Getting a Japanese Driving License

My friend Umer, who is Pakistani, was pessimistic.

“Why don’t you just wait until I get a car and then you can practice at night when there is no one on the roads? You are going to fail. Everybody fails, let me tell you. You cannot pass the driving test. The rules are so hard, I met some girls who had failed so many times at the driving test center. Inshallah God willing I will get  car next week and you can start practicing.  ”

Well I would still be waiting because Umer still hasn’t got the car! But he was quite supportive, if pessimistic. He already passed his test exam and got his Japanese driving license (for foreigners) – the 国際運転免許証。This coveted card will allow you to drive a car in Japan, your foreign license doesn’t count (at least the Kenyan one doesn’t).

Before you can get the driving license, there are a few prerequisites. Like having at least 3 months driving experience with your foreign license. And once you bring all the required documents, you can get to exchange your driving license for a Japanese one without doing any test if you are citizen of Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal,the Republic of Slovenia, the Principality of Monaco South Korea, Switzerland, Sweden, Spain, Taiwan and United Kingdom. As a citizen of the esteemed republic of Kenya, I had to undergo a 10-15 minutes driving test to qualify for the Japanese driving license.

Being in Ishikawa Prefecture, I researched and read up on all the requirements for converting my license to a Japanese one. There was a lot of useful information online, including a step by step guide. I read it diligently, I gathered all the required documents and went for my first appointment.

The first time I went to the Unten Menkyo Center,  I went with a Japanese friend to the second floor were they handle foreigners driving license matters. I presented my documents: passport, residence certificate, translation of driving license, actual driving license… The guy at the counter couldn’t believe we were still using passport-sized licenses with glued-on photographs. I did a separate post on it here. If @Ukenyatta is reading this, please tell him we need digital DLs. Update: I have heard the new DLs are indeed, digital-sized but I guess I was a few months too early to get mine?

The Kenyan Driving License vs a "normal DL"

The Kenyan Driving License vs a “normal DL”

When he was through turning the DL over and over, he then looked at the translation. According to my Kenyan DL, I am allowed to drive class B, C and E. Yes, I am allowed to drive a manual lorry, your average Mitsubishi Canter. Yes, I did my driving test on an an actual lorry whose controls (clutch, brakes, accelerator) I could hardly reach while still seeing out of the dashboard because the seat couldn’t be adjusted; it was an old lorry. How I passed is er.. a miracle but suffice to say my test involved starting, driving for about 2 minutes along a straight stretch, and stopping.

The Japanese guy at the counter was surprised I could drive a lorry haha, but I have not driven one before and since the test. Anyway, my documents were all in order and I was asked to set a date for the practical test. My Japanese friend would later get very busy and so could not take me (I suspect his girlfriend is keeping him busy 😉 ) so I set up an appointment  and decided to go there by bus.  There is a bus that goes there from Kanazawa Station only twice a day, once in the morning and once at noon. I called Umer and we went together.

I had read online on how to pass the test. When driving keep to the left of the lane about 30-50cm from the white line; when turning to check for pedestrians/other cars before changing lanes or turning you should exaggerate your motions; brake down hard when slowing down; be sure to indicate 30 meters before a turning; stop before the line; stop and count to 3 at any stop light; etc. I had read them all and I was confident. Umer’s doubts could not get to me. The online comments giving a pass rate of 30% did not faze me. After all, I had driven for about a year in Nairobi’s rough streets, and several times I had been downtown in some crowded streets with those awful Githurai buses where not many Nairobians dare drive (the East of Tom Mboya Street). I have reverse parked in tiny basements.

But I failed the first attempt.

It was after the test that I realized it is not about knowing how to drive, it is about following the very persnickety rules. When you do the test, there is a route that you have to follow and a new route is set out everyday. The route will make sure to test your control on the S-curve, the crank, how you do left/right turns, traffic lights, maneuvering around road constructions, broken-down cars in the middle of the lane etc.

The first time I was doing the test, I had not mastered the route. Umer and another Egyptian guy (his name is Amr and I don’t know how to pronounce it) I met at the center were quickly trying to give me tips to crack the course. I was panicking. If you have not mastered the course, the examiner who sits beside you on the passenger seat can give you directions (in Japanese!), but the driving track is a bit small so you might not get enough time to switch lanes before stop lights etc. I was driving in the middle of the lane, like any normal driver in the real world does, so that was my biggest failure. When doing the test, you drive so far to to the left that the driver’s position is almost at the center of the road. When coming out of the crank, one of the rear tires got off the road and at the sound of it, the examiner groaned out light; I had failed.

A typical driving test track in Japan

A typical driving test track in Japan

I booked a date for a repeat exam a week later and went home feeling dejected. Failure is not easy to deal with but I was determined to pass the next time I went. Umer advised me to take a class at the practice center just next to the test center and I booked for two hours on the morning of the test. Driving tests are usually in the afternoon. Umer was supportive as usual “Don’t worry even if you fail, you can come again and again, they can’t stop you from trying again”. But I was determined it would be the second and last time. I did two hours of the practice session, driving very very left, looking not just at the mirrors but over my neck, stopping long enough at a stop light, etc.

When my name was called on the public address system that afternoon, I had already mastered the course over lunch hour. It was a straightforward course that day. I was confident. I was ready. I checked under the car for any children or pets hiding there before and after the test. I craned my neck at turnings. I kept 30-50 centimeters from the left. I smoothly snaked the S-curve and the crank, I kept 1 meter away from the broken car when passing it. I could hear the sound of the examiner ticking away as I passed the test and oh what a sweet sound of success! When I finally parked the car at the end of the test, the examiner said, Kyoo, Ok! (Today was Ok!). I remembered to look under the car even as I walked away from it.

Later, I noticed that the exam card on which our photographs are stuck has about 20 slots! I passed at the second attempt. However, I know met who were failing their 4th attempts, and I have heard a record 33 attempts!

Ah, the sweet freedom that comes from having a license to drive and go anywhere you like. But wait, I still need a car. That is secondary though because after all, I am in Japan, the home of half maybe more of the world’s motor-vehicles.

My advice to anyone who wants to get their Japanese driving license, take the practice classes! A little expensive but worth it!

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7 Responses to Getting a Japanese Driving License

  1. woolie says:

    Congratulations on passing your driving test Savvy! As you rightly say a driving exam is not really about how well one drives normally. Most experienced drivers would fail because driving is one of those activities that one is continually developing. The first rule of the road, once you have passed is simple: Forget everything they taught you at driving school. So once we go on out into the road on our own we begin to pick up habits; good, bad and ugly ones. The whole idea of a test is to convince the examiner that you understand why we look in mirrors, turn our heads etc etc. We have to exaggerate all these moves.

    The Kenyan driving licence was once a much respected and valuable document that was readily exchangeable in many countries, perhaps even in Japan.. I would not like to speculate as to what went wrong but the lorry incident that you describe above might give a clue. 🙂

    Stay well.


    • savvykenya says:

      Thanks Woolie, passing a Japanese driving test is truly a badge of honour. If I become president I shall once again ensure the Kenyan license is respected worldwide!


  2. Alex Ngatia says:

    Congratulations!! Reminds me of my harrowing experience in UAE. My Kenyan license was also looked down upon and almost thrown out haha. Kamwana really needs to come through on changing them


    • savvykenya says:

      True, the design has to change but drivers should also be subjected to a tougher test. It is not about knowing how to drive but following traffic regulations. Accidents are not caused by people who don’t know how to drive but by people who don’t follow the rules… in this regard the Japanese driving test is effective. Although the low rate of accidents here of course has as much to do with their strict rules as their culture.


  3. James Mwendia says:

    i recently did my test in mombasa, over 300 candidates were doing the test on the same day and there were only two the time we were through with the registration it was already 1pm.To cut the long story short, by 7pm around 50 candidates had not done the one by one,we would get into the vehicle and would be asked to perform simple things like,turning on the indicators,headlights,wipers with others being asked to demonstrate the position of certain gears while the vehicle was still stationery.And that was that! all of us passed! The driving curriculum needs a complete overhaul.


  4. Pingback: Tips for Kenyan Students Coming to Study in Japan, Part 2 | Savvy Kenya in Japan

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