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Driving in Japan

2008-12-01

If you are a foreigner driving in Japan, an International Driving Permit is fine for your first year in Japan. Beyond that, you must go to the Driving License Center in Akita City and transfer your license to a Japanese license. This can be done in two days (weekdays) but the process will depend upon your nationality. Depending on your BOE, you might need to use annual leave.

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Overview

The Akita Drivers License Center (秋田県運転免許センター; Akita-ken Untenmenkyo Sentaa) is located on Highway 13 in Akita City. The address is 〒010-1607 秋田県秋田市新屋南浜町12−1, and the telephone number is ☎ 018-824-3738. The lat/long is 39.696798, 140.073586. A translator is necessary for those who don’t speak any Japanese. If you think you can wing it with a dictionary and a little speaking ability, do it. If you need a translator, definitely bring one for the first day, because the entire questioning process is in Japanese.

Translating your drivers license

A translation of your license is mandatory for this process, which is called gaimen kirikae in Japanese. You certainly need the license translation for Day 2, and you might need it for Day 1. You can get it done at the JAF building for ¥3,000 in an hour or two. Or, you can print out an application form and mail it to them with a post office money order (genkin kawase) and add ¥290 for the return postage. Mail takes about a week and a half. Alternately, JAF can probably fax the translation to your school. Here are the required items.

Day 1: Interview and cross-examination

Remember to bring these things.

Arrive at 2:00 at Window 50 and tell them you want to change your license to a Japanese one. They will ask for your passport, license, and gaijin card. There is a little waiting involved, and then you start the interview. The point of the interview is to see how long you’ve been driving and if you’re eligible to drive in Japan.

The two requirements are as follows.

  1. 3 months driving at home. You must have had your home license for at least 3 months after it was issued. Not only that, but you must have been in that country for at least 3 months after it was issued. For example, ''Let's say you have a license from England. Did you live in England for at least three months after you received that license? No?'' If you renewed your license right before coming to Japan, this is a problem because it looks like you just got your license even though you may have been at the wheel forever. In this case you must call the DMV that has your driving record and ask for a copy. Do it before you go to the Center the first day.
  2. Valid international driving permit. Your current international driving permit is valid (or you have a valid license in your home country that you had for more than three months before you came to Japan).

There are many questions they'll ask you in the interview. If you write down the answers beforehand, it will make your life much easier. If you have time, you could get a friend to help translate your answers into Japanese, too. They may not ask you all of these questions, but you should know the answers to them all. If you don't know the answer, just guess and it should be OK, because there is no way for them to check most of these.

When the questioning is over they tell you that they’ll call you when you’ve been approved to switch licenses, and they will.

Day 2: Where the paths diverge

After you get the call, you can choose any day to go back to the Center and finish the process. For almost all nationalities, this is an easy albeit time consuming task, and for Americans, this is probably the worst ordeal in the JET experience. There is at least one common process. You will be bouncing back and forth between windows. You cannot pay at Window 50, so they send you over to the cashiers window to buy a payment stamp which you affix to a paper with your name and address, after which you then take that paper back to Window 50. This will happen anywhere from 2 to 6 times.

Day 2 for most nationalities

Arrive at the center at 8:30, stop by Window 50 to pick up your papers, and they’ll tell you to go to Window 6 or 7 to pay. Most of the day involves waiting around, but sometime in the morning you’ll take an eye exam, take a picture, and come out with a shiny, brand new license. Congratulations! Bring something to do because the waits are long.

Day 2 for Americans

Disclaimer: You have probably heard horror stories about Americans never passing the first time. This tends to happen to people who are somewhat unprepared. Retaking the test can get annoying and expensive (transit + ¥3,600). Read this page carefully, prepare appropriately, take the test early (like, June) and you can probably pass the first time.

Arrive at the center at 8:30, stop by Window 50 to pick up your papers, and they’ll tell you to go to Window 6 or 7 or possibly 4 to pay. From there they will tell you to go to the 3rd floor and wait to take a paper test.

The paper test is 10 questions long. 70% is passing. They are T/F questions where a circle (maru) means true and an x (batsu) means false. It is almost always the same test, so memorize the answers and you will be done quickly. Learn the road signs from the JET Diary. Sometimes the questions are strangely worded but the answer is usually the most obvious one, so try not to over think the questions. Here are some examples.

  1. If you're on a road with two lanes heading in the same direction, you must drive in the left lane unless you want to pass someone. (TRUE)
  2. You must wear your seat belt and make sure your passengers are too. (TRUE)
  3. There are no lights or sounds at the train tracks, and the bars aren't lowering. You don't have to stop before the tracks. (FALSE)
  4. You're turning right at an intersection, and another car is approaching from the other direction. You must wait for them even if you got there first. (TRUE)
  5. You cannot pass another car within 30 meters of a crosswalk or intersection. (TRUE)
  6. Japanese cars are well manufactured and don't need maintenance. (FALSE)
  7. There are yellow blinking lights showing on the traffic signal. You don't have to pay attention to other motorists. (FALSE)
  8. There is a sign that means "no right turn" along with a red arrow underneath. You can turn into the store on the right facing the street. (FALSE)
  9. There is a "no entrance" sign on a street. You can drive your car or moped on that street. (FALSE)
  10. There is a "pedestrians only" sign on a street. You can drive your car on that street. (FALSE)
  11. There is a "no parking" sign (the blue and red one with the red "X"). You can park here. (FALSE)
  12. There is a police officer in an intersection indicating for you to stop, but the light is green. You do not need to stop. (FALSE)

After the paper test you wait downstairs for them to tell you that you passed (God help us if you fail!), you pay a fee for the car rental and then you eat lunch. They tell you when to take your practical test. They also tell you to memorize the course before you drive it.

Before you take the driving test they make you take a vision test. When they tell you to, proceed to the eye exam room and wait for your name to be called. They put you up to a machine that shows a series of slides. In each slide, there is a circle. The circle may or may not have a gap in it. Tell the tester where the gap is. Top (ue), bottom (shita), right (migi), left (hidari), or no gap (nai).

The driving test

The course doesn't resemble a road in real life. It is full of turns and loops and stoplights and stop signs. You drive their cars, which are wider than most, on roads that are narrower than most, with someone in the passenger seat marking a paper (and, sometimes, talking constantly) while you drive.

Wear comfortable clothes. Don't wear torn jeans and a t-shirt. Wear sneakers. Don't wear sandals.

The day's course is posted in the waiting room — the map is labeled "外国人". They'll give you a map just before noon, but you should print your own. Since the course doesn't change from the morning, it is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that you copy down the course before you take the paper test (you will definitely have enough time) and memorize it while you are waiting for the paper test. You can see most of the course from the 3rd floor waiting area where you'll wait for the paper test. The test changes daily, so don't rely on your friend who took it the week before. The course is open for you to walk during lunchtime. Walk the course as many times as you like. This is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED as you must drive the course from memory. Walking around on the course might make you feel silly, but it's much better than failing the test a bunch of times.

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When they call your name, your examiner will get in the car and wait for you. Examine the car, look underneath, check the tires, and make sure nothing is impeding your way. Nothing will be, but from here on out, everything is for show.

Before you go to open the driver's side door, look both ways to check for traffic, then cross in the front of the car. Before opening the door, look both ways again. Get in and check that nothing is going to jam the car door before you close it.

Right away put on your seat belt, check examiner's, and say yoroshiku onegaishimasu. He will tell you a lot of things, but all you need to know is that you'll do a practice circle, get back to where you started, and then start the exam. Turn on the car, check the mirrors, turn WAY around to the left and right to check your blind spots, put it into drive, release the e-brake, swivel around to check your blind spots again, and head out.

CAUTION is the key here. You want to look like the cautious driver that all the Japanese are known to be, so when you pull out, look both ways TWICE, keep your signal on at all times, and keep looking both ways. Stretch your neck way out to let them know that you mean business.

When you enter the course there are a few things to remember.

  1. At the stop lights and signs, make sure to stop well behind the line. If you pass the line you can back up a max of 4 times. Once the light turns green check both ways before proceeding.
  2. Exaggerate your motions when checking your mirrors and blind spots. It makes it look like you are trying to be very safe.
  3. Stay close to the left side of the lane unless you want to make a turn. When you turn left, hug the left hand side and stay in the left lane. When you turn right, signal, turn your head, look both ways twice, move to the right of the lane (about a foot over) and turn.
  4. When turning (left or right) onto a 4-lane road, always turn into the farthest left lane. Lane change after that, if needed.
  5. Watch out for the blind intersection. This is the intersection with concrete barriers on each corner. Slow to a crawl and continue at that pace all the way through, looking both ways the whole time. You will probably go through it twice.
  6. Keep your speed at about 30 km/h. Driving slower has failed some people before. On the straightaway section that comes at the end, pick up the speed to 50 km/h to show confidence. This can vary depending on your examiner, so listen to what they say.
  7. On the straightaway section there will be a parked car. Do not pass this car as you would pass a car in traffic. Pass it as you would pass someone who pulled over to make a phone call. Imagine there is opposing traffic in the opposite lane. Slow down as you approach and put on your right turn signal. Move HALFWAY into the other lane, keeping the center of your car aligned with the dividing line. Put on your left turn signal as you pass the car. Slowly pass the car while diligently looking around.
  8. There are two ridiculous looking turns that you must go through. One of them is the S curve, the other is the L curve (but it's more like a zigzag). If you nick the poles, you fail the test. Slow to a crawl here. It is not as impossible as it looks! You are allowed to reverse in this section.
  9. There are not very many signs on the course (other than the number signs). There are many places you may feel there should be a stop sign, and there's not. At these places, slow way down, make sure you look both ways, but you don't have to come to a complete stop.
  10. Drivers here have "left of way". If you arrive at an intersection at the same time as another tester on the course with you, and the other person is on your left, let him go first.
  11. Some testers require you to engage the handbrake if you stop at an intersection that is also on an incline, such as a hill.
  12. When passing any building or crosswalk, look around for potential pedestrians.
  13. When you exit the course, signal and look both ways.
  14. Pull the e-brake when you finish, then turn off the car.

At the end of your test, your examiner will point out what you did wrong. Usually that is a bad thing, but you never know. Regardless, he will tell you to wait inside for your results. Thank him and look both ways before you open the door.

Wait for a while and they will either announce your number (which should be on the form they give you) over the PA system or it will flash on the board. If you didn't catch whether or not you passed, go to Window 50 and they'll tell you.

If you pass, you wait a little, they take your picture, and you can go home with a license. They tell you that you are not allowed to smile in your license picture, but give it a shot. If you don’t pass, they say "please ganbatte" and tell you to bring your papers with you next time. Next time, you take your test in the morning (you don’t need to retake the paper test), finish, and get your results before lunch. Eat lunch, get your license, and leave a happy person.

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