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Getting a Driver’s License

This guide was compiled by the GAJET Editor, largely based on past guides, articles, and remembered experience.  If you notice any errors, or feel you have any important information to add, please contact the GAJET Editor, [email protected], or via the Contact page.

Every year, both local and national JET and foreigner discussion boards, personal Facebooks and phone in-boxes, and nearly every source imaginable is flooded with questions and concerns about what is, in many places, one of the most difficult processes a foreigner can undertake–obtaining a Japanese driver’s license.

In Gunma, which boasts the highest percentage of cars on ‘mainland’ Japan, getting a drivers license is notably difficult. However, we hope to provide you with as many tools as possible to help you with the preparation process, application, and your test (no matter how many times it takes).

For those from approved countries (such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, England, etc), you do not have to take the test portions. Please check out the updated Necessary Paperwork below for updated paperwork instructions; after that, see this article for information pertaining to obtaining your license.

Preparing for the Written Test

You can pick up an English guide to Japanese traffic laws from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF), or borrow one from a friend, to help prepare for the written test. The written test is short, and there is an English version (often with questionable translation) available. Many people pass this without preparing, as most of it is common sense; however, it never hurts to be over-prepared.

Preparing for the Practical Test

There are always stories or boasts of people who went in, without any preparation, and passed the test right off the bat. There are also always stories of people winning millions by hitting lottery jackpots, which may be about as likely as passing the Gunma test with no preparation.

Anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time has figured out that Japan loves the bureaucratic process only slightly less than than it loves standardization, and the driver’s test is no exception. Everything you do must happen according to a standard procedure at precisely the correct time, with precisely the correct movements, for precisely…well, you get the idea. Therefore, it is strongly recommendation that you take a few trips over to a driving school and let the instructors there bug and bother you into mastery of the process. Be prepared that the first time may be more expensive, as you might have to pay a registration fee in addition to the lesson fee.

It’s easier to learn from the instructors if you brush up on your driving Japanese. It also doesn’t hurt, if you’re not confident with your ability, to have a JTE or other co-worker help you with scheduling your session and explaining your Japanese ability to the school.

Driving School Address Telephone
Akagi Jidousha Training Institute
赤城自動車教習所
Isesaki
群馬県伊勢崎市赤堀今井町1-564
1-564 Akaboriimaichō, Isesaki-shi
027-062-0135
Minami-Shibukawa Jidousha Training Institute
南渋川自動車教習所
Shibukawa
群馬県渋川市半田2700
2700 Handa, Shibukawa-shi
027-922-1945
Yanasebashi Jidousha Training Institute
柳瀬橋自動車教習所
Fujioka
群馬県藤岡市森新田221-2
221-2 Morishinden, Fujioka-shi
027-442-0671
Oowatari Jidousha Training Institute
大渡自動車教習所
Maebashi
群馬県前橋市総社町総社1164-2
1164-2 Sōjamachi Sōja, Maebashi-shi
027-251-4037
Maebashi Amagawa Jidousha Training Institute
前橋天川自動車教習所
Maebashi
群馬県前橋市天川大島町1065-2
1065-2 Amagawaōshimamachi, Maebashi-shi
027-261-0840
Isesaki Jidousha Training Institute
伊勢崎自動車教習所
Isesaki
群馬県伊勢崎市上諏訪町1499-1
1499-1 Kamisuwachō, Isesaki-shi
027-024-1515

from the Gunma Orientation Handbook (2014)

Some instructors may be fairly helpful; a few may be downright frustrating. What’s important is to assertively pull information out of them or go back at a different time to have a different instructor.

Applying for the Test

Applications for the Driver’s Test must be made at Gunma Prefectural General Traffic Center (群馬県総合交通センター) in Maebashi (map). If you drive, you can enter from Route 17.

You can also walk from Shin-Maebashi Station in about 10-15 minutes. If you walk, leave the West Exit of Shin-Maebashi station, then proceed straight and take the 2nd left after the Taxi depot. After turning left, continue along this road until you reach a sign, in japanese, saying that the road has no access to the traffic bureau (for cars). Turn right into the parking lot area, and look for the path that runs along the far side of the driver’s course, and then enter through the main entrance to the building.  Now that Google has added Street View for Gunma, you can ‘walk’ this portion online first to help you find the route.

Basic Process

Expect your first day (assuming you pass the written test) to require you to be at the Traffic Center from 1-5pm.

PREPARE → Submit Application → Take Written Test → Take Practical Test (repeat X number of times) → Receive Paperwork → Come back for license.

Necessary Paperwork

The following documents are necessary for your application. If you do not have them all, exactly as specified, you will not be permitted to complete your license application.

  1. Valid Driver’s License from your Home Country, obtained more than 1 year before entering Japan. If you have renewed your license at any point, you need to get a certified copy of your license record from your home country’s driving bureau.
    • Make an A4 size color copy of the front and back of the above license (and a copy of your license record if you need that as well).
  2. Passport (Original, to be scrutinized. Also bring any old passports if you have them).
    • Make an A4 color copy of your passport’s photo and information pages.
  3. Official Translation of your license obtained through the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). Other translations are not accepted.
  4. An official Certificate of Residence, (住民票, juminhyou) obtained through your city office, displaying your address in Japan and nationality (get as detailed a form as they’ll give you).
    • Make a color copy of this document as well.
  5. License-sized photo (3cm x 2.4cm), taken within the past 6 months.
  6. Your Alien Registration Card or Residence Card.
    • Make an A4 size color copy of the front and back of the card.
  7. International Driver’s Permit (IDP). When you go back to receive your license, they will ask you if you need your IDP; if you will travel internationally while it is still valid, be sure they do not take it!
  8. Registration Fee of ¥2400 (you will pay each time you take the test as well).

*The police note on their informational document (Japanese) that there are times when they may require you to have other documents.

**Please note that your passport must display you as having been in your home country of residence for at least 3 months during the period of issuance of your home driver’s license. For example, if you took an overseas vacation while you had your license (particularly if it was close to coming Japan), they will scrutinize this thoroughly, so be sure to be able to point out all of the dates and assure them of your 3 month requirements.

***There is an area where you can make copies and a picture-taking booth behind the cafe on the 2nd floor of the traffic center (Be sure not to get an IDP/国際免許証 picture, as they’ll make you go back and take a proper one).

Recommended: Bring tax documents, your university diploma—anything to prove you lived in your home country if you have travelled since arriving in Japan. The officials are piecing together how long you were allowed to drive legally within your home country before coming to Japan, and they may be painstakingly thorough in their efforts.

Initial Application

The initial application must be made during regular reception hours, 1-1:30pm on weekdays only, at the 2nd floor reception area (there will be a large waiting room), at the last desk on the right. Look for all the other foreigners making their application. They’ll prod you through the process, and you may even get to cut the lines for paying and getting stamps that the Japanese appliers are waiting in.  The gentlemen who normally work the application desk can sometimes be brusque (particularly when there are uncooperative/uniformed applicants), so make sure to keep your smiles ready for a better experience!

Re-Testing

If you re-test, take all the forms you receive when you reschedule to the same window you did everything before, at 3pm on your re-testing day.

The Written Test

If you pass the ‘Paperwork Test,’ you get to move on to the written test. Be sure to specify you want an English version if they don’t ask (the English version also has the original Japanese…if your Japanese is mid level, it can help clarify some of the funky translations). The test is taken in a nearby lecture hall.

For the written test, you must answer 70% correctly in order to pass. The proctor (one of the reception staff) will grade it right there and tell everyone who passed that they can proceed to the practical exam.

The Practical (Driving) Test

If you pass the written test, you will permitted to take the practical exam. You will return to the main reception/waiting area and be given a blue badge with a number. Pin this on yourself, and follow everyone else across the hallway-bridge to wait (sometimes for a considerable amount of time) for the practical test.

Near test time, the staff will show up to start to prepare for the test. Follow everyone else down the stairs and wait for the proctors (professional police officers) to pass by and check out your shoes (see below for info about shoes). The proctors will call out the numbers of those who will participate with them. Be sure to respond and step out of line to line up near them as soon as they call your number–they are already forming their opinions about you!

Follow the proctor to the car, observing some basic pedestrian rules (i.e. look both ways before going across the crosswalk, even if the proctor doesn’t). You will test in numerical order. Only 1 driver and 1 backseat passenger are permitted in the car; if there are more of you, you will wait near where the car is parked, and then enter the car (in numerical order!) when the other passenger moves up to driver. If you aren’t first, you’re actually lucky, as it gives you the chance to see if the car has a sticky/sensitive gas or break, accelerates quickly, etc.

Once in the car, hand your paperwork to the instructor, check the position of your seat, mirrors, etc, and ask for permission to start (they may tell you right off it’s OK to start, or they may ask you to wait for other cars to leave). From this point on, your training is the key! You can also see the Hints, Guides, and Advice section below for more (unofficial) information.

After the test, return to the initial large waiting/reception room and wait for them to bring out a whiteboard with the numbers of those who passed. If you failed, you line up to schedule your next testing date (depending on the time of year, this can be a few days to a few weeks). If you pass, you will watch them do a bit of paperwork and they will give you instructions about when to return to receive your license.

Receiving Your License

As the foreign license transfer test always takes place at 4pm, you will have to return on another afternoon to receive your license. Follow the instructions given to you by the reception staff after you have passed your test for when and where to return to.

You will do a few parts of the licensing process with the Japanese test passers; however, much of it will be separate, and there is quite a bit of waiting and wondering involved. For the entire process of receiving your license, you are looking at another 1-5pm afternoon.

Hints, Guides, and Advice

Below are links to several guides written by past test-takers, as well as a link to a document containing their recommendations. Please note there is no one sure-fire process to passing the test; even if you do everything perfect, the mood of the proctor, your performance compared to the others with that proctor, and many other factors can influence the outcome of your test. Do not worry if you hear the pencil writing a lot–there doesn’t seem to be a set percentage or number of misses that will fail you, but rather a whole lot of subjectivity.

Some basic things that will help with the entire process:

  1. Prepare, prepare, and prepare some more. When you think you’re ready…prepare a few more times.
  2. Attitude – be positive, polite, and respectful. No matter what happens, no matter if you get screamed at or are there for the 18th time. Keep your cool, remember all of those set Japanese niceties you’ve learned, and make a good impression from the minute you apply. Don’t let your bearing make them want to fail you.
  3. On retests, show improvement – regardless of what anyone tells you, simply taking the test over and over will not increase your chances if you do not improve.   The gentlemen at the reception window have been know to lecture entire groups of failed testers about how none of them will ever pass if they don’t show any improvement.
  4. Wear full shoes. The proctors will check the entire line of applicants on their way through, and they will take you right out of the test if your shoes have an open toe, no back (even if it has a strap), can be construed as sandals, etc.
  5. Do not judge your results by the personality or mod of the proctor – some of the extremely friendly proctors are equally strict, while some will seem in horrible moods but still pass you. You won’t know how they evaluated you until you see, or don’t see, your number displayed as “Pass.”

Here are some guides you can use. Please note that these are written by their respective authors, and therefore the content may not be wholly accurate.