According to the Menkyo Center, it takes an average of 3-4 times for the average non-Japanese resident to pass the practical driving test. The practical test is difficult because they are very particular about certain things. Many people go to their local driving school and take a course (usually around 3,500 yen per hour) that teaches the exact skills needed to pass the course. The proctors are very particular about certain things, like how close to the curb you are and how soon you turn on your blinker. Even if you are an experienced driver who has never been in an accident, the skills needed for the driving test are rather different from the skills needed for actual driving. Taking a course may be well worth the money, as it might help you pass the test the first or second time so that you can avoid using all of your vacation days on it. Some people think that proctors do not want people to pass the first time and deliberately fail people even if they should have passed. There are people who do pass the first time, so it is possible. Just count on failing at least once and make sure you have a few extra vacation days budgeted.
If you are concerned about the driving test, many JETs have reported having a good experience with taking an one-time practice test at driving schools. According to the JETs, the staffs at the driving schools are very considerate and nice and try to make sure you understand the instructions despite their limited English. If you are not confident in your Japanese abilities, you can ask your supervisor or a friend who can speak Japanese to accompany you during the practice. It has been recommended from JETs that you should book a reservation at least a month in advance.
Toyofuku Driving School (豊福自動車学校、第２教習所), located near the Menkyo Center, is one place to consider practicing at. They charge 5,900 yen for 50 minutes (8,800 yen for 50 minutes if you want to use the actual test course; however, there are some pre-requisites so call to confirm), and are open 8:00-18:00 on weekdays, and 8:00-17:00 on Sundays and Holidays. They are closed on Saturdays. Reservations are required, so ask your supervisor to help you: 096-388-0509.
There are other driving schools that offer similar services throughout the prefecture, so if you live far from the Menkyo Center check with your supervisor to see if there are any driving schools nearby. Good luck!
Getting to the Menkyo Center
The Menkyo Center is in Kikuyo Town, just north of Kumamoto City. It is on the same road as the Prefectural Athletic Park (Park Dome/KKWing). Buses leave from platform 14 of the Kotsu Center (main bus terminal). You will want the 鹿4 or 鹿8 buses that say “driver’s license center” on the front. The bus trip will take about 50 minutes and cost about 550 yen. If you choose to drive to the center, there is plenty of free parking.
Please note, if you are taking the test without a valid international driver’s permit, DO NOT drive to the Menkyo Center. If you fail, it is possible that you will be observed as you leave. If they catch you driving away without a valid international license, you risk embarrassing yourself, your employer, and you might even get into serious trouble with the police. Have someone drop you off or take the bus to get there and back.
When you arrive at the Menkyo Center, go up the stairs/escalator to the second floor and turn left. The office is on the left, down a small hallway just before the last set of help/payment windows.
Kumamoto Prefectural Driver’s License Center (熊本県警察本部 運転免許センター)
Reception hours: weekdays (except national holidays)
8:30 AM – 11 AM and 1 PM – 4 PM
2655 Karakawa, Kikuyō-machi, Kikuchi-gun, Kumamoto-ken
Tips for Passing the Japanese Drivers’ Test
The Written Test
The written test is quite easy and really shouldn’t be a cause for much concern. As mentioned above, you can find some practice tests here if you’re curious. The test is made up of 10 common sense true/false questions. An example of one such question is:
It is okay to stop or park on the white lines on the road in front of a fire department. True or False?
However, if you feel like you want to study up for the written test, you can get a copy of the latest edition of Rules of the Road from JAF for 1,430 yen (digital copy for 864 yen). The book will also be useful post-test as it helps to explain some of the obscure road markings and signs you may find while driving.
During the lunch break period (12 PM – 1 PM), the offices will close but the center itself will remain open. There is a restaurant and small convenience store at the center if you need to get food. However, people are also allowed to walk the course during the lunch break as well, which is highly recommended. Walking the course will help you to visualize what you need to do and where you need to do it. In addition, there may be possibly parts of the course that you do not encounter in your day-to-day driving (such as the S-curve and “crank” turn”), so getting familiar with them before driving is highly recommended.
The Driving Test
Some General Tips
- Always drive on the left hand side of your lane, near the margin of the emergency lane or the curb. Try to keep your tires within 1m of the lane/curb. If you drive near the center meridian, you will lose points, unless you are making a right turn.
- Drive slowly at all times. An average of 20 to 25 km is best. If the proctor wants you to go faster he will tell you. If he tells you to slow down, you probably have lost some points. You can take the S curve and “crank” turns as slow as you like however.
- Always slow down at crosswalks and look all around for hazards.
- Check your mirrors frequently and make it obvious that you are checking your mirrors (possibly by saying “yosh” or “hai” for each mirror you look in). Check your mirrors before you switch lanes, turn corners, or proceed after stopping at signals, stop signs, crosswalks, train crossings, etc…
- Check your blindspots as well whenever you check your mirrors (again, make it obvious).
Signal 100 meters before your turn and move to the inside of the lane. Signal again 30 meters before you turn.
- Make sure you do not hit the curb. If you do, put the car in reverse and carefully go back. You will not necessarily fail for running into or going onto a curb, but you will fail for running OVER a curb.
- Don’t give up unless the proctor tells you explicitly that you failed and that you are to return to the docking station.
Other Points to Take Note of
- There are two different course routes, which one you drive on depends on which day you take your test.
- You’ll get to pick which car you want to test with, automatic or manual. Just note that driving in the automatic car means you’re only licensed to drive automatic cars whereas passing while driving a manual car means you’re licensed to drive both automatic and manual cars.
- Other people may be in the testing car with you. You may be with other test takers who will go before/after you or even another proctor (who will not grade you, but just observe).
- Depending on how busy the day is, it is possible other cars will be testing on the course at the same time as you.
Course Specific Tips
Starting the Course
The test begins before you enter the car. When you’re on the platform getting ready to go into the car, you’ll need to do a safety check around the car. This means going to the front, looking at the front, looking under the car from the front, going and looking around the left side (the side facing the platform), looking at the back of the car and looking under the back of the car. But before you step out onto the right side of the car, look both ways before stepping into the “busy street”. A lot of the test is a mind game to see if you do safety checks, even if you know in your mind you don’t really need them. After you confirm the “busy street” is safe, check the right side of the car and then get inside.
Getting in the Car
Get the car ready for driving. Lock the door. Adjust your seat. Put on and adjust your belt. Confirm the parking brake is on. Confirm the car is in park. Adjust your rear view mirror. Check the side mirrors are okay (even if your car doesn’t have a way to actually adjust them). Pump the brake to see it feels right. If all is good, get permission from the proctor (or if they offer it to you), press the brake down and start the car.
Leaving the Carport
With the car started, remove the parking brake, place the car into drive, and then hit your right signal. Before actually moving though, do a check around the car. Do a check over your left shoulder, check the left mirror, check the rear view, check the right mirror, then check over your right shoulder. If all is good to go, then you can get moving.
If you’re going to the right lane, check your rearview mirror THEN hit your right signal. But don’t go into the next lane right away. Rather, get close to the right side of your lane (within 30 cm), wait for three seconds (if you have the space to do so), check the right mirror and over your right shoulder, and then move over into the next lane. Same goes for switching to the left lane (obviously doing everything for the left side). Your signal is going to be on for a while before you actually do a change, which is the intended effect. Be smart about this though. If you know that you have turn coming up in a short distance after the lane change, you don’t have to wait three seconds exactly (and miss your turn). As long as you aren’t making last second swerves and doing all your safety checks, you should be fine.
When making left turns, get really close to the left curb (within 30 cm) for a set period (within three seconds is best) before you get to the turning point. In theory, this is to block bicycles/motorbikes/scooters from sneaking up on you on the left. So when you know you have a left turn coming, you’re going to do a similar process to a lane change. Start this well before your turn comes up: Check your rear view mirror, hit the left signal, check over your left shoulder, then get even closer to the left (you have been driving within 1m of the left this whole time, right?) and drive close for 3 seconds or so. Before you make your turn, check for oncoming traffic from the right and do another check over your left shoulder, then turn, making sure you don’t take the left turn too wide (you may be tempted to do so, like me, because you’re really close to the curb) but also make sure you don’t take it so tight you run over the curb with your back tire (which is an instant fail).
Right turns follow the similar process, although they’re not as difficult by nature due to left side driving. Also, in theory, bikes shouldn’t be sneaking up on your right anyway. Doing the same process as left turns (rear view check, signal, get close, then re-check before my turn) wouldn’t hurt.
Know what lane you want to turn into and aim to end up on the left side of it. If for some reason you end up too far on the right (or part of the wrong lane), slowly ease into the left side of the target lane. If you swerve abruptly to get back into the left side, it’s more of a point penalty than easing in (10 points as opposed to 5).
If you come across a turn with an obstructed view to your sides, slow the car and slowly inch forward, arching your head forward as you look to your left and right to ensure everything is safe. If you’re making a left turn, make sure to do a left check over the shoulder before you make your turn.
Turning into a multi-lane road
Always try and turn into the left-most lane when turning into a multi-lane road. The only exception for this would be if you know you have a right turn coming up right after you turn into the multi-lane road. This means the distance from when you enter the multi-lane road to your right turn doesn’t give you enough to time to do your usual lane changing process (complete with checks and all). If you have enough time to do your complete set of lane changing checks, then turn into the left lane first THEN shift over to the right for your right turn.
Stop with your front bumper as close to but still behind the stop line as possible. For a sign, wait three seconds, doing your necessary checks before proceeding. If you’re going straight, check ahead to your left and right before moving. At a light, don’t move right as the light turns green. Do your checks first and then proceed.
If you’re approaching a turn and there’s no stop sign/light (also assuming no cars coming your way), you’re going to have to balance doing your checks with moving forward. If you feel unsafe, play it safe and stop to do your checks. It is said you have about five seconds of unnecessary stopping time before points start coming off. Still, if you can manage moving slowly a bit while you do your checks, do so. Obviously, if you do share the course with other cars and cars are coming towards you, it behooves you to stop.
A section of the course with two sharp turns. It’s narrow so you have to be extra careful here as there is a chance for instant failure in this section. This is very much a skill section and you may have problems dealing with the testing car, especially if you drive a different style (like kei) car. The best advice is to take it very slowly. There’s no penalty for going slow here. Get as far to the left as you can before making your right turn (and make it tight!) to clear the first set of poles. This is so you won’t hit your back tire against the curb as you try to navigate your car over. For the second turn, you’re going to want to be on the right side so you have space to make your left turn over.
If at any moment you feel like you’re going to hit the poles or you feel yourself hitting the curb, get ready to back up. However, before you actually go back, do a check over BOTH left and right shoulders, then put the car in reverse and move your car to a better position for the turn.
For some people, this is an easier test than the crank because the turns are not as sharp and there are no poles to worry out, so you don’t have to obsess over the front of the car. Again, just take it slow and make sure you’re on the right side before you slide over to the left for the first turn. Vice versa for the second.
If you find an obstacle on the road (such as cones or a broken down car), treat it as changing lanes. You don’t need to go all the way over to the other lane if the obstruction only takes up half the lane, but you’re going to have a distinct set of checks for both avoiding the obstacle and another set for when you return to your original lane. Start your checks/signal for the return right after you pass the obstacle.
Finishing the Course
You’ll be directed back to where you start most likely. As you approach your return lane, turn on your turn signal facing the curb when you’re about 5-7 seconds to parking the car. Ease into your spot. Ideally, you’ll want to be within 30 cm of the platform and within 30 cm of the pole they ask you to stop at (either ahead or behind is fine, so you technically have 60 cm to work with).
Press the brake, put the car into park, pull on the parking brake, and then turn off the engine. Doesn’t hurt to push the seat back all the way as well. Before you get out of the car though, open the car door just a crack and then look to both sides. Again, this is part of the “safety check”, even if you know there’s no one within miles.
After the Test
Once the test is done, you’ll be brought back to the office to await the results of your test. If you fail, you’re given a brief rundown from your proctor about what went wrong and what you can do better. Some proctors are more forthcoming than others. There are stories of proctors that don’t like giving up too much information (their answer being just go to a driving school if you want to know that much), but it never hurts to ask if you have questions. You’ll then be given the testing forms to prefill out for next time when you return for your retake, which you don’t need a reservation for (just show up before 11:30 that day and ask for a driving test retake at the office).
If you pass, you’ll probably still get a few words of advice from your proctor but then the Menkyo Center staff will help you get your license printed within the next 1-2 hours. Congratulations!