Each prefecture has its own driver’s license center and test methods, and a resident of a particular prefecture is only allowed to take the driving test in his or her respective prefecture. The passing rate at driver’s license centers is abysmally low, and most Japanese only pass on the second try. As students have to clock 30 hours in total and can only complete a maximum of 2 hours a day, this process naturally spans over a longer duration. Therefore most Japanese go to designated driving schools, otherwise known as driver’s license camps, to obtain a license without taking the practical skills examination (at a much-added cost, of course). No candidate is exempt from the written knowledge examination, though, as it is a prerequisite for the practical section. License seekers are issued a learner driver’s permit after passing it. After an intense couple of weeks in driving camp (the minimum age of drivers in Japan is 18), they are more or less guaranteed a license. The Japanese license also allows the holder to ride a moped, but only after certification of attending a moped lecture.
For foreigners who convert their licenses, depending on the country you are from, you either have to take only the written examination, which is purportedly common-sensical and easy to pass, or both the written and practical examinations. And here is where the notoriously unforgiving driving test rears its ugly head. If you’re lucky, you MIGHT pass on the second try. Absolutely gruesome! The grapevine is that it is a dramatized version of what happens on the road in reality and that the candidate really has to put on a show for the tester to properly assess their skills. Exaggerated actions and sometimes sounds, for example, making an “Mm” sound when checking blind spots, lingering each swing of the head for about 2 seconds when looking out for other cars when making a turn, etc. On a side note, there is an odd practice of letting the next candidate sit in the back to observe the previous candidate’s attempt. I had never heard of such a practice in other countries, but it sounds like a good way to preempt mistakes.
That said, the demerit point system is pretty strict. Suspension or even revoking of licenses are not uncommon. However, the cumulative merit system is not without its perks: 5 consecutive years of being clean earns the driver a gold license card. A new license is green and valid for 3 years, after which a standard blue license is issued. The gold license is much coveted because of its clout and immunity against the traffic police, ease of renewal, as well as insurance premium discounts. Counterintuitively, not everyone who has a clean record is a good experienced driver. For example housewives who possess a license but barely drive; it is no surprise that these road phantoms have gold cards. Before the basic resident registration card was introduced in 2003, the driver’s license was the only photo ID a Japanese citizen could obtain and hence gained much popularity.
If you can’t afford the time or money for the Japanese driving test or don’t own a car in Japan, another way to circumvent this is to apply for an international driver’s permit from where your license was registered with a validity of 1 year. It usually doesn’t cost much and is good enough for renting cars for weekend trips! Cars are relatively easy to rent in Japan and are inexpensive. A typical hatchback or sedan would cost about 6000-10000 yen a day (normally available in 6-hour time slots), and there are almost too many rental companies on the internet. One of the most famous services is Nippon Rent-a-car.
The A to Z’s of owning and driving a car in the Land of the Rising Sun