving us everywhere so she insisted I just pay to take the course at a school. I went to the certified "kounin" school in Totsuka where we are, and to get your regular car license at any of such school is about 300,000 JPY.

There are schools that offer English language courses but they are not so convenient for me, so I opted for Japanese lessons with English tests. My Japanese is good, but my kanji reading is too slow to be competitive in a test situation. It's a lot of training, and textbook facts you have to memorize. I know how to drive so I had to tamp down the annoyance, and try to keep a beginners' mindset. The biggest challenge was, I'm 56, so memorizing is not my strong suit right about now.

My "stance" during all this was to keep an earnest sincerity, and kind of over-exaggerate all the checks and so on, that you're meant to do. Basically, when I took the driver test in PA in the US in 81, it was like getting tossed off a cliff. Our gym teacher at HS was the driving instructor, and while we did have a primitive driving simulator in the basement of the HS, the training was little to non-existent.

So for this class in Japan, I decided to make the best of it, ask a ton of questions and get them to explain a lot. Especially with regard to driving skills that, while I could do them, I can't say I felt confident about. Due to the step by step nature of the training and the repetition, I have to say I'm a lot more confident about things like backing up, parallel parking and so on.

The training is in two stages and breaks down like this:

  1. Stage 1
    • Take a psych test to find out your "driver personality"
    • Classes on basic knowledge
    • Practice driving basics inside the school grounds on their test course
    • Pass practice tests using "mantensama" online site
    • Pass "koukasokutei" 50-question true-false test after all classwork, which focuses on the classes you've taken so far
    • Pass "mikiwame" driving test, which says you're ready for the actual test
    • Pass the "karimen" driving test
    • Get your "karimen" learner's permit, with which you can drive on the streets when accompanied by person with a license
  2. Stage 2
    • Classes on intermediate knowledge
    • Practice driving basics outside the school on regular roads
    • First aid "set" class, 3 hr
    • Other "set" classes, such as "expressway driving" class, followed by actual expressway driving, or "emergency maneuvers" followed by some fun experiences like taking a curve at higher speed than normal or, slamming on the brakes to see how the car reacts at 40 kph
    • Pass practice tests using "mantensama" online site
    • Pass "koukasokutei" 90-question true-false test after all classwork, which focuses on stage 2 classroom learning with a little review of stage 1 learning, and is similar to the actual licensing exam
    • Pass "mikiwame" driving test, which says you're ready for the actual test
    • Pass "sotsugyo" driving test
    • Graduation ceremony, explanation of taking the written test at the DMV, and get your graduation certificate, and some other papers you need to present when taking the written test

That's a lot, and it's really designed to get a person with no experience at all, up to speed to be able to drive relatively safely. For that, I think it serves its purpose well. Despite knowing how to drive, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with the instructors, many around my age, when they were emphasizing some point to the classes (mostly late teens early 20s) about how dangerous an accident can be, or whatnot. Most of the many, many instructors I interacted with were excellent ranging in age from late 20s to around 60.

The two hardest parts for me were first, the memorization (it's just not so easy at 56) and second, not exceeding the posted speed limit. Thirty kph really feels too slow.

Remedial training

Before I could get the karimen learner's permit, I had to take the remedial two day course for people who have had their license confiscated - when I scheduled it, the person arranged it so I could take the course more near my house, which was a relief. I arrived at the school near Kamioooka at 8am, and my classmates were a guy who drove drunk and another who got caught speeding way over the limit.

The initial psych test they have you take on day one at the regular school gives you an idea of how you'll react in various situations. They ask many questions designed to tease out your personality, and also give tests that are designed to induce stress, as in, making the same mark on paper as fast as you can for a one minute period: how many X's can you make, crossing a backward slash.

I did not do "well" on this initial test, partially because of irritation about it, and partially because the explanations were fast and I wasn't following well. Then, surprise, surprise, there was another one during this two day course!

However, this time I knew what to expect, and did much better, with a normal result. The instructor also explained it better as well. He was really encouraging and got us psyched up to do it, and all of us got an acceptable result.

I think also it helped that this instructor, an ex cop, was empathetic and funny. He knew this course and the whole thing about losing your license would have been a stress and an embarrassment, and basically handled the whole two days with humor. Of the three of us, one fellow was at the point I was at, just before the "karimen" and the other fellow had already graduated. The instructor joked that he was going to make the graduate backup through the "crank" (a series of narrow 90 degree turns you have to negotiate), and that if he couldn't, he'd have to tell his school to rescind the graduated status. Sounds mean, but it was funny and broke the tension.

Formal steps and graduating

Regarding the two driving tests you take during the course of the schoolwork, they are formal and there are specific sets of steps that you must complete. This was a bit of a challenge because before each test, the instructors are explaining very quickly, and if your listening comprehension is not 100% on that day, you might miss something. I asked them to repeat just in case I missed; things like "so, after we stop, we're to turn off the engine and get out of the car, checking behind, otherwise it's a fail, right?" I imagine that might have helped another student who missed the point, since they said you'd fail if you missed it.

Regarding the "sets of steps" I mentioned, I mean a process like, before starting, you:

  • inspect the vehicle,
  • get in checking to the rear,
  • confirm parking brake and that the gear is in P,
  • press engine button twice / turn key to aux,
  • confirm mirrors and seat position,
  • verbally say you're ready,
  • fasten seatbelt,
  • turn on engine,
  • put gear in D,
  • release side brake,
  • check mirrors,
  • signal,
  • turn and check blind spot,
  • go.

Or, when changing lanes or turning, it's:

  • check back mirror,
  • check relevant side mirror,
  • signal,
  • check blind spot,
  • turn

I found it was useful to do some image training, thinking about these steps, and then do them every time I drove. You can get in a lot of practice before the test, if you memorize it up front and just repeatedly do it how they expect. It's a bit of a challenge to unlearn shortcuts you've been taking for many years, though.

The final driving test was a lot easier than I thought it would be, and you're paired up with another person. In my case, my partner was around 20, had never driven, and passed even though though they cut off a car coming straight while they were turning right. When the instructors were coming out to give us the results after taking the final test, I overheard my partner say "I know I screwed up badly...", and the instructor respond "yes, but you have done everything else right so far, so I am going to pass you. Just please be careful in those situations since you can't know what someone else will do."

Once you graduate, you don't need to go back to the school, but you've just got the the final written test, which is only given at the DMV test center. In our case, it's the Kanagawa Driver Center near Futamatagawa station in Yokohama. Before you could just show up and take the test, but due to COVID, now you register online and there's a bit of a wait. We had to wait a month. I graduated on 22 Feb and took the written test on 22 Mar 2022. During the month of waiting, unfortunately I could feel the facts kind of slipping away out of my brain, so I studied regularly using mantensama, and my own notes.

The final written test

The test center was a madhouse, but thankfully everyone was masked. Reception was supposed to be from 8:30 to 9:00am, so I arrived at 8:15. They were already processing people in, and it was already very crowded. When I got to the front of the line, I handed over my various papers including graduation certificate, proof I had taken the 2-day remedial course, and answers on a questionnaire about not having epilepsy or narcolepsy. I emphasized that I wanted to take the test in English, and the cop doing my check-in told me I need to fill out the form in English instead. So I did that, re-queued, and then got passed over to the eye test line.

The eye test was literally 30 seconds: you look into a machine like they have at the ophthalmologist, and say whether the opening in the C is up, down, left or right. Then you get directed to a waiting room. In my case, since my test was to be in English, they directed me to wait with other such testees, and in a few minutes another official came out to check our paperwork and direct us to the test rooms.

After a bit more waiting, and people scrambling down to the convenience store on the first floor to buy pencils (!) since they no longer provide them due to COVID, they passed the tests out and walked us through how to fill out the answer sheet. In the case of the foreign language testers, there were special codes to enter, so an official came over and filled bits of the sheet in for us.

The test in English had a different odd grammar from the odd grammar of the practice tests, so that was a bit of a jolt. The test is 90 questions in 50 min, and I used up 40 of the 50 min, handed it in, then went to a special kiosk to get a barcode slip with the license PIN on it, and pay the 2100 yen for the license fee. Actually, as is typical in Japan, you buy stamps to affix to a physical form.

Once everyone was done with the test I went back in and sat down, and waited for the result. They display the "jukenbango" numbers of the people who passed on the screen. Maybe 10 of about 100 people in the room failed, and were told to leave the room. But, there's my number, a pass!

Next they explain the rest of the process, including optional membership in the "safety club" which is 1500 yen for the license validity period, and has the main benefit of giving you a kind of "fast pass" letting you skip the line when you renew the next time. Sounds like a good deal to me, so I paid it. Maybe 5 of 90 of the others joined.

Finally, they came in with the licenses, and call people by the number of their birthday month, so since I'm Jan, I was in the first group. You get the license, hand in your permit, then leave. One last step is, to use a kiosk to check the info in the license. All good! Now I just need to remember to put the "beginner mark" magnets on the car any time I drive. Luckily the school gave us these as a graduation present.

Interesting trivia

Congrats, you made it to the end! Some interesting facts I picked up:

  • You can be cited for "failure to render first aid" if you don't use your first aid knowledge during an accident, whether it's your fault or not.
  • If your car runs out of gas or breaks down on the expressway, you can be cited for "failure to maintain your vehicle".
  • You can be cited for staying in the passing lane on the expressway.
  • If you ride the expressway, it's a requirement to have one of those triangle reflectors to put out in case of a breakdown.
  • Getting a citation or having points subtracted during the first year is a problem; you can be made to take a two day remedial class, then redo all the tests. What a pain. Drive carefully that first year!
  • If you get another more advanced license, like "jun-chuugata" (small truck), during the first year, the aforementioned strictness is applied to the more advanced of whatever license you have. So, if you have "jun-chuugata" and get cited while driving your normal car, that does not count as a citation against your first-year "beginner period".
  • If you are in an accident even if it's minor, never run and always call the police. Something that seems minor in the context of your home country is probably not seen as minor in Japan. The example given was bumping mirrors. They are designed to fold back, but even that is classed as an "accident" and you still have to call the cops, even if both drivers agree it's nothing. Better to do it right, than to risk having someone come at you later.

Social Photo by why kei on Unsplash

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