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.