How I Passed The Japanese Driving Exam

I have to say that this driving exam was probably one of the most stressful events I’ve encountered while living in Japan. I did so much research prior to actually taking the written test and prior to taking the driving exam itself, but it still wasn’t until my fourth attempt that I actually passed. Although I am unaware of how tests are conducted outside of Nara prefecture, I’ll do my best to generalize as many things to help those who have-to, must, or just want to attempt to pass this insane driving exam.

The Initial Process:

I had a lot of help from my supervisor (担当者) with the paperwork process, so it’s a little difficult for me to recall everything that led up to the written test. I do know that there are several required items needed prior to heading to the DMV to have the test conducted. These items were:

  • A valid US driver’s license (must not be expired)
  • Alien Registration Card (在留カード)
  • Translated copy of US driver’s license
  • Proof of residency
  • Passport
  • Passport photo

My international driver’s license expired on August 2nd (one year after arriving in Japan) and it just-so happened that my US driver’s license was scheduled to expire on my birthday: August 26th. I was told that once my US driver’s license expired, I would not be able to take the test again until I renewed my license. Thankfully, the state of Washington allows people between the age of 25 and 70 to renew their driver’s license without having to physically go to the DMV.

With regards to the translated copy of my driver’s license, we had to send a copy of it to a location in Osaka in order to have it translated. It cost about 3,000円 as well as the minor cost of return postage. Besides that, I probably only had to wait a little less than a week when I finally had all the materials I needed in order to go into the DMV for my initial visit and to schedule my driving test.

The initial visit to the DMV

Out of the entire prefecture, Nara only has one DMV which is centrally located in Kashihara City (奈良県警察運転免許センター). This means that it often gets quite packed during their hours of operation, and even more-so in the mornings as people try to arrive early so that they don’t have to wait in long lines. I feel very fortunate to have had my supervisor there with me as it could be somewhat overwhelming going in there alone. Thankfully, the office area for foreigners wanting to obtain Japanese licenses didn’t have a line, nor was a fraction as busy as the other areas, so we were able to get things done a bit quicker than I thought.

I had to get my photo taken, as well as receive a quick eye exam, and then pass the written test. Thankfully, the written test was primarily in English and the questions were pretty simple and straightforward. There is also a very helpful website that you can use to learn some of the basic rules of the road, and even take practice exams. [] I read up on some of the basic and unique traffic signals in Japan, as well as took the practice tests online before going in for the written exam. Despite most of the questions being straightforward, there were a couple that I flat-out didn’t know the answer to and had to guess on. Thankfully, there are only 10 questions on the written test, so a short while after taking the test I was told that I passed with an 8 out of 10.

Shortly thereafter, we made an appointment for my driving exam, and I was given a sheet (in Japanese) of basic rules for the exam, that if I broke, I would automatically fail. I was also told that the foreigner’s license test would be conducted on their driving course, with their vehicle, and that I would need to memorize two specific driving routes for their course, as I would be tested on either one. They had maps of course A and course B, but they weren’t free, as they cost 100円 per sheet. At the time, I thought it was rather ludicrous that I had to pay for a map, in order to study their driving course, but “when in Rome Japan…”

There are also driving lessons available on most weekends, which are said to teach you what you need to work on/improve on in order to pass the driving test. These driving lessons cost approximately 6500円 and some of the JETs that took it said that it wasn’t as helpful as it sounds. I took my driving test 4 times before passing, without taking the driving lesson at all, or knowing most of the rules that I know now. Some other JETs took the lesson (one took it twice) but still managed to fail even after “learning what they needed to work on”.  At any rate, I just wanted to say that it’s possible to pass without having to pay for the extra lesson.

Automatic Failure Forewarnings:

Automatic failure? Yes. They can be quite strict and rigid when it comes to passing this test, so please keep some of these things in mind, before going in to take the driving exam. I was lucky enough to be able to finish my driving exams from beginning to end, however, I’ve had friends who were stopped during the middle (and even beginning) of their exams, told their test had ended, and to return the car to the starting area. So please be aware of these few things:

  • Keep to the left-hand side of the road/lane. If you drive on the right-hand side of the road, this can be treated as an automatic failure.
  • Do not cross the center line before (or after) turning right.
  • Come to a complete stop before the line at a designated stop sign. Please take note that the line is often about 1 meter away from the corner, so you have to stop sooner than ‘normal’. A 3-second stop is also recommended.
  • Don’t drive too fast or too slow.
  • If you miss a turn, do not swurve the car in order to make the turn.
  • Don’t hit the curb (or anything on the course for that matter).
  • Don’t fall into the simulated “gaijin traps” located in the S-curve and crank section of the test.
  • Don’t steer the car underhand or single-handedly. Keeping both hands on the wheel at all-times (10 and 2) is highly recommended.
  • Don’t drive over the triangles at the intersections! Just treat them the same as crossing center lines during a test.

Some General Advice and Information:

Due to an influx of traffic accidents all across Japan, many driving instructors have become more critical of driving examinees. Although it was easy for us (the foreigners) to feel as though they were being much more critical to us, it was also true that many Japanese people were finding it difficult to get their driver’s licenses as well. Couple this level of strictness with our lack of knowledge with regards to the driving rules in Japan, it was more than difficult trying to pass the driving exams this year (more-so than previous years, as-per our predecessors). So here are some helpful hints that will hopefully help some of you driving examinees and/or future examinees out there. Please also be aware that some of these are also dependent on the individual examiner, so experiences may vary.

  • Before anything – know your course! This is imperrative because not-knowing the route and the course you’ll be expected to drive and be tested on could cost you time, and even crucial points, the longer the test takes place. Not only this, but should your turn come up, rarely will the person conducting the test tell you at the right moment in time when and where to turn, which will also hit your overall score. At any rate, the course being conducted that day is usually announced about an hour to an hour and a half before testing begins, so you should have time to walk around on the driving area should you feel the need to.
  • Exaggerate your movements! You can’t just use your eyes or your neck to check, but your entire shoulder and body; otherwise you will certainly lose points and/or fail in the process. It’s almost as though you’re playing a role of a paranoid driver, and you vividly check your mirrors, blind-spots, and every adjacent street with fervor, as though a car, motorcycle, or cyclist could pop out at any moment in time. My supervisor liked to call this form of exaggeration, “over-action” (オーバーアクション) as even he (and many Japanese people) do it when they take the test.
  • Narrate your actions! Definitely not something you would do during a driving exam in the States, but everyone who has passed the driving exam this year, in Nara, has done it. The primary ones that I mentioned were as follows
    • When I checked all the mirrors (side and rear-view), while doing so I would say “Mirrors, okay!” 「ミラー、オッケイ」
    • When checking my blindspots I would iterate “Blindspot, clear!” 「後ろ(うしろ)、オッケイ」
    • When checking lanes for on-coming traffic and/or lanes that would have the right-of-way, I would say “No oncoming traffic” 「対向車(たいこうしゃ、オッケイ」
    • When turning at any intersection, I would also iterate “No pedestrians” 「誰もいない、オッケイ」while looking to my left and right before the turn and doing it again towards the end of the turn.
    • Although I know of some JETs who announced when they were turning, as well as merging right or left 「右(左)に寄ります。(曲がります )。(みぎによります。ひだりによります。(merging right/left) みぎにまがります。ひだりにまがります。(turning right/left)」 my supervisor told me that I didn’t need to say these things as it could sometimes sound condescending to the person conducting the test.
  • In some prefectures, (not in Nara, from what I’ve heard) the test begins before you even get into the car, as you must check the front of the car, behind the car and under the car prior to getting in. This is a means of checking for small children and/or animals that may be playing near your vehicle. It is recommended, however, that you at least look over your shoulder and check for any on-coming traffic before you open the driver-side door to enter the car.
  • Once you’re in the car, adjust the seat, fasten your seatbelt, and adjust the mirrors. Even if everything seems fine, it’s a good idea to at least touch these things so that the driver doesn’t assume you’ve completely forgotten to check these things. You could narrate these actions, as well.
  • Before starting the car, turning to the tester and saying よろしくお願いします(おねがいします) is a typical thing to say in this situation and it wouldn’t hurt to “be Japanese” at this point in time.
  • Some testers also check to see if you “properly” step on the brake as you start the car, then release the emergency break.
  • While driving and before you make a turn, you’re expected to close the gap between you and the line (on your left, if turning left, or on your right, if turning right) in order to stop and prevent cyclists and motorcyclists from getting into your blindspot as you turn. I’ve been told that there should be about 30cm (approximately 1 foot) between you and the line when you’re about to turn.
  • You’re also expected to signal early and often. You’re typically expected to flip your turn signal on about 30m (100ft) before you turn. Even if you’re approximately 2-3 blocks away from where you’re supposed to turn, they’re quite adamant about their 30m rule.

In Summation:

These are all the things that I can think of that truly matter for those who may be taking this driving test in Nara, and/or in Japan; So should you have any additional questions, comments, and/or concerns, please feel free to let me know and I’ll try to help you out as soon as I get the chance. I may also adjust the contents of this blog from time to time, based off of the information and/or critiques that I may receive in the future. At any rate, I really hope this helps someone out, out there!

The best of luck to you all!