Driving in Japan is expensive, complicated, and sometimes frusturating. Following someone who is driving under the (already maddeningly slow) speed limit, cars pulling into the middle of fast moving lanes of traffic (almost) causing accidents, constant roadwork and the workers directing traffic with lightsabres, baffling driving etiquitte, traffic cameras, unmarked Highway Patrollers, and expensive toll roads are just some of the things that irritate me. However, I will gladly put up with these annoyances rather than spend my time trapped on the 405 or 101 during peak traffic hours.
I love driving here in Kumamoto, especially on the country roads. If you like watching WRC Championships (how is Ford doing better than the Citroen, Peugeot, Subaru, and Mitsubishi teams right now???) and playing Gran Turismo 3, then Kyushu is an excellent place to drive. If you are like me, then you need a car in order to commute to work and more importantly to keep your sanity. 103 yen/liter seems a small price to pay for the places that I have been able to explore thanks to my car.
If you are an American, and you spend more than one year in Japan, you must get a Japanese Driver's License in order to drive legally. Why do Canadians, Brits, and other gaijin get to simply have their licenses converted instead of taking a test like Americans? Well, I can understand that the British use the same traffic signs and drive on the wrong side of the road as well, but why Canadians (this has since been answered in the comments, although the answer did not make me feel any less self-righteous)? In any case, it doesn't look like the situation is going to change any time soon, so it's best to just get the license and forget the other bullshit.
Gaijin living in Kumamoto who have to get a license are very lucky. After researching online and talking with friends from different areas in Japan, it seems that most places feel obligated to fail a gaijin at least once despite performance, and to pass Japanese people on their third try even if they are unfit to drive. In Kumamoto, I know of two others who passed on their first try, which is pretty good. People who bitch about Kumamoto's driving test being "really hard" probably do so because they didn't do adequate research on the test, because they have trouble understanding what is expected of them when they are driving, and because they don't know how hard it is to pass the test in other areas of Japan.
However, taking the driving test anywhere in Japan is a pain in the ass because you need to do a lot of stuff before you even go to the center. You need to (aquire and) bring:
1. Your Passport
2. Your Gaijin card
3. Your Inkan
4. Some loot for taking the test, and some more loot for processing after you (hopefully) pass the test..
5. Your license from home along with
6. A translation of your licence from JAF
7. And if nowhere on your liscese says that you have been driving for over a year, you will need a form from the DMV that proves that you have and most likely another translation of this form by JAF.
8. 2 passport photos
In addition, I would also bring along any distractions such as friends, toys, books, homework, etc... You will have a lot of time to kill.
When you are scheduling an appointment, remember to be polite and try to speak in Japanese. If you can't speak Japanese, see if a friend can help you out, or ask for someone who speaks English. When I scheduled my test and went to the Center, there was a very helpful lady named Mrs. Matsumoto. She speaks English well, but appreciates it if you at least try and speak Japanese. Now that I think about it, at least trying to speak in someone else's language before resorting to English almost always brings a friendlier response from the locals along with the willingness to help someone out. Is this manipulating the ethnocentricity of others, or shedding your own? I think it's a little of both, but the bottom line is that it works.
The Written Test
I did too much preparation for this test. I bought a copy of Rules Of The Road from JAF, for 1,000 yen, and read it to prepare. I don't regret doing it because now I better understand the markings on the road and what some of the obscure signs mean.
There are 10 questions on this test and each is accompanied by a picture. If you miss a question on this test, then you should probably be to wearing a helmet at all times, regardless of the situation. It's that easy. For example, one question asks something like this:
"If a police officer is standing in the middle of an intersection in front of your car with his arms spread out horizontally you should:
a. pay attention to the signal only
b. drive past the police officer
c. wait until the police officer signals for you to proceed
d. drive over the police officer
Easy stuff. I'm going to recommend reading Rules Of The Road, or at least familiarizing yourself with the signs and markings, as it makes things a lot clearer.
The written test given in the morning along with an eye exam (if you fail this, you should not be driving), and the driving test is administered after lunch. There is a restaraunt downstairs, but the food is nothing special. During the lunch break period, you are allowed to walk the course. I walked it several times until I could recall where to go and what to do with no problem. Walking the course will help you to visualize what you need to do and where you need to do it.
The Driving Test
The driving test is a pain in the ass. There are no English speaking proctors that I know of, and if you get the same guy as I had he will not speak slowly or repeat anything. Just bank on being prepared and remember basic Japanese directions such as "turn", "right", "left", "go straight", etc... However, if you do everything below that I recommend, you will have a pretty good chance of passing on your first try.
Some Basic Tips
*Always drive on the left hand side of your lane, near the margin of the emergency lane or the curb. If you drive near the center meridian, you will lose points, unless you are making a right turn.
*Drive slowly at all times. If the proctor wants you to go faster he will tell you. If he tells you to slow down, you probably have lost some points.
*Always slow down at crosswalks and look all around for hazards.
*Check your mirrors frequently and make it obvious that you are checking your mirrors. Check your mirrors before you switch lanes, turn corners, or proceed after stopping at signals, stop signs, crosswalks, train crossings, etc...
*Check your blindspots as well whenever you check your mirrors.
*Signal 100 feet before you need to turn and again 20 feet before you turn
*Make sure you do not hit the curb. If you do hit the curb, put the car in reverse and carefully go back. You will not necessarily fail for running over a curb.
*Don't give up unless the proctor tells you explicitly that you failed and that you are to return to the docking station.
This is a diagram of the driving course at the Kumamoto Driving Center:
The red line indicates the course, and the numbers indicate specific tips for those specific waypoints. I took course 1, and so that is the one which I will be providing tips for. The course starts from the docking station on the bottom and runs clockwise, ending at the same birth in the docking station.
Advice Specific To Course Number One
1. Before you get in your car walk around it and inspect your vehicle. Look under the car (ostensibly to check if there is a young child or some other hazard lurking underneath). Also, it doesn't hurt to look both ways checkihg for traffic before stepping into the street and opening your door.Once inside your car do the following even if you don't need to:
A. Buckle your seatbelt.
B. Adjust your seat position
C. Adjust your mirrors.
D. Ask the proctor if you can turn on the ignition
E. Make sure the car is in Park and fire it up.
F. Make sure that there are no distractions (like the air conditioner on high, etc.) and that none of the malfunction lights are on.
G. Put the car into gear, take off the parking break, and signal your departure.
2. Immediately get into the lane, remembering to stay close to the left hand side. Drive slowly and make a point of checking your mirrors and blindspots and look for any pedestrians that may be about to cross (it feels silly looking out for imaginary people, but this is better than having to come spend another full day so you can do it again).
3. Once you round this corner you will be about 100 feet away from your turn. Signal right, check your mirrors and blindspots, and then pull close to the center meridian to make your turn.
4.Signal again when you get 20 feet away and check your mirrors and blindspots again, and turn. I will now assume that you know to signal, check your blindspots, and check your mirrors before you make all of your turns.
5. This is the railroad crossing. Slowly approach it, and stop at the stop line. If you are driving manual, pop the emergency break. Roll down your window to listen for the train, look both ways, check your blindspots, and then slowly proceed. Do not roll your car back down the hill or you will lose points.
6. When approaching this intersection proceed slowly. There are concrete walls on these corners obstructing your view. Come to a complete stop at the intersection, check your mirrors and blindspots, and pull forward slowly to check for traffic. When you determine it is safe, proceed forward.
7.When approaching this intersection proceed slowly. There are concrete walls on these corners obstructing your view. Come to a complete stop at the intersection, check your mirrors and blindspots, and pull forward slowly to check for traffic. When you determine it is safe,pull out slowly and turn left. Signal right away because you are approaching your next turn.
8. Do your turning checks and turn left. Immediately signal for your next right hand turn.
9. This is the part that requires finesse. This road is really small, and the right angle turns will test your driving ability. Remember to drive slowly. As you approach the right turn, stay to the left, and wait until the last moment to cut right (but not too long!). This will ensure that your back tire clears the curb. Immediately get over to the right hand side, so that you can pull the same maneuver for the left turn. After the left turn, stay to the right again, and slowly approach the intersection. Do you turn checks, and drive out close to the center meridian before turning to avoid the last tricky corner.
10. This is an intersection with a traffic signal. Drive slowly and check your mirrors, blindspots, and look for any pedestrians. If the light turns yellow before you reach the crosswalk, you should probably stop, or hit the gas so that you make it through! If you choose to do the latter, let me know how it turns out.
11. The small curvy street is cake compared to #9. Once you turn right at the intersection there is a broken down car on the left side of the road. Check your mirrors and blindspots, signal right, drive around the car and immediately signal left as you check your mirror and blindspot (to the left) and cut over once it's safe. Do this slowly.
12. Here is a construction site. Treat it the same way as the broken down car in #11.
13. Turn into the causeway quickly, and remember to signal, etc. Head back for the same port from which you started.
14. Park within a foot of the left hand curb, put the car in park, engage the parking break, and shut down the ignition. And now its time for some more waiting!
After the test the proctor will tell you what you did wrong. In my case, I didn't drive to the left hand side of the lane enough, and he scolded me for being "abunai" (dangerous). After I showed the appropriate amount of (less than genuine) remorse, he told me that I passed. If you fail, you can go home after you schedule your next appointment. If you pass there will be an hour or two more until you are done.
The next step is taking a photo, forking over some more cash to make the license (I think I paid about 4-5,000 yen in all). For the amount of effort that you put into obtaining a liscense, it is really dissapointing. It's a piece of posterboard laminated on one side, and doesn't even have any holograms! But at least it brings peace of mind, knowing that you don't have to depend solely on being a foreigner to bail you out should you find yourself in a driving related incident involving the cops.
A little advice for those of you who are late getting your liscense converted
If you do not have a valid license (meaning that your International Drivers License has expired, or you don't have one), DO NOT drive to the driving center. If you fail, which you may, they might watch to see how you leave. Have someone drop you off, walk, take the bus, or do something else to get there and back. If not, you risk embarrasing yourself, your employer, and you might even get into serious trouble with the police.
When I was researching how to pass the test, I came upon a very useful site that provided good tips on how to pass the driving test in Japan at globalcompassion.com. It was very helpful to me, and as a form of payback I decided to write an entry similar to theirs, but tailored to Kumamoto. Their site is worth a look to supplement the information on this entry.
Many people contributed to this puddle of knowledge, and so I thank those of you who helped me out with this (Matt, Shige, Tsubasa, Mark, etc...). If this information helps you to pass the test, leave a message and let me know- I'd like to know about it. BTW, if you can think of anything that I have left out, let me know and I will add it to this entry. Good luck.
One last thing...
This entry deals with converting a foreign drivers license to a Japanese license only. If you don't have a foreign drivers license, then I'm sorry to inform you that your test is likely harder and more expensive. In this case, your best bet is to talk to Mrs. Matsumoto.
Comment Q and A:
just a visitor, passing by, but wanted to say thanks for the april 13 2004 post on driving test tips in kumamoto japan.
i do have one small question, in regard to that post... so do you signal twice? i don't get it. you say "signal 100 feet before you need to turn and again 20 feet before you turn"... so what youre saying is... signal - for a second - 100 feet before you need to turn - then turn it off - and again 20 feet before you turn?
very interesting, its new to me, the whole signalling twice thing, if in fact thats what youre suggesting.
two more questions came to mind. in the kumamoto driving test, was parallel parking required? ive never entirely mastered that. and about the course, so they give you the map before the test, but its not expected to be memorized is it? im just a bit concerned about how much of the proctor's commands ill understand... could you post a brief list of useful proctor-driving-commands to listen for.
I'm glad you found that post useful. As for your questions:
1. Yes, you signal 2 times, once 100 feet before you turn and during your turn (check how I wrote it again, because I don't remember the test so well right now). It's something that you won't do in real life, but they insist on you doing on the course.
2. Parallel parking- there was none when I took it. The closest thing to parallel parking was pulling the car up along the parking station where you start and finish the course. Take it slow, and it's a piece of cake.
3. It is best to remember the course, which is easy if you look at the map and walk through it a few times with map in hand. As for commands, they're pretty easy and go something like:
Migi o magatte- turn right
Hidari o magatte- turn left
Koko ni tomete- stop here
That's about the extent of what I remember. Another piece of advice- take along a dictionary and something to write with and on just in case.