Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

Japan is known for its public transportation, trains and subways can get you almost anywhere in the city, and in a timely fashion.

yamanote line

During my first trip to Japan, I got to experience the local trains, and shinkansen; so I was excited to use these systems as my main form of transportation when I moved there for the JET program.

However, that wasn’t the case. I was stationed in Sado City, Niigata Prefecture. An island in the Sea of Japan.

map of sado


Despite the beautiful scenery of this island, there are no trains or subways. Sado, being the sixth largest island in Japan, after the four main islands and Okinawa, is difficult to get around without dependable transportation. There was a bus system, but at the time, the bus would come about once every hour. With a few of my schools being a 30 minute plus drive, I had to invest in a car. There were 9 other foreign English teachers there at the time, and we all had to get cars to get to work and take care of everyday needs.


My chariot.

I knew I would need a car before I left for Japan, so I got an international driving permit before moving. It only lasted a year, and in order to get it renewed, I would have to leave the country for an extended period of time. Because of that, I experienced possibly my biggest hardship while in Japan. Getting a Japanese driver’s license.

For some countries, All you would have to do is get your license translated, and then you could get your Japanese driver’s license. Being from the U.S., I would have to do all the tests before I could claim my prize. I originally thought that it depended on what side of the road your country drove on, U.S., driving on the right side, and Japan, driving on the left side. However, some right hand side driving countries don’t have to take the tests either. Since I already had my U.S. license, I didn’t have to go through the whole driving school experience. I just needed to pass the written and road test.

The written test was fairly simple, and was in English, so I did not have to worry about misunderstanding anything. The road test, on the other hand, was quite a doozy. First of all, the test is on a closed course to simulate real driving. So, you basically have to memorize the possible course routes, in my case two; and drive through it, remembering all of your checks, etc. Now, there was a driving center on Sado, but for some reason, it didn’t have the proper ‘facilities’ for foreigners to test there. Because of that, I would have to go to the mainland for all tests. This also required lodging for the night before.

Most people I had talked to about the test suggested taking some driving lessons as well, there are many ways to fail the test, you need someone to tell you all the small things to do, like when to check mirrors, how long to use the signals, etc. My routine went as follows, take the ferry to the mainland (Niigata City), go to a ryokan near the driving center, wake up for lessons, go fail the test. It took me four attempts to pass the test. Failing the test the first time seems like commonplace for everyone I talked to; even though I was able to complete the course without missing stops or going off course; I failed for checking my mirrors too much before turns. The second time, I failed when one of the tires went out of bounds on the S-curve. The third time I stopped too close to the white stop line. Finally, on the fourth attempt, I passed, and my score was high enough that I didn’t need the ‘Green Leaf’.

This basically lets other drivers know how you may drive.
There is also one for elderly drivers.

But, was updated to this.

After talking with friends about failing the test, I heard of some other ways to fail; two of my favorites were:

– Mirror checks were not sincere enough.
– Gripping the steering wheel too tightly.

Anyway, once I got my license I was stoked and excited to drive again. I only made use of my license for one year, as I returned home in 2011. It also expired in 2013, so I would have to do all of that over again if I want to drive in Japan again.


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