Driving Tests for Foreign Residents in Japan

The following article was written in 1999 and was read on air by NHK English Radio.  It’s been slightly modified to “protect the innocent” and we hope you find it enjoyable.

Friends of mine received Japanese Driver’s License with an eye test and a smile   when I first arrived in Japan.  Since  that  time,  a  growing Foreign  Resident  Population and more  importantly,  a  visible  increase  in  traffic  accidents  involving  Foreign  Residents  has  caused  rules  to  change.  Little did I know that when both  legal  and  practical reasons  forced  me   to  abandon  my International  License  and  apply for my Japanese License, that it would turn into a nightmare lasting three days.

The preparation for   the application and subsequent test was simple.   We  sent  copies  of   my   present  license  to   the   Japan  Automobile  Association  for  Official  Translation.   On  advice  from  a  friend  we  also  obtained  an  official  record  displaying  my  driving  history  from  the  Province  Of  British  Columbia,  Canada.  The  receptionist  at  the  Tokyo  Motor  Vehicle  Testing  Center  accepted  my  paperwork,  reviewed  it  and   troubles  started.  “You  have  to  prove  that  you  lived  in  Canada  for  six  months  after  receiving  your  license.  Do you have a passport from 1976?”   Actually,  my  first  ever  Passport  went  through  a  wash  back  in   Canada  and  wasn’t  worth  keeping.  I  decided  to  keep  quiet  while  the  receptionist  and  her  manager  discussed  the  issue.  After  about  fifteen  minutes  they  decide  to   sign  off  on  the  paper  work  and  send  me  on  to   stage  two. (I was very lucky.  Often people spend months gathering red tape from their Government’s Motor Vehicle Office only to be refused on another hidden technicality.)

The   next step was an eye test.  It took less than fifteen seconds. Candidates looked through a window and answered one question.  “Which way is the arrow pointing?”    Left.  “Correct.  Now, what color’s this pencil?”  Red.  “Correct.”  The  Police  Women  stamped  my  Official  Test  Record  and  it  was  on  to  stage  three.

We walked down the corridor and entered the Written Test Hall.  The security was impressive.  Two  Policemen  came in  with  a  locked  box  and  pulled  out  a  test  each  for  the  three  applicants.   The tests were a true and false format and consisted of ten questions. The  applicant  next  to  me  wrote  hers  in  Japanese,  the  fellow  to  the  right,  Chinese,  and  I  received   the  English  Language  version.    It included questions phrased in Japanese English that left you guessing.  "Don't you  drive  ahead  of   an  Emergency  Vehicle  through   an  intersection  when  you're  in  a  hurry"?  Yes or No.

We  all  made  the  minimum requirement of seven  correct  answers  and  passed  the  test.  The  Policemen  congratulated  us  and  immediately  assigned  us  a  date  and  time  for  our  Practical  Driving  Test.  “Tomorrow Morning.”  We were all to report on Wednesday at 8 a.m...  Prior  to  our  dismissal  we  were  given  a  test  map  and  general  rules  pertaining  to  the  Practical  Driving  Test.  The list  included  rules  such  as “follow  all  instructions  of  the  Testing  Officer,  accidents  result  in  failure  followed by  immediate  termination  of   test,  and   excessive  driving  errors  will  result  in   immediate  failure  again followed by termination  of   test.”   There  was  other  information  with   further  rules  and  helpful  hints  in  the  package  that  should  have  been  read  more  carefully.

The next morning I rose early   feeling excited and nervous.  The  traffic  wasn’t  bad,   parking  spots  were  plenty  and  I the  Eager  Beaver  arrived  first  in  line  to  receive  his  test  number.  In  fact,  I  received  “test  number  one”   which  meant  the earliest start,  passing  and  returning  home  in time for lunch.  (What a misconception.)  I  found  out  several  important  facts  about  the  testing  procedure  my  first  time  through  it.  (It was a classic dress rehearsal.)

Everyone except for number one, gets a back seat view of  the  course  prior  to  test. Number 2 rides with number 1, Number 3 rides with Number 2 and so  on.   Everyone  else  came  early  and  walked  the  course  which never  changes  for  Foreign  Drivers.   Who knew?  I was the only one who didn’t know the course by heart. 

It was an interesting Road Test that focused on some Japanese rules different than North  American Driving Rules.  For example, turn from inside right lane to far left lane.  Not the closest inside lane as in North America.  Also the course has two obstacles that look worse than reality.  Have you seen the San Francisco road they call the world's most crooked?   Yes, much worse than that.

Driving  Candidates  have  the  option  of   testing  in   a   standard  or  automatic  transmission  style  vehicle. The automatic transmission vehicle  was  my  selection  and  the  ease  of   driving  with  both  hands  on  the  wheel  made  little  difference.  Everyone fails the first time.  This  seems  to  be  the  most   important  rule  not  found  in  the  guide  sheets  handed  out  by  the  Test  Center.    Three out of   15 pass Wednesdays’ Test.  I failed  because  the  Testing  Officer’s  Hat  flew  off  when  a  tire   ran  over  the  curb  and  the  car  bounced.  (Remember the crooked road.  It got me.)

I  hung  my head  and  listened to  the  Policeman's  lecture  to  the  twelve  “losers.  It  was  well  presented  and  covered  every  weak  area  of   each  candidate.  It  lasted  half  an hour and  the attentive  candidates benefited  from  the  wisdom.  After  the  lecture,  we  were  all  handed  the  next  test  appointment.  That’s  right,  the  next  day,  Thursday  at  8  a.m.

We  actually arrived  at  the  course  the  next  morning  about 7 a.m.  Camaraderie began amongst the disappointed testers and a tenacious foreign community began during the examination process.  We walked the course together, reviewed course maps, discussed common mistakes, and watched the early birds (keeners  in  the  lineup)  take  their  test. 

Riding  in  the  back  seat  was  educational  if  not  intimidating  and  frightening.  The  young  man  taking  his  test  was  intensely  nervous  and  drove  dangerously.  His test finalized with a minor accident.  He  hit  a  plastic  hanging  pole  meant  as  an  obstacle  for   trucks.  It  was  a  relief  to  make  it  back  to  home  base  in  one  piece  and  start  my  test.

The results were much better my second test.  The crooked road seemed far less difficult.  The  rules  were  easier  to  follow  once  understood  and  the  course  didn’t  present  any  surprises.  The Testing Officer congratulated me on a clean test.  In fact, the individuals who became  friends  during the three day ordeal faired well.  Only Kaoru, Mohamed and I received a Japanese Driving License.  Kaoru is Japanese but we gave her honorary Foreigner  status  because  of   her  time  in  Seattle  and  positive  attitude.  It’s  less  expensive  and  more  convenient  to  study  driving  abroad,  especially  when spending   extended  time  in   the  United States. It was Mohamed's and my second try, Kaoru’s third.    

Mohamed is from Afghanistan
He said "driving through Afghanistan villages is dangerous because of children and  goats. Old  mines  left  on  mountain  roads  from  Civil  Wars  can  also  be  a  hazard."

It was a taxing and time consuming experience. 
However, we are better drivers and this is especially true for Japanese Roads.  
The system works.  It makes Japan a safer place to drive.  Just as importantly, the test allowed us to make  new  friends and we  have  another  terrible  license  picture  to  show  for  the  experience.

Post Script:  Kaoru actually took a job with our firm and was an integrate part of my Consulting Team for five years before leaving to start a family.  Mohamed and I did not keep. Things did not get better for Afghanistan since 1999 and we all hope he remains safe.  Much of my time is spent on the road in Japan and lessons learned at the Examination Park remain sincerely appreciated.

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