Automatic or Manual
Japan offers you the choice of taking all the tests using automatic transmission cars. The delivered licence restricts you to only driving AT cars afterward, but it is possible to take another separate test later on, specifically to remove that restriction. Of course, you can also take the test for manual transmission.
Much like the US and unlike Western Europe, nobody drives MT cars in Japan (probably less than 10%), so there’s really little downside in going for an AT permit, as long as you are mainly planning to drive in Japan.
I was originally going to go for MT, figuring that I may as well make it worth the time and effort and have the most universal licence possible. I changed my mind around sign-up time and am very glad I did: learning and practicing on AT made it infinitely easier than whatever I remember of my learning experience on AT (lots of sweaty frantic pedal pushing and the smell of burnt rubber), making it possible to focus on the numerous rules and requirements of typical Japanese driving style. I also suspect that there are considerably less instructors (with a car) for MT than AT.
Location, Location, Location…
In addition to the driving school vs. traffic school dichotomy, there is one other factor that plays a major role in how difficult getting your licence will be: which prefecture you live in.
While the tests are standardised (same number of questions, same number of points, same traffic laws…), the execution, details and strictness of grading apparently varies greatly from one place to the next. Not to mention the inherent difficulty in taking a road driving test in a busy urban area, vs. some sleepy country town.
In the Kantō region, Kanagawa-ken has a reputation for driving grown men to tears: a high rate of traffic accidents in the past few decades apparently prompted some over-the-top enforcement of traffic rules during the tests and zero mercy shown by proctors. At the other end of the spectrum, Chiba-ken is supposedly a much more mellow place to take the test, in part thanks to its overall light traffic conditions. Tokyo-to is apparently somewhere in the middle: definitely not a walk in the park, but doable with a bit of luck and a lot of motivation.
First Test: Learner’s Permit written test
Your first goal will be to obtain a Learner’s Permit (仮免許証), which allows you to drive accompanied on regular roads. The Learner’s Permit is valid for 6 months and is a mandatory requirement to take the tests for the actual permit.
After signing up with an instructor (or not) and while practicing on a closed course, you will want to prepare and take the written part of the test.
The test is comprised of 50 true/false questions, out of which you must answer at least 45 correctly. Unlike the Licence Conversion test, this one definitely requires a lot more than basic knowledge of traffic rules and common sense. You will need to read through whatever textbook comes recommended by your instructor (the Learner’s Permit covers about half of the total material), learn the specific terms for each sign, all sorts of minute details regarding which class of vehicle requires what permit and can drive at what speed etc.
Once you’ve read the textbook, you will absolutely want to take one of the mock-exam that should be provided with the textbook. You will then have a moment of quiet desperation upon realising that you got half the answers wrong despite having read and memorised the book. This is perfectly normal: the textbook is not how you really prepare for the test, mock exams are. Take as many mock exams as possible (there should be at least 4 or 5 exam sheets with your book) and you will start noticing the same questions (and question styles) coming back at regular intervals, learn to recognise the traps and eventually be ready for the real thing.
Both Learner and Final permit written tests are made up of roughly:
- 20% bullshit questions, presumably there to weed out mentally-challenged people (actual question on my test: “It is illegal to drink alcohol before driving, however it is OK and even recommended to take stimulant drugs [i.e. methamphetamine], as they increase your alertness and make you a better driver: True/False?”).
- 60% regular questions that require at least a cursory reading of the textbook and understanding of traffic signs etc.
- 20% Death Trap questions hanging entirely on one comma, the different interpretation of the word ‘is’ or advanced first-order logic reasoning… Typical example: “Unsupervised children are playing near the road, I should stop or slow down to let them pass safely: True or False?”, answer: “False. It is not necessary to stop, slowing down is sufficient.”
Those 20% nasty questions wouldn’t be such a problem, if you were allowed more than 5% wrong answers. Unfortunately you aren’t, so better work through these mock-up exams and learn the crucial difference between “under 60 km/h” and “60km/h or under”.
If you take the test with the local police, you are given the option to do it in English. While I would tend to recommend it (even if you are very fluent, there’s no point adding to the challenge of an already challenging task), be aware that some of the translations are less-than-perfect (though rarely to the point of making the question unintelligible). If you opt for Japanese, both official textbook and the tests are provided with exhaustive furigana, making the whole thing fairly easy to read. In both cases, a few questions will rely on your ability to read Japanese inscriptions on certain street signs.
You do not need an appointment to take the test, only to show up some time before starting time (for the morning or afternoon session), pay some cash, show a bunch of documents: mostly the usual stuff, although you will need a copy of your jūminhyō (住民票) (which itself takes a visit to the Kuyakusho/Shiyakusho with some cash and ID), take the shortest eye exam you’ve ever taken (15 seconds top) and wait a lot of time in between all these.
If you take the morning session and fail, you are allowed to take the afternoon session on the same day (after paying the fee again, of course). If you pass, you will be handed some paperwork and asked to make a reservation for the practical test on the spot: you can however change that reservation at any point and as often as you want (either by phone or in person, using a special reservation card they will leave with you). There usually won’t be any available time less than a week ahead, so better take the written part some time before you plan to take the practical.
Practical Test on Closed Course (Learner’s Permit)
While you prepare for the written test, you will have presumably started preparing for the driving part of the Learner’s Permit. The practical test (技能試験) involves driving for about 15 minutes around a closed course, with the examiner giving you basic directions (in Japanese) on where to turn, stop etc. Unlike the conversion test, you are expected to absolutely follow a set of rules (some general traffic ones, some apparently specific to closed-course driving), with points deducted for each mistake (generally allowing up to 2 or 3 very minor mistakes before you are failed). A couple of these rules include:
- Sticking to the left side (less than 30cm) of the road when making left turns, center line when making right turns, making perfect right-angle turns (no swerving in opposite direction)…
- Observing proper priority rules between lanes: yielding to priority lanes (based on size and markings), yielding to the left when no lane has priority, not slowing down at intersections when on priority lanes…
- Reaching a certain speed (while driving straight) without going over, sticking to speed limits elsewhere, braking before turns, pumping break when slowing down/stopping…
- Maniacally craning your neck in the appropriate directions to check blind spot on every single turn, lane change or any move of the wheel…
- Signalling within proper distance of any turn or lane change, going around road obstacles…
- At railway crossing: stopping vehicle, checking left and right of track and opening car window to check for the sound of incoming train…
- Stopping and restarting smoothly on an upward slope…
- Taking narrow cranks (right angle and sharp zig-zags) without touching sides…
While none of the above is particularly outlandish or exceptionally hard, keep in mind that every single detail matter and will be ground for failure if you omit them more than once or twice: forget to bring the car within 30cm of the side before a left turn (once) and do not check visibly enough for pedestrians by turning your head left and right before restarting the car after a red light (once) and you’ll be failed. Of course, the more egregious mistakes like touching/crossing the centre line (including for left turns) or touching the side, will be ground for immediate failure.
A couple things worth noting:
- It is perfectly OK to make mistakes in following the directions given by the examiner (e.g. fail to turn at the proper intersection etc). The examiner will point it out and have you go around again, but no point is subtracted. On the other hand, it is a very bad idea to make some last-minute move to comply with a direction at the risk of breaking some rule (by not correctly checking, signaling too late or switching lane too close to a light). The guy just before me at the test was doing overall OK, until the instructor pointed out that he had asked for a right at the next light, prompting him to switch lane at the last minute, crossing a plain yellow line and getting an instant fail.
- You are allowed to go pretty much as slow as you want (except when the examiner asks you to reach a certain speed), particularly in the cranks. You are also allowed to back up once, without point deduction, when negotiating narrow turns in the cranks: much better option than risking to touch the side, which is instant failure.
- During the upward slope stop-and-restart, the examiner expects you to use the handbrake (or brake pedal) when restarting to avoid rolling backward.
- To prevent cheating and disagreements, the test must apparently be conducted with two people in the car (aside from the examiner). You will usually be asked to ride in the back while the previous person take their test, then switch to the front while the next one rides behind. Gives you a chance to observe the course beforehand.
If you live in Tokyo and are reading this before Spring of 2014, you will have no other option than taking the practical test at the Fuchu test centre (way out on the Chuo, near Koganei city). The other centre located in Samezu (near Shinagawa) is currently under renovation and due to reopen sometime in 2014.
It is possible, and very recommended, to book a practice run (50 minutes) on the Fuchu course by calling ahead of time (04-2363-8177). However, the course is only open to the public on Sundays and public holidays (the rest of the week is for exams), meaning it is practically impossible to get a spot less than a month in advance. Since reservations can only be made one month before the date, you usually need to start calling at opening time (8:30), one month to the day before the date you are hoping to book and ring them until you get someone (they only have one line, meaning you’ll get many busy tones before someone answers). You’ll be asked which class of permit you are practicing for (car, heavy vehicles etc) and which time slot you’d like (4 throughout the day). Every time I went, was with my instructor and his car, therefore I am not sure whether it is possible to ride alone (probably) or borrow/rent a car (unlikely).
All this preparation can technically be done on your own if you are already an experienced driver (some driving schools even open their course and rent their cars, after hours, to non-enrolled students wanting to practice on their own). However, your chances of succeeding at the practical will be considerably higher with at least a couple hours of tandem ride with a qualified Japanese instructor who can point out what you are doing wrong (in the eyes of the examiner). Forget all you know about traffic rules in your home country (or even in Japan): you are studying for the test, not so much for actual real-life driving.
On the first try (if you are lucky) or on your sixth-some try (if you aren’t), you will eventually get that prized Learner’s Permit, which allows you to drive on the road (for the next six month), provided you stick the necessary warning signs on the car and are accompanied by a
responsible adult person who has held their licence for at least two years.
(to be continued)