Thursday, June 5, 2014

Getting a Japanese driver's license

Only if you got a license!
Work and managing the offspring has taken a lot of energy away from my blogging again despite my intention to somewhat revive the blog. In any case, I will keep it going with low maintenance.

This time I actually thought to post about something that might not be particularly funny, but could be helpful for some people as the information out there is sparse to begin with: how to get a Japanese driver's license. 

As you probably have figured out, I recently got my Japanese driver's license. How to get a driver's license here in Japan differ a bit depending on whether you already have a foreign license or if you are starting from scratch. If you already have a foreign license and are trying to figure out how to get a Japanese license this post won't be much help. But if you happen to be in a similar situation as me it could perhaps be helpful: A) No previous driver's license or driving experience B) Good Japanese ability (hearing and reading).

In my particular case I have spent my life mostly in larger cities with good infrastructure and no real need for a car or driver's license. Living in central Tokyo, a car might be more of a hassle and cost than actually helpful. However, since the Salaryman family moved out to the suburbs and started to grow in size the convenience of having a driver's license combined with the fact that Mrs. Sunshine does not particularly like to drive gradually pressured me into getting a driver's license.

Finding a School
The first thing you need to do is find yourself a mighty fine driving school to enroll in. The cost might vary depending on the program you select, but should be a little above or below 250,000 JPY for a standard plan. There probably will be a number of plans available depending on speed, flexibility etc., but I picked a standard plan in which I could take the lessons at my own convenience and pace.

In my case it worked relatively well as my current job gives me quite a lot of freedom, but taking a driver's license while working as a regular Salaryman might be next to impossible to do unless you are ready to dedicate all your weekends over several months to driving school. The school I picked was located relatively close to the Salaryman family base camp and offered convenient bus pick-up services. If you are not confident enough in your Japanese abilities to take the lessons in Japanese I can't really help you much. I know that there are a few schools in central Tokyo that offer English classes, but to me that was not even an option as it would be too time consuming to add a commute to the time I needed to dedicate to the lessons. It probably is more expensive as well, in any case I do not really know.

Getting Schooled
The path to the driver's license here in Japan is divided into two parts, conveniently titled Level 1 and Level 2 (第一・二段階). Each part consists of ~15 hours of theoretical lessons and ~15 hours of driving lessons, if I remember it correctly there is a little more driving in level 2 compared to level 1.

Passing level 1 gives you a conditional driver's license which lets you out on the streets to practice driving on real roads so the first part is much more focused on traffic rules etc. (more on that later).

Handling it Theoretically
The theory lessons could be taken in any order (basically) and my school had all the lessons rotating throughout the week at different times of the day so you had at least 1-2 chances each week to get the one I wanted to take. As I have little free time to waste at the school, I generally tried to take as many classes as possible in one visit and could often time in 2-3 theory lessons each time I went to the school. It got a bit harder as I was finishing up most of the theory classes as I often found myself having to go to the school to pick up a "stray" lesson at slightly inconvenient times.

The theory lessons were actually quite good, at least at the school I went to, the teachers obviously knew the routine of doing the lectures and pointed out the things that were essential to remember for the tests. If you can follow the news on Japanese TV your level should be enough to follow the classes, obviously there is a lot of new lingo you have to learn but that is also true for most of the Japanese students as well.

Driving lessons
The driving lessons were quite straightforward with the Level 1 lessons taking place in the school driving course (or whatever it's called, you know what I mean). The focus is on the basics of driving. After you have passed the Level 1 exams you get the conditional driver's license and the lessons mostly move out to the real streets together with the instructor. Again, nothing particular to mention here as the focus is very much as you can imagine.
...course like this (random school)

For the actual driving lessons you will need a certain level of command of Japanese, but it could be much lower than for the theoretical lessons as the instructor can "dumb it down" as you would be the only person he/she needs to make understand. 

Bring on the Tests!
My school had quite an annoying amount of tests and I am unsure on whether other schools do it the same way or not. In any case I had to through the following test:

Level 1
1. Level 1 theoretical qualification test - A test done alone on the computer without strict supervision to see if I was up to the level that I had a chance to pass the real test, passing this allowed me to take the formal test
2. Driving test - Relatively simple driving test, cannot for the life of me remember any details, but the basics
3. Formal Level 1 theoretical test - Done a bit more formally as the results need to be reported to the local authorities, only allowed to take by those who passed both previous tests (driving tests were done before lunch, the theoretical in the afternoon)

...after passing the above tests I got the conditional driver's license. Then it's back again doing theoretical and practical lessons until that is finished up and you can again do the tests:
Just like me!

Level 2
4. Level 2 theoretical qualification test - Again, the same as the one for level 1, basically a filter to see that you are ready to take the real test
5. Driving test - Again a driving test out on the real roads, nothing too exciting, driving from point A to B doing things the right way while following the route the instructor points out
6. "Are you really OK?!" Test - I think this test was unique for my school, but this was the most annoying test of all, after passing the driving test we were given a random theoretical test to do, if you passed it was great but if you failed, you had to stay and study a few hours more, did not matter in any case since it was not a formal test
7. REAL Theoretical Test - With the graduation document and conditional driver's license in hand I could take the real test at the prefecture site, very formal and strict supervision, after passing this I got the real actual license
8. Random Testing - This did not happen to me, but apparently sometimes people are picked out to do a driver's test again at the site to check that the level of skill really is adequate, as far as I understand it this would not impact getting the actual license, but is done to measure the level of the schools. It did not happen to me in any case so seems rare

That is it for this time, coming up next: Tips for passing the tests! If you have any questions, post it in the comments so other people can see if I bother to answer!


TokyoOctopus said...

That's a very well-timed comeback post :) I'm in a similar situation as far as driving licenses go; I learnt to drive way back when but for various reasons never got round to taking the test, and never really missed not having the option of driving. But it's slowly beginning to make sense to get off my tentacles and make the effort... Looking forward to the sequel.

TokyoOctopus said...

And a question - is it possible to learn on manual transmission (stick shift) or is that too exotic?

Mr. Salaryman said...

Octo - Then seriously these posts will be useful for you, there were actually a number of things that would have made the whole process so much easier if I had known about them beforehand.

I just took automatic and I think that ~80% of the students at the school I went to only took the automatic license. It was actually not anything I really thought much about, our car now is automatic so I just went with that. But for sure, you can still do the manual and if you get that you can of course drive both automatic and manual so if you know you're going to rent a lot of cars in Europe or something it might be best to go with that.

TokyoOctopus said...

Driving in Europe may indeed be an issue in the forseeable future. I'm sure it's possible to hire automatics, but no point in restricting my choices especially as I can drive a manual - just need the piece of paper which allows me to do it on public roads.

Anyway, keep up the good work, much appreciated. Now to locate a driving school...

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