Pass Your Driving Test and Take to the Roads!
Even with Tokyo’s expansive rail system, there are still places that you can only visit by car. So, whether for work, leisure, or convenience, getting your driving license is an important step for expats who want to unlock all that life—in and around the city—has to offer.
Given that the majority of Japanese road signs are either pictorial or have text in both English and Japanese, there really is no language barrier stopping you from getting out and about. That said, the Japanese driving test has a reputation of being difficult and, unlike in many other countries, you largely cannot practice driving on public roads until you have your license.
This difficulty is because many Japanese traffic rules are distinct from those of other countries—even from those countries in which one drives on the left side of the road. The moment you have your license, you are out and about in the real world on real roads. So, while these rules may at times feel too strict, they are there for your safety—and that of your family—as you travel Japan’s small, narrow streets.
The Easy Road
If you are a resident of Tokyo and hold a valid driving license issued at least three months ago by one of the 28 countries with which Japan has a bilateral agreement, the process becomes a whole lot simpler. All you need to do is prepare a relatively small amount of paperwork and pass an eyesight and depth-perception test at a driving license examination center. You will then receive your license without having to take the practical and driving-knowledge test.
As of October 2018, those practical and driving knowledge exam-exempt countries and regions are:
- Czech Republic
- The Netherlands
- New Zealand
- South Korea
- The United Kingdom
- The United States (Maryland and Washington only)
These countries have traffic regulations that are very similar to those of Japan. Nevertheless, before you get behind the wheel, it is strongly advised that you take a couple of lessons to familiarize yourself with Japanese traffic laws and how they differ from those of your home country.
If you are looking to apply for a medium- or large-sized motor vehicle license, note that you can only do that after first obtaining your regular motor vehicle license. However, the application procedure remains much the same.
Fork in the Road
If your home country is not on the above list, the process gets a bit more complicated. You can convert a driving license from your home country by taking the Japanese driving examination, which includes a knowledge and practical-driving test.
If you are a complete novice, you will largely have to go through the same process as a Japanese learner. You may choose to attend a designated driving school or take lessons at a non-designated school. Both furnish you with much the same knowledge and earn you the same license. The main difference is that designated driving schools authorized by the National Public Safety Commission have their own diploma-based system. If you complete a fixed curriculum of lessons, you will not have to take the practical driving examination.
Of course, to complete the full syllabus at these schools requires an investment of time and—often significant—money, but can be a great way to quickly raise your driving proficiency fast.
For those who already know how to drive or who need to take their time due to work or resources, non-designated schools offer programs with as few (or as many lessons) as you need. Do it your way and—when you’re ready—apply for the tests.
Road to Success
Ready to go for your license? You can do so at three locations across Tokyo: Fuchu; Samezu; and Koto. Let’s visit Fuchu Driver’s License Center in west Tokyo to see how the process works.
At Fuchu Driver’s License Center and Samezu Driver’s License Center you can practice on the very same driving course used for the actual practical exam. Whether you are a novice driver or just need to brush up, the flow is the same. Driving time can be booked within four one-hour windows that run until 16:00 (from 9:45, 11:15, 13:30, or 15:00) and the cost is ¥2,000 plus a small insurance fee as required. Note that you can only drive for one hour per day. Of course, you will need a designated instructor and, generally, they will be the one responsible for preparing the dual control training car you will use for the lesson.
The Japanese driving test known for its difficulty and there is very little room for error. Perhaps this reputation is unfair, but it the grading is strict. Still, it’s good to know that every other driver on Japanese roads has met the same exacting standards.
Our instructor for the day was Keita Ueno from Kiki Driving School, which offers lessons in Samezu and Fuchu and specializes in English-language instruction for international residents. He took care of preparing the car, so all I needed to do was turn up at the Fuchu Driver’s License Center in time for orientation, after which it was straight to the car.
Immediately striking was how the driving course differs from real roads. Many of the markings—not usually present on Japanese streets—are designed to teach you which line to take at junctions and so on. Even after just a one-hour lesson, I felt the benefits of having driven on this kind of training circuit. I was already positioning my car with greater accuracy.
In a single lesson, I was able to be briefed on the major grading points, and practice exact sample situations that are encountered during the Japanese driving test. By centering the lesson around the actual exam, I felt motivated to get back for another lesson and one step closer to my license.
License in Hand!
Whatever your path to driving-license success, don’t let the process be imposing. Once you have identified the route to getting your license, the process is actually very simple. And while the standards are high, you are sure to become a better driver!
Information in English for Obtaining Your Driver’s License
Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department
Foreign Driver’s Licenses and International Driving Permits Information
Fuchu Driver’s License Center
Kiki Driving School
English Driving School in Tokyo