How To Fail: Taking Your Driver’s License Test In Japan


I failed my first attempt at getting my Japanese Driver’s License today. Which puts me in the company of the vast majority of non-Japanese who have to take the practical driving test to get their driver’s licenses here. Basically, there is one way to pass the test and about a billion ways to fail. How do you pass? We’ll get to that later. First, the ugly statistics.

The passing percentage of the Japanese Driver’s test is 35% for foreigners. The average person will take 3 tries to pass. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you factor in the following:

1. There is one testing site in each prefecture in Japan. So if you happen to live at the very edge of the largest prefecture in Japan, it might take you 2 hours to get to said site. On a crowded train. At 6:30 in the morning.

2. For the most part, don’t expect anyone to speak much English to you at the test site, especially if your site location is far from a city center, which almost all of them certainly are. This means you either struggle to catch words and phrases you understand and hope it’s enough to get by (if it isn’t, they’ll simply send you home and tell you to come back with a translator) or you have an awesome friend who is willing to sacrifice, say, 11 hours to go with you and help you out. Which thankfully, I did. But God knows I won’t ask him to come back with me again.

3. The time frames to submit paperwork for your testing are extremely short, basically 30 minute windows at two times during the day, once in the morning and once after lunch. If you miss the morning window, you can wait for the afternoon window, but you won’t be allowed to take the test on the same day. Which means you’ll be investing 6-7 hours of another day in the near future.

Which brings us to how you pass this sort of test. Ultimately, you have to understand that everything about the process of getting a drivers license in Japan is part of the test. Japan has bureaucracy down to a science, but this process is the ultimate test of the limits of bureaucracy. The test is about how well you can follow rules, jump through hoops, and maintain your composure through it all.

While I was studying material about the process, I came across a brilliant analogy someone wrote about it. He suggested if you approach the test as if it were a test of your driving ability, you would certainly fail. Instead, one should approach the test as they would a video game like Super Mario Bros.. If you follow a pattern, memorizing each step along the way and execute each of those steps with the right timing, you will pass. Jump on the mushroom to get the gold coins. Smash the brick to get the hammer and kill the turtle. And in the end, you get Princess Peach, er, the drivers license.

The test was never intended to test your real world driving skills, because let’s face it, in the real world you are driving down streets that are 1.5 times the width of your car with oncoming traffic and 80-year-old bicycle riders weaving out in front of you. Like the Japanese educational system, the test is about how well you can follow directions, repeat a task and execute it perfectly. It’s a taste of Japan that foreigners don’t necessarily want, but really, we need it. We need it to better understand the painfulness of being an outsider, the frustration of limited language and culture skills, the reality of being strangers in a strange land.

I admit, I hate to fail, especially something as ridiculous as a driving test. But the experience of obtaining a drivers license in Japan is so incredibly humbling that it reminds me how much I need to rely on the goodness of God. God provided my friend to spend a whole day with me and walk me through every little step. God gave me peace during the lecture I got from my instructor about not signalling my turns early enough (which oddly enough had not caused me any problems in the 30 years of driving up to now). And God is going to be with me when I return to try to pass the test again next week. And again and again after that, if need be.

So keep praying for me, to keep learning to trust in God’s goodness and to keep showing God’s grace when I don’t really feel like it (which will probably happen if I don’t pass this thing soon). It’s more than just a driving test after all.


2 thoughts on “How To Fail: Taking Your Driver’s License Test In Japan

  1. If it makes you feel any better, getting a license without taking the test still took me an entire day (mostly of waiting) and ended with me being scrutinized about the authenticity of a letter from my old college several times before being issued a ‘beginners’ license (because 10+ years of driving doesn’t count as proper experience if you don’t manage that perfect double jump for the end of level flag).

    • Ouch. I understand the scrutiny too. One guy said that because the US doesn’t stamp the passport for US citizens when they return to the US, there was no way to prove I lived there for 3 consecutive months. Fortunately, a senior guy was sitting next to him and corrected him!

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