General Information
The 2012 JET Programme General Information Handbook. Information related to driving in Japan can be found on page 75 of the pdf file.
A genius guide with just about everything you need to know about driving in Japan.

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Getting Your Japanese Driver's License

If you will be driving for more than one year after coming to Japan, you must change your license into a Japanese license. In Chiba this service is only available at the Chiba Driver and Vehicle Licensing Center (千葉運転免許センター Chiba Unten Menkyo Senta) in Makuhari 〒261-8560 千葉市美浜区浜田2丁目1番.
As all of the necessary procedures cannot be completed in the same day for most people, you can expect to be traveling to the License Center at least twice - once for the submission of documents and another time for the practical road test, making this a pretty time and money-consuming process. The practical road test is notorious for being difficult to pass on the first try, so it’s best to start your preparations as early as possible before your International Driving Permit expires.

If you have a license from any of the below countries, you only need to submit the documents and take the written test and eye exam:
France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada, and the Czech Republic

1) What to Prepare in Advance

Before actually going to the License Center, please prepare the below documents:
  • Original license (must show a date of issue of at least three months prior to arrival in Japan (1))
  • Official translation of license (must be issued by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) (2) or the embassy/consulate of the country your original license is from)
  • Residence Card
  • Copy of Resident Record (住民票 juminhyo) for JAF
  • Passport (3)
  • One photo (3cm x 2.4cm) (can be taken at the License Center while you are getting your paperwork processed)

2) Day 1: (Paperwork and) Written Test

If you don't have a translation of your license, you'll need to get one from JAF or your embassy/consulate. If you already have a translation skip to the written test!
The Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) in Chiba is about a minute's walk from Chiba Minato Station (千葉みなと駅) (on the Keiyo Line (京葉線) and Monorail). (Google maps link)

It's open 9:00-4:30 and the phone number is 043-301-0800. You will need to bring your passport, your Alien Registration card, your original license that says "Date Issued", and some money for fees (I believe it was less than 3000 yen). If your license does not state the words "Date Issued," make sure the JAF translator includes in the comments where on your license that date is listed and that it is the "Date Issued." The translation should be done very quickly and you can head to the driving center for the written test that same day.

The Driving Center is in Makuhari. From Chiba Minato, take the Keiyo Line towards Tokyo and get off at Kaihimmakuhari Station (海浜幕張駅), then take Bus #1 to the Driving Center (it will list 運転免許センター前 as one of the stops). You can also drive there and park in the huge parking lot next to the center (if you're going to drive there and you take the highway, get off the highway at the exit before the driving center, as the next exit is like halfway to Tokyo). (Google maps link)

It's open for accepting paperwork from 8:30-9am and 1:00-1:30pm on weekdays (no holidays). The phone number is 043-274-2000. You should bring all of the materials you've gathered so far and a book in case you're kept waiting.

First go to window 10, which is in the back right corner, and turn in your paperwork. They'll tell you to wait and then call you back and then tell you to wait. Then you'll be taken into a separate room to take the written test.

The written test is 10 true/false questions that test your basic driving knowledge. Most of them are about road rules and road signs, so if you never looked up what those signs meant you should do that. Here are some practice questions. They are pretty straightforward, but the English is not always perfectly translated, so if you can read the Japanese that helps. If not, you can probably tell what the question is trying to ask, so don't overthink it. It's exactly what you think it's asking.

After you finish the test, you'll be told if you passed or not. If not, you'll have to take the test again. If you passed, you'll go take an eye exam. If you need to take the practical test, then you'll also reserve your car for the practical test and pay the fee (about 2200 yen). You can also take your photo on your way out at the booth in the corner so you don't need to do next time.

3) Day 2: Practical Test

If you're from a country that is not listed above, then you'll also have to take the practical test, a.k.a. actually getting behind the wheel. Before taking the practical test you need to have completed the written test and reserved your car. You cannot do the practical on the same day as the written so don't get your hopes up.

You need to bring:
  • the written test paperwork you completed last time
  • original license
  • translation of license
  • residence card
  • money for the fee if you didn't pay it last time
  • one photo (can be taken at the booth in the license center)

Arrive at the license center at the time specified on your reservation and hand in your paperwork, then head back to the driving course. If you get there early you can walk the course; there are also maps in the waiting room so you can see what route you will take (there are multiple different routes though so make sure it's for conversion from a foreign license). The instructor will come out and explain the rules to you in Japanese. Sometimes they can say the rules in English, sometimes they don't seem to care, and sometimes they'll let a friend translate for you (it depends on your instructor). Basically he will tell you that you will instantly fail and be unable to complete the course if you hit a pole on the S turn or crank turn, or if you go up on a curb and drop down; you can go up on a curb, but you have to back down the way you came and try again. At the straightaway, you must accelerate to 40kph (but not too much over that) and follow the directions he gives you. You'll sit in the backseat while the person before you (if there is one) drives the course, so that is a good chance to see the course and get a feel for your instructor. Then you'll swap to the front and the next person (if there is one) will go after you.

There are a lot of theories on the internet on how to pass the driver's test, but generally if you drive carefully, naturally, and slowly, you're at least 80% of the way there. If you overthink every step then you'll make stupid mistakes like going too close to the curb or not stopping at red lights. Do some practice driving in a normal-sized car if you can and just pay attention to the road and whichever of these tips is most difficult for you personally. If you really struggle with it, it may be possible for you to take a lesson at a local driving school, but it will probably cost money so check with them and your budget.

  • Before getting in the car, walk around the car and look underneath it (checking for cats and children, duh!). When you sit down, adjust your mirrors, put on your seatbelt, adjust your seat--all very obviously and deliberately--then start the engine, signal, look for oncoming traffic, and go. You want the instructor to know that you are a super safety driver.
  • Before making any turn, make a 5-point look: over your left shoulder, left side mirror, rearview mirror, right side mirror, and over your right shoulder. It will feel dangerous to take your eyes off the road for so long and it is. Also use your turn signal; if it cuts out before you've finished the turn, put your signal on again.
  • When driving normally on the road, don't go too close to the center line. Some people say to stay to the left rather than the middle, but this is an easy step to overthink, but you definitely don't want to hug the right side of the road.
  • When you accelerate to 40kph (so you can handle the car "at high speeds"), don't go over 45kph or so. Some people say to pump the brakes when you slow down, I didn't and wasn't told anything, so it might depend on your instructor. Also trying to remember to pump the brakes can make you forget something basic like putting on your seatbelt!
  • When you make a turn with a white diamond on the road, turn BEFORE the diamond so your car doesn't touch the white paint. You'll notice you're aligned perfectly when you finish your turn!
  • When you make a left turn, make sure your car doesn't swerve right and go over the center line. You might see some people doing this on the road but it's totally villainous driving.
  • The first difficult part of the course is the crank turn. It's two 90-degree turns shaped kind of like a Z. Just use your driver's sense of how much room you have--if it's sunny you can see the light reflecting off the car onto the white poles-- and remember that you can go up on a curb and be safe (if you back down) but if you hit a pole, it's instant failure. You can back up as many times as you need and go as slow as necessary.
  • Next you'll do a couple more turns and go through an intersection with a light. Stop at the red light. Don't go over the white stop line.
  • Next you'll do the S-turn, which unsurprisingly is a turn shaped like an S. After the crank it's no big deal, just keep turning the wheel and go slowly.
  • Then you'll hit a railroad crossing, which means you have to come to a full stop before the tracks and proceed with caution. Some people say you have to roll down your window and listen for a train, but I didn't have to do that, nor have I seen anyone do that in real life.
  • Last is a visual obstruction, oh no!! You'll go through a road with severe privacy hedges. Go slow and stop when you reach the intersection, since you never know when a biker is coming.
  • The instructor will tell you which well to pull into, do so and put the car in park and turn it off (you can leave the keys in the ignition).

At this point the instructor will tell the person in the back to get out and wait. He'll give you some "points of advice" if you failed, and if you passed, he'll probably mutter "OK" and tell you to get out.

If you passed, congratulations!! Wait in the waiting room until someone comes to get you after everyone finishes. You'll then go do some more paperwork and take your license picture, then you're free to go on your merry car-driving way!

If you failed, well, almost everyone does at least a few times, so don't be too depressed. If you committed an Unforgivable like hitting a pole, don't do that next time. There might not be anything concrete you can put your finger on as to why you failed. Listen to the instructor's advice and hope you get a different one next time. Go back to the window and reserve your next appointment. Good luck!

Now for actually driving and caring for your car...
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