*This is a two-part series on driving in Japan. Part one begins with my experience going to driving school in Japan. Part two details the 3 hour process of renewing my driver’s license at the Koto Driver’s License Center.
After I posted to Instagram Stories about my experience renewing my Japanese driver’s license, I got lots of questions about the process.
My experience going to driving school in Japan will be a bit different than those on English language blogs as I did all my coursework in Japanese.
It’s funny that I ended up getting a driver’s license anyway. After all, what first attracted me to life in Tokyo is that I don’t need a car to get around. All I need here is money on my IC card and the Jorudan app, and I can hop on the next bus or train.
What pushed me to go to driving school? Well, every year I’ve given myself a mini-project of learning something new.
Among the challenges I’ve completed so far are: getting a scuba diving licence, learning archery, and of course, this blog.
I figured learning how to drive would be necessary for when my husband and I eventually relocate Ibaraki. Plus, with Costco and IKEA just half an hour away, it would be fun to do Costo runs on my own.
Finding the Right Driving School
The first step was finding a school for me. In addition to traditional driving schools, there are also gasshuku menkyo (合宿免許) overnight “camps” for people who want their license in a very short amount of time.
Gasshuku menkyo schools are an intensive learning experience that will allow you to get a license in as little as 2 weeks
But, as I work full time, gasshuku schools were out of the question, so I went the traditional route: going to class after work and on the weekends.
There were only two factors I cared about when looking for a driver’s school:
1. Being able to pay with a credit card so I can earn points (I earned nearly 3,000 miles in the process!);
2. Within a reasonable commuting distance with pickup and drop off
(What can I say, I’m pretty easy to please!)
Signing up For Driving School
Signing up was very easy- I made an online reservation to visit the facility, enrolled on the spot, and started classes the next day. All I need was a recent juminhyo (住民票), and a few recent photos of myself.
At Japanese driving schools, there is no limit to how many classes you can take in a day. But, there is a limit to how many hours on the school diving course/on the road (3 hours).
The school fees include insurance, all coursework, textbooks, and tests. My driving school had a key card system to clock in and register for classes. I paid in full which made it very easy to sign up for classes and to take exams. But, any makeup classes and test cost extra, which I learned the hard way…
The Structure of Japanese Driving Schools
Driving school is divided into 2 parts: Stage 1 (第一段階 – 所内教習 | dai ichi dankai – shonai kyoushuu）and Stage 2 (第二段階 – 路上教習 | Dai ni dankai – rojyou kyoushuu).
Each stage is further divided into 2 parts: coursework (学科| gakka) and road skills (技能 | ginou).
After 12 hours on the school course and 13 hours of coursework, it was time for the midterm test (中間テスト) a 50 question paper/computer test. Only after I passed that test, I could move on to the second stage.
A funny story about my midcourse test- the first time I took it, I scored a 44 out of 50, failing by just 1 point! This prompted the receptionist to encourage me to take it in English…
I scored even less this time around with a 41/50!
Third time was the charm, however, and I passed with a 45/50.
I should mention that each additional time I took the midcourse test I was out 4,500 yen, meaning I lost 9,000 yen (the receptionist who advised me to take the test in English avoided me for days after that!).
On top of that, I had to retake a on-site driving course, which set me back another 7,000 yen.
I was determined to lose no more money, and things got progressively better in Stage 2!
Before I got to Stage 2, though, I had to take yet another exam for my driver’s permit (仮免許 | kara menkyo) that would actually allow me on the road.
Stage 2 required 19 driving hours and 16 hours of coursework. First, I took a few classes in the simulator and then I also had to take a first aid course.
As a teacher, I already got certified by the Red Cross, so while that didn’t exempt me from the course, it was something less to worry about.
Strangely enough, I didn’t worry about the driving part. By the time I entered Stage 2, i felt confident (but not too confident) with my driving ability. I knew that the great challenge would be the exams.
I already knew from taking the midcourse exam many times that the paper test would be hard.
On the weekends I practically lived on campus. I brought my bento box and studied in the reception area using the practice tests available and by using my textbook.
The test (true/false format) is basically filled with trick questions that make you overthink and second guess yourself (and I know now why Japanese cram schools are a big business!).
Some hints: any question along the lines of 必ず〜しなければならない (kanarazu… shinakereba naranai | you must do…) is X, while やむを得ない場合はを除く (yamu wo enai baainwo nozoku | With the exception of the following…)
But, I managed to score a 92 on the final exam (卒業検定 | sotsugyou kentei) and also passed my road skills review (みきわめ | mikiwame) with flying colors.
Once that was all done, I got a certification of completion of driving shcool 卒業証明書 | sotsugyou shoumeisho), which exempt me from taking the road test at a driving center… but I still had to take another paper test at the driving center. (This is Japan, we love tests here!)
So, one week after driving school was all done, I made my way down to the Koto Driving Center to take my final test.
Now, the policy at the Koto Driving Center is that they only tell you your score if you fail, so I have no idea what I scored. It didn’t matter because I passed on my first try and walked out with a license on the same day!
Japanese Driving School Timeline
I enrolled on June 2, 2016;
Passed my final test on August 11, 2016;
Got my license a week later on August 18, 2016.
And that’s my experience going to driving school in Japan!
Before I end this post, I want to add two things you should know before going to driving school in Japan:
1. Going to driving school is not a requirement.
Some foreign license can be used to drive in Japan. Likewise, some foreign licenses can be converted to Japanese ones.
If your current license does not fall under either category, it’s still possible to skip going to driving school. As long as you can pass the written and road test at the driving test center, you’re good to go.
In my case, I only got a permit when I was 15/16 and had no on the road experience at all. Driving school seemed necessary in my case!
2. If you are thinking about settling in Japan long term/having a family – get your license before you are pregnant!
If you are pregnant, it will be very hard to find a driving school that will accept you.
I found out I was pregnant when I had just a few weeks left of coursework to do. But, I wasn’t even showing and always remembered to remove the maternity badge from my handbag before arriving on campus.
If you have young ones, most driving schools have onsite daycare facilities free of charge.