6 June 2012

Getting a Japanese Driving License: The Test

Posted by Roland under: JET .

(Note: The following is based on my experiences in Kumamoto prefecture, so if you’ve come here and aren’t going to be testing in Kumamoto, your experience with the license center in your area may vary. That being said, there is still much here that can be taken away for your own personal licensing adventure. Best of luck getting your license!)

Getting to your menkyo center will vary by location. But for me at least, being in Kumamoto prefecture, we’ve only got one, which understandably is in Kumamoto City. The wrinkle here is that Amakusa to Kumamoto City is probably the longest commute possible within the prefecture. There may be other places that are technically physically farther away, but I believe those other locations have the luxury of using the Japanese expressway system. There’s no expressway linked up with Amakusa. The closest expressway exit from Amakusa is in Kumamoto City itself.

So yeah, the menkyo center predictably only being open Monday to Friday means that anyone coming will have to take a day off from work for the testing process. Amakusa City gives you a special day off to take your test, but any retakes (and more often than not, there are retakes) will have to be taken out of your own vacation days. This, plus the expense of having to go to/from Kumamoto City and pay for testing made me want to keep my number of visits to the menkyo center to a minimum.

The menkyo center itself is a pretty impressive building, at least compared to my experience with American DMV offices. Perhaps it’s because it’s the only one for the whole prefecture, which means everything has to be centralized into one location, but it’s about small airport terminal in its size. It has a cafeteria, which is a nice touch, and of course is dominated by the driving course behind the center. Testing for all kind of licenses, not just regular cars, happens here, so if you come early enough you can see buses, construction cars, taxis, etc. driving around on the course. Luckily, it seems the Kumamoto center has all those cars come in the morning and more often than not, the afternoon session may just be a few regular cars on the course at the same time (however, for my times, nobody else was on the course).

The first visit to the menkyo center requires you to get there pretty early because they have to do all the initial paperwork that day and it did take a fair amount of time. Bring something to occupy yourself with while you wait for the staff to come back. If all goes well with the paperwork, then you’ll take a vision test and a written test. You may have read things about the written test being super easy and I concur here. If anything, I almost psyched myself out because it was *too* easy and put the wrong answers down on a few problems. Just read the questions carefully and you’ll be fine, there’s no need to prepare anything for it, it’s all common sense knowledge. Failure here is a real sign that you shouldn’t be licensed for driving anyway.

Afterwards, you get prepped for the actual driving test. You’re told what course route is being tested that day (there are two they switch between) and then told when and where to be for the test. During the lunch break you’re allowed to walk on the course itself, which I highly recommend. Even though you can see the entire course from above from the building, I think actually being on the ground and seeing the distance and turns close up really helps. For many, this will be your first experience with the “crank” and S curve that will be part of the testing process (possibly the hardest skill related part of the entire driving test) so seeing how they work before driving is highly recommended. Messing up at those curves (hitting the crank curve poles with the front of your car, which represents hitting a wall or driving over the curb with your back tire because you took a turn too sharp) can land you with an immediate failure.

Assuming you don’t choke on your food during lunch, your next step is actually taking the driving test.

One of the test examiners will come up and introduce themselves and also what they’ll be testing on. They won’t give away any big details here on how they score, but rather the overall themes on what they’re looking for. They’ll want to make sure you’re a safe driver (doing your safety checks, signals, etc.), that you can legitimately operate the vehicle (basic maneuvers like turning and more advanced driving like the curves), and you’re also familiar with non-driving related things (such as checking around your car before you drive, looking out for hazards as you exit, etc.). The test is out of 100 and 70 points is passing. They’ll also let you know about some instant failures such as hitting the poles and driving over the curb. They will let you know that you can go backwards up to three times if you hit (but not run over) the curb before you fail. This is a real possibility if you’re not familiar with the curves. That being said, I wasn’t sure if this was a free pass (i.e. you lose no points) or if you lose points each time you do it, meaning if you have other infractions against you (such as not looking at mirrors, etc.) you actually have LESS than 3 times to back up. In any case, don’t stop going unless they tell you the test is over and want you to return early.

So here’s my rundown of what you should be doing for your test. There’s are a lot of information already out there, so I may just repeating what’s already been said, but at least for my experience, it has held true.

- 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.

- 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 (my car didn’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.

- 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.

- For normal driving, you should be close to the left side; I’ve heard your left tires should be within 1m of the left curb. When in doubt, err to the left.

- Changing lanes: If you’re going to the right lane, check your rear view 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 30cm), wait for three seconds (if you have the space to do so), check 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.

- Turning: Left turns were part of what made me fail my first time. What you need to do for left turns is get really close to the left curb (within 30cm) 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 (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. But I did the same process as I did for my left turns (rear view check, signal, get close, then re-check before my turn) and I can’t imagine it would hurt. You can’t lose points for being too safe.

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 god forbid, 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.

- Speed: As I said, you can’t lose points for being too safe. But, unfortunately, driving too slow or stopping unnecessarily is unsafe for purposes of this test. You’ll be tempted to drive very slowly to make sure you get all your checks in and stop before turns where there’s no stop sign/light. Try to average 20/25 for most driving, you may be asked to get to 35/40 for long straightaways (even if they don’t ask, it doesn’t hurt to speed up to at least 30 if you have space). Obviously you’re going to take turns slow (don’t speed through them) and I believe for the crank and S curve, there’s no minimum speed requirement, so go as slow as you like (I think short of completely stopping for too long into the middle of the turn).

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. I’ve heard that 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.

- Stop sign/light: 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.

- The crank: 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 I can give 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.

- S curve: This is a lot easier than the crank in my mind, just 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.

- On road obstacles: 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 test: 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 30cm of the platform and within 30cm of the pole they ask you to stop at (either ahead or behind is fine, so you technically have 60cm 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.

Once the test is done, you’ll be brought back to the office to await the results of your test. You may or may not know how the test went already based on how the proctor reacted during/after the test. For my first time, he closed the notebook he was taking notes on halfway, in retrospect, a clear sign that I had already way too many marks against me. My second time, he asked where I practiced driving, as it was the same guy from before, so he clearly knew that something had to happen to make my driving immensely better.

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. I’ve heard 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).

If you pass, you’ll probably still get a few words of advice from your proctor but then the center staff will help you get your license printed within the next 1-2 hours. At that point, you can bid goodbye to the menkyo center, unless for some reason you’re in Japan long enough that you’ll need to renew your license. Another blog post for another time, that is.

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