Unten-Menkyo-Shiken J-Driver’s Lic.

*I finally have some free-time this winter break so it’s time to publish some old drafts I’ve been meaning to finish!

Quoted in some circles as being the hardest test in Japan to pass by any single foreigner, the “Japanese Driver’s License Exam” is one of those things not to be taken lightly.

but first…

who: Those foreigner’s out there who want to live in Japan past their one year international driver’s license

what: There are three simple parts to it… one easy 10 dumb question written test, one eye exam, and for us lovely Americans: one driving test on a set course using the Driving center’s vehicle.

Where: no where near where you are likely… (for me that’s 2-2.5 hours)

why: Because I have a car, I need this car for work, I need a license to drive the car past my Intl. Driver’s lic. exp. date, and w/o a Japanese license I’d be f’d.

when: Over the course of a month

Price: Including drive school practice, gas to & from home-Aomori city, the tests, and the license… About $200

So why take the test? The simplest answer is… “Because…” but honestly you can’t realistically drive in Japan without taking this test and in some cases (like mine) taking the test is required by your work. For the people where they could “get by” without the license (people in big cities, etc.)– this test isn’t necessary and not worth your time or effort.

So the bigger question is how do you pass it? or what’s the easiest way to pass…? Every test center is different, but in general I believe that License Centers aren’t exactly 100% in tune with the world around them… Thus to pass you have to imagine you live in a world of perfection in which, well, you have to be perfect to pass.

What they’re looking for isn’t your ability to drive– That much should be obvious if you drove yourself to the test center. They’re looking for you to do certain tricks like a seal at a show.. Perfect blinker & lane change maneuvers; stopping on a dime; Inching around corners… it’s all an act and if you think of yourself applying to be an actor to a Broadway play you’ll get the idea of what you’ll have to do.

Here’s a good plan that works…

  1. Schedule a test and take the test straight up (if you pass right on!, if not schedule the next test ASAP)
  2. […If you fail] contact a local driving school near you and ask for a 2 hour course on just passing the test using the vehicle they used in your first test.. Practice hard core and listen to the teacher (his job is teach you all the ins & outs)
  3. Start practicing if you have a car on local streets– pretend everything is THE TEST
  4. Take the test again– if you pass whoop-whoop! If not follow through on the test if you can.. i.e. ask to finish the test. Then reschedule.
  5. Do the test again– make sure you’ve nailed the last time, and first time’s errors. If you pass again, Woot! if not– reschedule…
  6. Repeat until passage really, slipping testers a 10,000 yen bill doesn’t cut it anymore.

OK My big advice/tips are these…

  1. that failure isn’t a bad thing, you can do it many times so don’t let that get you down.
  2. Failure is in fact practice in a different form- Take failed opportunities to finish the course to the end and ask the tester for advice for next time. With them not in test mode, they can sometimes offer advice (granted in Japanese).
  3. Walk the course, if you’re allowed, and imagine yourself doing it.
  4. If you’ve driven a manual car before and are comfortable with a stick, take the manual test over auto. They’re the same tests, but a manual lic. holders can drive any auto or manual car… Very Useful! for driving your friends’ cars or for rentals.
  5. (Believe it or not this works) Your chances of passing increase if your testing center is bogged down with other people taking the tractor test.*
  6. Say, “Onigaishimasu” and do a small bow to the tester before you depart.
  7. Follow your routine to the “T”– details are important and they notice even when their head is down in their test sheet.
  8. Try and go at normal speed on the test. Going at 10km/hr in a manual tells them you don’t know how to change gears.– thus Fail
  9. Do your research and find out what others say about your local regional test.
  10. Be confident! The test is on a closed course so it never changes unlike the US where the tester might take you out on local roads.
  11. Intl. Lic. holders: Make sure to start this process 4 months before your international license expires– don’t get stuck with no valid license and having to take the trains down to take the test.

*The tractor test requires the tested to drive the tractor alone, but have 2 testers follow him in a chaser vehicle. Thus leaving the test center with less *real* testers for your drive test which sometimes (rarely) would mean that someone else (i.e. not a regular tester) will test you and be a little more lenient.

Any way you do it, how ever many times you take the test once you pass you pass no retakes in 5 years or anything. It’s over! Cry laugh whatever– just do all that after they stamp or hanko your pass form.

Oh and finally make sure you look good for each test! If you do pass your license photo  will be taken right afterward…

J out


One thought on “Unten-Menkyo-Shiken J-Driver’s Lic.

  1. I got my DL last summer after finally relenting to the fact that an Int’l DL won’t cut it after your first year. I’ve been in Japan for 19 years so, I figured it was time to submit.
    I took mine in Yokohama. The center is notorious for being really tough on foreigners, but, as I found out, the testers are hard-asses on EVERYONE, failing just as many native J, on a percentage level, as foreigners.
    I had to take the test four times, which is just about average. First time, I clipped a curb on the tight crank – instant fail. The second and third times were serious WTF cases…2nd time, the tester said I was going too fast and the 3rd time, a different tester said I was going too slow. Speed difference between the 2nd and 3rd time? About 3-5 kph.
    Fourth time, though, I got a pretty cool guy who seemed to think that unless you screw up massively, you deserve a pass. Attitude counted, too. Being polite and deferent helped, as opposed to being a stand-offish prick.

    Could be worse. Chatted with a few folks while waiting. There was a Peruvian housewife who was going on her 9th time, a Japanese returnee from California who was hitting the test for the 6th time, a Japanese girl who wanted a motorcycle license – no foreign license affiliation, just going native – and was taking the test for the 7th time, a guy from Hawaii who was taking the test for the 7th time and a guy from Europe who was doing the entire testing process for the 2nd time, having failed 8 times the first go around, had his first try expire (6 months), then started the whole process again and was 4 times down on this go-around. Looking forward to his 5th test, he said, “I like this place.”

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