Taken with permission from: Jetanuki.com
Today was my day. After spending in excess of •23,000 for testing fees, license fees, translation fees, alien registration copy fees, pictures, driving school fees, and train and bus fares not to mention the four working days and 44+ hours of waiting in the testing center waiting room and the time it took to get to and from the center, and after four attempts I finally passed the Japanese driving test and received my license. Am I bitter, no I'm not bitter. No, this whole experience has only made me grateful that I can drive a car and not have to bike or walk everywhere. The front of the license has your basic info like name, date of birth- in the Japanese year, country of citizenship, address, date of test, the green bar means you're a beginning driver- if you have a silver bar that means you have been driving accident or violation free for 5 years and gold means 10 years, the date in the bar is the expiration date in the Japanese year which is three years from your birthday this year so if you take the test after your birthday you're good for three years but if you take if before like me then you only get two years out of it before needing to renew it, AT means I can only drive automatic transmission cars since I opted to take the auto instead of 5 speed test, the three rows of numbers at the bottom from top to bottom are for scooter, car, and heavy vehicles, and the red area has a kanji for Regular for regular car license. The back has a line saying I've driven in Japan for more than one year and therefore am not required to post one of those yellow and green leaf stickers on my car as a warning to other drivers, if they had a leaf sticker for dangerous gaijin I'd put that on my car.
But I'm glad there were colored arrows in the waiting
room of the test center otherwise I don't know how I'd get out of there
without getting lost especially after having spent four whole days in that
building. I mean if I go straight with the white arrow then I'll be
going upstairs and if I choose the red arrow to the right I'll be going
downstairs, it's all too confusing.
Today there were four foreigners taking the test for the first time, if only they knew, and then there was another guy and myself both of us there for our fourth time. His name is Peter, real nice guy and is from Hungary, speaks fluent English, Japanese, and German too. Since his Japanese wife was with him today I didn't have to worry about translations. So anyway as expected the four first timers failed and fortunately for Peter and I we passed. Essentially I did everything exactly like I did the first three times but technique wise it was a little different, just enough to make the difference between a Go and a No Go. The road conditions were very different today though. It was raining and there were at least six driving school cars driving around the course. Afterwards Peter and I got our pictures taken for our licenses. The clerk told me twice "No smile" but I was just so relieved and happy that it was hard not to. Finally, I made a straight enough face for the "serious" photo. Peter and his wife even gave me a ride to the train station saving me some time and a bus ride.
With this journal entry I hope to help other foreigners and JETs out there in their attempt to get a Japanese Drivers License as painlessly as possible. OK, so here in as much detail as I can remember is what you will need to do to successfully get your Japanese drivers license which you will cherish forever. "No smile."
background info first:
"As some of you may know, some
fairly major changes to Japan's 'Road Traffic Law' came into effect on
June 1 of this year. Of particular concern to JETs are the changes that
have come into effect regarding International Driving Permits and using
them in Japan. CLAIR has outlined these changes in an information release
addressed to all of the Prefectures. Below is a translation of the release
(with thanks to the Gifu International Association, who actually performed
Bottom Line: Say you arrive in Japan Aug 1, 2002, after Aug 1, 2003 you cannot use an IDP to drive in Japan. Period. The only exception being if you left the country for three full months and re-entered and no JET has that much vacation time.
Step 1: Translate your foreign license
1. Make a photocopy of
your American license.
Gather your documents
Step 3: Go to the Testing Center
1. You have to show up at the Unten Menkyo (Driver's Testing) Center in Fukushima City between 8:30 and 9:00 a.m. Mon - Fri. Yes, within a 30 minute window at a place you've never been to and on a working day.
To get there from Fukushima station, take the bus on the East side, possibly the #12, it's the one that's not in the loop, it's out in the road. The bus is the one on the far left of the schedule. It takes about 15-20 minutes and costs 440 yen. Here are the departure times:
6:35am, 7:35am, 7:50am, 8:15am, 8:50am, 9:45am, 10:35am, 11:15am, 11:40am, 12:30pm, 1:05pm, 1:45pm, 2:35pm, 3:20pm, 4:00pm, 4:40pm - Why would you go after that?
Return times from the Menkyo Senta to Fukushima station are:
7:15am, 7:40am, 8:05am, 8:20am, 8:45am, 9:20am, 10:15am, 11:05am, 11:45am, 12:10pm, 1:00pm, 1:53pm, 2:15pm, 3:05pm, 3:50pm, 4:30pm, 5:20pm, 6:00pm, 6:33pm, 6:50pm, 7:20pm, 8:08pm, 9:23pm
2. You'll need to fill
out a few forms with stupid questions like what was the engine size in cc
of the car you drove in America? You'll also need to purchase a
•2,400 stamped form which
is your payment for taking the test and fill out a short medical form.
You'll hand in all that paperwork along with your American license, JAF
translation of it, your passport, gaijin card, copy of your gaijin
registration from the town or city office you reside in, a photo
(non-smiling) but that's just for your grade sheet and application form
not the actual license, and your IDP if you have one.
The form about your history in the US is hard. It's best to have a Japanese friend with you or hope someone in the lobby speaks Japanese. I was lucky and there was no one else there so the guy came out and helped me. He spoke a little English, but not much. The questions were like:
the engine size in cc of your first car or driving test car?
4. About two hours later you'll go into a room where you'll be given an eye test and if you pass that you'll be given a written test with 10 T/F questions in English which has a 10 minute time limit. The written test is common sense and no real preparation like reading The Rules of the Road book put out by JAF is necessary. The eye test consists of a "C" or nearly closed "O" in which you have to state the direction of the opened part as in left, right, up, or down (hidari, migi, ue, shita). There's also a color vision test that's equally simple with blue, red, and green (aoi, akai, midori).
I wrote down as many of the written English test questions as I could remember, they were easy true or false:
1. It's ok
to turn right on a red light.
6. About 30 minutes later they'll announce the results of the tests. If you made the 70% standard on the written test they'll explain a few things about the upcoming driving test. They'll give you a sheet of paper with the course route on it, see below for a picture of it. They'll tell you to memorize it but when you actually take the test the guy tells you where to turn, etc. They'll explain that during lunch 12:00-1:00 you may walk the course, you should walk it at least a couple of times to familiarize yourself with it, then they'll tell you to meet in the 1st floor waiting area at 1:00 p.m. Definitely walk the course. Definitely walk the course. Definitely walk the course.
8. About 15 - 30 minutes
later the driving examiners will show up. But you won't actually see
them till about 2:30 or even later depending on how many other people
(non-gaijin) are taking their tests that day.
9. Finally, after waiting
for about 6 hours you will meet the person you will more than likely come
to hate, your driving examiner. On first appearance he seems like a
real nice guy but don't believe it for a second because that's how long
he'll take to fail you for the most minute thing that he "feels" isn't the
right way. Next, he'll explain some things and put you in your
testing order. By the way if this is your second time or more taking
the test you'll be the first in the testing order, lucky you. Then
he'll have you all get in the car and he'll drive the course once
explaining what you're supposed to do such as turn left here, etc.
After the little tour you'll get back in your testing order. There
may be one or two people sitting in the back while one person drives.
Once that person is done one of the people from the back will move up to
the front and it'll be their turn. If you're in the back pay
attention and try to learn as much as you can from the previous driver's
mistakes and anything that the examiner may say to the person who just
Yellow text is a note from Ryan who recently took the test without having had an IDP for the past three years. Underlined yellow text is a link to a picture of something related. That last part wasn't an actual link.
Step 4: Take the Driving Test
Point of note: It's a habit of many people to under-grip the steering wheel when making sharp turns especially from a stop, each time you do this you get -5 points.
1. Do a walk around of
the car looking to make sure that there isn't anything underneath.
Before you open the door look to the front and rear of the car as if you
were pulled over on the side of a busy road then get in the car.
Adjust your seat, mirrors, and then fasten your seat belt. Then
wait, the examiner will tell you when to start the car.
2. Start the engine, check your mirrors, visually check, release the parking brake, then slowly drive forward. Signal right, then once you pass the raised concrete lane dividers put on your left turn signal. Stop just before the beginning of the course road and look left and right. When stopping make sure you come to a full and complete stop. Before you take off be sure to check your back left side, in case a motorcycle is there, even though one won't be. Slowly drive forward, get in and stay in the leftmost lane, make sure you do this slowly as there is a slight curve here. On curves slowly means less than 10 kph. Once you are about to get out of the curve and straighten out slowly and gently accelerate. When accelerating you should give it the gas but not so much that it jerks anyone's head back. Then accelerate to about 30-40 kph. You will lose points for going too slow. On the first part of the course go no faster than 40 kph. Make sure you are confident in accelerating and firm, but gentle, in changing lanes and slowing down.
3. You will come to a
slight curve in the road and will need to let off of the gas and gently
brake, enough that no one's head jerks forward. After the curve you
will see some white dashed center lines and 30 meters before that signal
right then once you come to them change to the right lane. When
changing lanes or turning execute the following four step safety
verification. This should be a smooth 1-2-3-4 type of automatic
I actually think this should be a 3 step move:
1. Turn on your
blinker (30 meters before) as you click it check the RV mirror.
4. A little ways further
down the road you will need to turn right at sign #12 again using the
turning method described above. Also, when planning a turn - ease
over to that side of the lane immediately after turning on your blinker
and doing your first safety verification. The objective of this is to
prevent a bike or motorcycle from entering into that area which might
prevent you from safely turning. This is also true when planning to turn
when approaching a stop sign or traffic light. The course road is
quite narrow so you almost don't really move over any significant amount.
You just kind of move slightly towards the center line or white line on
the side of the lane. Here just check forward and to
the right. Then make the turn without stopping, unless a car is
5. Signal and turn left at the blue crank sign, it's the furthest one, the other is red and nearer. Enter the crank as slow as you are comfortable with. It looks impossible and I thought it would be the hardest part of the entire test but each of the four times I went through it without any problem and if you've driven for more than a day on Japan's narrow roads you shouldn't have a problem either. The idle speed of the car should be enough to push you through, if so just keep a foot on the brake. You are allowed to stop and reverse, adjust your steering wheel, and then continue forward through the crank. But you are only allowed to go in reverse once*. If you have to go in reverse just put it in reverse and slowly go back without any adjustment to the steering wheel, once you've gone back far enough put it back in drive and then adjust the steering. If you adjust the steering while going in reverse you may put yourself out of alignment. I find it helps if you sit up as straight and high as possible so you have a better view of the road and the black and yellow barrier bars that are all along the sides of the crank. If you touch one of those bars even a little bit the test is an automatic failure. Just before you finish with the crank make a complete stop.
* You are actually allowed to back up 3 times, but don't bother. The first one is free. The second one is -5 points. The time is -10 (plus the -5 from the 2nd). The fourth time you fail. Honestly, go to the driving school for at least one hour and just pound the S-Curve and Crank if this is a problem.
(note from Ryan)
I just went to the driving school and the instructor told me the key to making the turns is to go all the way straight until the door handle on the opposite side is about even with the curb (from the angle you can see it while sitting up straight), at that point make a sharp turn left. When turning right do the same with your right side door handle, though the angle or viewing is off a bit. You will want to go past this as it seems way too early, but each time I went past it I hit the curb or a pole. When I followed it perfectly there was no problem.
6. At the stop execute a left turn* and slowly pull out making sure that you do not go over the center line that divides the two lanes. Go slow and kind of tight to do this, if you go over the center line that will fail you because a car could be coming at you in the opposite lane. Gently accelerate on the short straight-away. Very soon you will come to your first real curve. The other curves where just small short ones.
*Use the same process above for this turn. Pull out slowly until your passenger's door handle is lined up with the curb from your sitting-straight-up-view. Then turn the wheel sharp.
7. Follow these steps when driving through a
Take the curves seriously, remember less than 10 kph, it seems to be the one thing that has failed so many of us. In this case right after the crank you will go through the above curve then there will be a little straight-away but to me it's just too short to give it any real gas so be careful and don't over accelerate here. Then you will come to another curve right after the little straight-away. Follow the same curve method described above.
(note from Ryan)
I kept getting warned about the curves at the driving school. You have to take that at a speed that seems absurdly slow. Remember this is not a test of driving skills, it's a test of how well you perform a script. Make sure you are around 10 kph on the sharp curves, even the ones that seem to be in the middle of the road.
8. Now you're back on the straight-away where you'll pick up some speed. About speed, there is no "speed limit" on the course so you have to drive appropriately depending on the length of the straight-away, perhaps 30 kph on the short ones and 40 kph on the long ones. This straight away is a 30 kph one.
9. Next you'll execute a left turn at sign #11. This is the turn just before the S Curve. Be sure to check all angles.
10. You'll execute a right turn into the S Curve and just like the crank go slow. The S-curve is really not too bad. Take is slow. At first stay as far out as you can. I lined up the curving part of the turn with the center of the hood. It seems wide enough to not be a problem. For the second part of the turn, rather than cutting to the far end, just straighten out from the first turn while turning a little. Then turn toward the exit and....
11. At the end of the S Curve you will come to a blind spot made by a big wall of sheet metal to your right. Make sure when approaching the exit of the S Curve that you stop a meter back from the obstruction walls. Then gradually inch the car forward while checking in both directions until you (and the testing official) can clearly see in both directions before proceeding. Put on a good "checking carefully all directions" show here. Even though you can just tell there is nothing coming. Pretty much as soon as you finish the curve or even moments before, put on your left blinker.
12. Next make a slow left turn out of the S Curve and immediately signal right and change to the right lane. Come to a complete stop at least .5 meters before the white line at the blinking red traffic signal. If you are too close, on top of, or past the white line you will fail. This is also the case at stop signs. The driving school said from your upright sitting position, line up the outside white line with the vertical part of the door window on your side. That puts the car in the correct place. See cheesy drawing below. Click to enlarge.
13. Once it's clear slowly accelerate through the traffic signal making your right turn. Go straight slowly through the next intersection (blinking red light) as there is an air traffic control tower looking building there that creates a blind spot on your left. Both times at the driving school, they stressed going slowly pass the flight control tower. Very slowly or at least don't speed up in the straight away. Also treat the the tower as a blind spot and look around it as you pass. (once you pass the test, you are also certified to drive on runways)
14. Next you will come to another intersection that does have a traffic light. Depending of the color of the traffic signal stop or turn left. There is a bicycle lane sign painted on the road just before the traffic signal. Make sure you are not to the right of it, you should be to the left actually driving over the sign, if you're too far to the right that will fail you. As you turn remember the door handle trick. Now turn left (when clear and blue light (green)).
15. Go straight and stop at the stop sign, the only one on your course. When it's alright slowly make a left turn. From the light to the stop sign stay about a meter from the edge of the left curb. Staying in the middle of the lane gets you -5 points. Also check over your left shoulder before you turn.
16. After the turn you will very soon come to your next turn, it's almost too short to really accelerate. Make a left at sign #6.
17. Continue going straight until you come to the intersection. Slow down and make a right turn. Make sure you're in the leftmost lane. You don't need to stop here, just thoroughly check all angles as you turn right. I would even verbally say to myself "check check" as I am looking.
18. Now you're on a short straight-away (mildly accelerate). Soon you'll come to another curve, again use the curve method. Right after the curve you will see a stalled car in the left lane. Change into the right lane and slowly drive around the stalled car. Then change lanes back into the left lane all the while using the proper lane change/turn procedure.
19. Now you need to slow down even more because there is another small curve ahead. After you exit that curve gently accelerate to about 50 kph (my tester went up to 60kph, and so did I), this is the long straight-away. On this particular course there are three dashed white lines on the left hand side of the left lane, the distance is just about right so I use that as my signal to begin the curve procedures. There is one small and final curve at the end of this straight-away, again make sure you are going less than 10 kph through it. Make sure to check the awkward motorcycle to your left area as well as the lane beside you, again the RV mirror and blinker should happen about the same time.
20. Immediately after going through the curve signal left and you will make your way off the course and into the parking area by making a left turn. Slowly drive through the parking area and at this point the examiner will tell you which number to stop at. So for example, if he says #3 slowly drive the car until the front left edge of the car is just to the right of and even with the yellow and black pole. Make it a complete stop. Then he will tell you to continue and you will just slowly drive forward until you come to the point where you first started about midway through the raised concrete lane dividers. Stop there, put it in park, turn off the engine, and apply the parking brake. I was told at the driving school to also turn off the engine at this point. Even though it's over, when you get out shut the door completely.
21. If you messed up he may or may not explain where and how. Unless you completely screwed up he won't tell you you failed. You'll just have to worry and wait till the office clerk tells you. Now you will be told to go up to the 3rd floor where you did all your paperwork and wait. Before exiting the car make sure you look to the front and rear of the car just like you did before you entered the car. Also, make sure you close the door even if the next driver is waiting. I've heard that you start the test with 100 points and for everything you do wrong a certain number of points are deducted and 70 points are needed to pass, however, you are never clearly told what you did wrong and in fact not doing everything precisely the right way will result in failure. So really just doing one thing wrong will fail you. As mentioned above, little things like under-gripping the wheel can cost you points, so if you happen to do that 5 times by habit, you will fail even if everything else was perfect.
22. Once all the day's foreign drivers have finished you all will wait for about 20 minutes. Then the clerk will come out and announce two sets of names. The first group of people to be called will hear "Zannen desu" or "that's too bad" meaning you failed, join the club. The second group will hear "Omedeto gozaimasu" or "congratulations" meaning you passed. If you failed you'll get all your paperwork back and be told that you can come back M-F before 11:30 and retake the test, you'll need to purchase another •2,400 stamp and fill out the medical form again, but you will only need to take the driving portion which will be again late in the afternoon. If you passed then you will go downstairs to the 1st floor same as before and buy yourself a •1,650 stamp which will cover the cost of the photo and license. You'll hand that stamp in and wait about 30 more minutes. During that time the clerk will take you to a room to have your mug shot taken. He'll say "no smile, no smile". Then later he'll come back with your paperwork and your new Japanese license. He'll have you look it over to make sure your name is spelled right and the other info is correct. Then he'll explain a couple things about the license like if you've driven for less than a year in Japan you'll need to post one of those green and yellow leaf stickers for beginning drivers on your car, he'll also tell you that it's "Dame" to drink and drive in Japan like it's OK or something to do that in America. Then you go home and drink a beer or two like a good American. If you didn't pass you can expect to be there till about 3 or 4 p.m. and if you did pass you can expect to be there till as late as 4:30 or 5 p.m. so you should bring a good book to read or a lot of CDs to listen to, it's also a good idea to bring some snacks.
If you don't make it on the first or second or even the third time and if you're feeling homicidal or suicidal about the whole experience of getting your license here in Japan then you can take some comfort in knowing that Japanese face similar difficulties or at least this one guy did when trying to get his American license.
Finally, I would recommend you spend the hour and •4,000 or so to practice the above on a course similar to the test course at a nearby Driving School. I think had I done that I would have been a first time Go on the test. I would also recommend you bring a Japanese speaking friend with you to help fill out the various forms. "Gambatte!"
29 - Other Car Related Issues
Got a postcard from the friendly folks at Fukushima City reminding me of my upcoming Shaken that's due in mid November. It was a little more than I had expected. Here's the breakdown:
•28,000 JCI- Japanese Compulsory Insurance, a
type of liability insurance that's mandatory
Oh and by the way I just paid •40,000 ($320) in Road Taxes back in May. That would be like the annual car tax in America. Speaking of which my 2000 VW Jetta which is only two years old and being taken care of by my mom back home while I'm over here tax is due and it cost $235. So in other words the annual tax on my almost new car cost $85 less than my ten year old car in Japan. The old crappy car's tax is more expensive than my nice new car back home. That's wrong.
Total •76,000 or about $600. But that's just for the Shaken. The inspection consists of a laundry list of things from headlight angle/brightness to brakes to exhaust emissions. to leaks. There are several things wrong with my car that would in no way pass inspection. Like the speedometer/odometer doesn't work, well sometimes it does, the check engine light always comes on even though there's nothing wrong, the check brake light comes on even though there's nothing wrong, another indicator light flashes on and off which has been fixed with a little piece of black electrical tape, and there's a small pebble sized nick in the windshield. That little nick in the windshield alone will fail me and the cost of new windshield well I don't even want to think about it. Fortunately or unfortunately Shaken only comes around every two years.
So if I get the needed repairs to pass the Shaken inspection it will probably run around •75,000 - •125,000 ($600 - $1000) plus the actual Shaken so the grand total would be around •150,000 - •200,000 ($1,500 - $2,000). That's if nothing major needs to be fixed. So I'll probably end up doing what many people do when they have an older car and find a slightly newer and thus cheaper car preferably with at least one year of Shaken remaining on it to get me through to next July when my JET contract term ends.
I'm looking to get a Kei-car. K cars are smaller both in physical and engine size. You can spot one by its yellow license plate, regular cars have white plates. The engines are less than 660cc and usually have about 3 cylinders that put out about 50-60 hp. Because they're smaller and lighter and are more fuel efficient they are less expensive when it comes to Road Taxes and Shaken not to mention gas and insurance. I'm thinking I might get a K-truck, white of course. I could cruise around the rice paddies like the farmers do. Or maybe I'll get a K-van then I can haul stuff without having to worry about the rain and snow. I like the idea of the one-box. That's where the engine is below the front seats so there really isn't a front to the car it's just flat. This is good for those impossible to see around corners that are so prevalent here. The only bad part is if you get hit head on you're pretty much dead. I also like the fact that they're more narrow than a regular car. Sometimes only inches separate cars as they pass each other on the narrow roads here.