Hi again. So today I will conclude my bit about getting a drivers’ licence in Japan. In an effort to not compare apples to oranges, I’d like to put up a disclaimer that as much as the driving test is similar to retaking our full drivers’ licence test in South Africa, this was just the process to convert my South African licence to a Japanese licence. This process can only be done while your International driving permit is still valid, so when it expires you would need to redo the full process of getting a drivers’ licence, which is slightly longer and I totally can’t help with that one. Anyway, there is stuff included in this version of that test to cover the road rule learning portion of acquiring a licence back home, which is usually the written test we do to get a learners’ licence. On that note, today I shall go into the differences between South African and Japanese test day.
1) Long test day
Okay, this point might be skewed because my appointment at the licencing department was only for 10:30 that day but I booked a 25-minute practice session for 9:30. The time slot at the licencing department was a bit misleading though because I found out that that would just be for the written test and the driving test would only follow at 13:00. This wasn’t great news since the written test was a 10 question test that I could only drag out for so long. It probably took me 15 minutes of reading, answering, reading and rereading before I handed my test back to the licence department guy, let’s call him Mr Smiley. He then took a very generous 30 minutes to mark my paper, before returning to give me my results.
Mr Smiley then walked me through how the driving test would work and the two different next steps that would happen depending on whether I passed or failed my test. After this, we did some more admin, like sorting out the payment for my driving test and paperwork. Each bit of admin meant waiting, so we eventually walked out to enjoy a quick lunch around 11:45.
2) Time is a concept
Before moving here, everyone made a big deal about punctuality and how it was a cultural faux pas to be late for anything… Since being here I understand that the above is super conditional. For the licencing department, time is indeed a concept. For most of the day, you roll around in a state of waiting. Waiting for Mr Smiley to call you in for your written test – waiting for Mr Smiley to mark your test – waiting for Mr Smiley to take you to the finance counter – waiting for the driving test to begin and worst of all, waiting for your turn to drive.
You see, that 13:00 time slot is just a loose suggestion. Your actual driving time depends on when the test instructor arrives and then on the order of people driving as you are all given the same time slot and then called up according to a list. So yeah, the time slot for the test is 13:00 but you could end up driving at 13:45. If you happen to pass, you will also have to wait after your test for Mr Smiley to return and take you to the finance counter again to pay the issue fee, take a picture, and collect your new drivers licence card.
3) A shared ride
Back home, there’s a strict rule that there can only be two people in the test car, the instructor and the person taking the test. Here things are done slightly differently. As a person taking the test, you are given a chance to ride in the back of the car while the person testing before you drives (Sorry first guy, you don’t get this bonus).
This is the best part of the whole day in my opinion. I was a little nervous before my test but getting to sit in on another person’s test took my confidence from 50 to 80 real quick. The guy before me was really nice, chatting to the instructor before the test with his limited Japanese and things seemed to be going great for him until he started the darn test! From the moment he put on his seat belt, I knew this was about to become a mess. He pulled off with confidence but sitting in the backseat watching him, I knew that he already had so many points deducted. The rest of the course got gradually worse and I could spot his mistakes as we went. It took everything in me not to cringe or moan every time he indicated too late or changed lanes like he was taking a leisurely drive on the weekend.
I had to climb out of the car as the instructor gave him his results but as I sat down next to the waiting-building, I could tell by the change of his posture and demeanour that he had failed. A few seconds later he stomped out of the car, slammed the door and marched off into the distance. Both the people before me failed so I think if I’m being real, getting to drive with the guy only knocked me up to 65 on the confidence scale.
4) Course only
So as you might have already picked up, for converting your drivers’ licence, you only need to do the enclosed course. No time is spent testing in real-life conditions on the open road. In South Africa, the course is tiny and used to test the special manoeuvres that you need to know to drive but this is usually followed by some time on the open road too.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you don’t get tested on actual driving in Japan. The truth is that the course is huge and replicates a real road, there are even active robots (traffic lights – for you uncultured few) on there. There’s enough space for lane changes, driving an unreasonably long time on a straight road, a hill and even a train crossing.
5) A cultural pass
Our testing centre here in Nagasaki has become notorious for being a hard nut to crack. Many people have said it’s almost impossible to pass the test here on the first try. Of course, these are all rumours as I’ve recently become the third person from our towns ALT community to get it on the first try. I put this achievement not solely on my driving ability but also on the attitude I’ve presented throughout the process. The best advice I read on those articles I shared a few weeks ago was to be very Japanese in your interactions at the licencing department. As the driving test is given in Japanese, I made sure to look up the correct verbal phrases that are used when doing the test. From greeting to starting the test, there are things you can vocalise appropriate to the stage of the test. It seems like a strange thing that this would influence the result of a point-based test either way but the reality is, all humans have familiarity bias. This just means that subconsciously, you will ease up, be more lenient or patient when presented with the familiar.
So why didn’t the guy who tested before me pass? Because he did everything wrong! The culture pass can only get you so far but driving school is the only way a person can learn how to take the driving test. I’ll say it again if this is an exam, driving school is the scope. I hope this little series has helped someone get into the right mind about driving tests. Later gang.
(*prices (as of April 2020 – they have gone up slightly) again for those who would like to gauge how much it will cost to convert to a Japanese licence.
Translation fee: 3000yen;
Application fee: 2550;
Test fee: 2550;
Issuance fee: 2050;
Photo fee: 700[option to bring own];
25min lesson: 2700;
50min lesson: 4900 [I did two 40min and three 25 min] )