Through a combination of lack of time, opportunity, resources and general indifference driven by a complete absence of necessity, I managed to make it to my mid-twenties without having ever held a proper driving licence, or learnt to drive a car for that matter. By then, I was living in Japan, where the prospect of going through the entire process in Japanese made the task even more daunting. A few months ago, I finally went for it. And while I realise it is quite a narrow target demographics, I figured I’d document my experience for the benefit of other foreigners looking to get a driving licence in Japan.
Note: This here is about getting a full-fledged Japanese licence from scratch, not converting an existing foreign licence, which is a considerably shorter and easier process: most European licences only require some certified translation and a bit of paperwork, US (and a few other countries) will require you to take a very basic written and driving test on a course (somewhat similar to the process described below, but much, much, easier). The conversion test from a foreign licence is well-documented elsewhere on the Net, although you might find a few useful applicable tidbits in my recount below.
What you need, in a nutshell
- Time: lotsa. By far the biggest annoyance with the process is having to take the time off for the tests. Lessons (if you need them) can often be conducted outside of office hours, but you will need at the very least 5 work half-days for the tests and CPR practice course (more if you need to retake any).
- Money: lotsa. No surprise there. Depending on all sorts of factors, you could theoretically manage on about ¥30k (if you are already a near-perfect driver who does not need any practice). More realistically, your wallet will be ¥300k lighter by the end (give or take, depending on your skills and success at exams).
- Japanese abilities: surprisingly not so essential. There are English-speaking private instructors (see below) and the written tests can be taken in English. Provided you understand enough Japanese to follow very basic driving instructions during the test (“Turn right at the second light”, “Stop the car on the left” etc.) and do not mind being completely lost during the many pre-test explanation lectures (mostly stuff that could be guessed with enough common sense or the help of a personal instructor), you will manage.
Main steps to obtaining your licence
Buckle up, it’s a bumpy ride:
- Learner’s Permit written test (仮免許学科試験).
- Learner’s Permit driving test, on a closed course (仮免許証技能試験).
- Minimum of five separate days of documented road driving practice (with an instructor or other person having held a licence for more than 2 years).
- Final Permit written test (本免許学科試験).
- Final Permit road test (本免許技能試験).
All the above steps must be taken in that particular order (passing one is a requirement to take the next one). You must additionally complete a half-day course on highway driving and CPR that could charitably be qualified as “absolute time-wasting bullshit” or “state-sponsored scam”, but will possibly ensure you vaguely know how to use one of these AED things ubiquitous in Japan (nevermind the fact this knowledge could be equally well imparted in a 15 minute demonstration: driving schools gotta make a living, apparently).
Driving School or On Your Own…
As I understand it, there are two main paths to getting your Japanese licence. The most common being all-inclusive driving schools that provide you with theoretical and practical lessons (first closed course, then road), all the while also administering all the tests.
The other option is to do it “on your own” and take the tests at the local traffic police test centre (one or two in each prefecture). Of course, you are still free to hire a freelance instructor for the lessons, and you do need to get your ass to a closed course to practice until you receive the “Learner’s Permit” (仮免許証) that allows you to practice on regular roads (with supervision).
The reason most people pick the usually more expensive Driving School option (beside the possibly more convenient location) is that their tests are notoriously easier to pass:
The tests are of course identical and the examiners supposedly equally strict, but you tend to pay a set price for the course package and they have all the incentive in the world to get you out the door as fast as possible, whereas the police examiners just could not care less if you fail the test a dozen times (quite the contrary). One way the private schools bend the odds in their students’ favour is by picking considerably easier locations for the road test (quiet suburbs, little traffic, few lane changes): a considerably more pleasant experience (I imagine) than Samezu’s test centre, where you get to enjoy the madness of Shinagawa’s bustling traffic at peak hour while a stern police guy in uniform breathes down your neck.
As for you and me, my foreign friend, there are a few other factors to consider:
Private Driving schools will generally include a number of (mandatory) classroom lectures. Depending on your level of Japanese fluency, these could be more or less useful, but provided you are able to read a textbook on your own, they will likely be a complete waste of your time. More importantly, taking the test with the police gives you the option to do it in English (for the written part), something no private school offers, to my knowledge.
Money-wise, driving school packages vary greatly depending on age, season, needs, car type (automatic or manual) etc., but you could expect to pay somewhere between ¥200k-¥300k, all included. The “do on your own” option entirely depends on your pre-existing driving abilities: at a bare minimum, all the test fees would cost you about ¥20k-¥30k (that is assuming you ace them all and do not need to retake any). To that you would likely add the course practice fee (with car rental): roughly ¥4k/hour. If you are a real beginner, a personal instructor would cost you another ¥7k-¥10k per hour, for some 20-25 recommended hours: basically same as the Driving School, but probably still a better option if your Japanese is short of perfectly fluent.
For all these reasons, I went with the semi-freestyle approach: textbook revision on my own, driving practice with a freelance instructor (officially a “Driving School”, but not attached to an actual physical location or closed course) and tests at the traffic police centre. In addition to avoiding the tedious classroom lectures and having a bit more latitude in scheduling the driving lessons (mostly early mornings before going to work), my instructor1 turned out to speak flawless English, which occasionally proved more than helpful (no matter how perfect your Japanese may be – mine certainly isn’t – there are enough bits of convoluted technical rules that you do not want to take a chance on a language misunderstanding).
Right. You signed up and readied yourself for 3-4 months of early wake ups and sacrificed days off. Now what?