Learning How to Drive in Japan, from Zero to Driving Hero
In a previous article, we covered how to convert a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese license.
But what if you want to learn how to drive from scratch?
Learning to drive in Japan often involves enrolling in a driving school. But there are designated driving schools and non-designated driving schools, boarding-style schools and non-boarding schools, and more.
Get ready for a crash course on everything you should know about learning how to drive in Japan.
The really simplified version
Most Japanese will go through technical and academic lessons at driving schools, after which they take the final driving and writing exam.
First, you enroll and then take an aptitude test to see if you are physically fit to drive. With that out of the way, the rest can roughly be divided into two stages.
Stage 1 is practicing basic driving maneuvers on school grounds + learning essential traffic rules, which concludes by taking writing and driving tests for the learner’s permit 仮免＝karimen (short for 仮免許＝karimenkyo).
With your learner’s permit in hand, Stage 2 involves practicing on public roads, deepening knowledge of traffic rules through further study, taking first-aid and hazard-anticipation classes, and practicing driving on the highway.
After completing the necessary classes and driving practice, you will then take a driving exam to graduate from your school, which is then followed up by a written exam at a Driving License Center. Successfully passing the final exam at the Driving License Center will give you the full driver’s license 本免＝honmen (short for本免許＝honmenkyo).
Here’s a generalized step-by-step of the stages of study and exams to pass:
Step 1: Enroll in a driving school, and take an aptitude test.
Step 2: Stage 1 lessons (driving practice on driving school grounds + coursework).
Step 3: Learner’s permit written exam (50 questions).
Step 4: Learner’s permit driving test (driving school grounds).
Step 5: Receive your learner’s permit.
Step 6: Stage 2 lessons (driving practice on public roads + coursework).
Step 7: Driving exam to graduate (public roads).
Step 8: Receive graduation certificate.
Step 9: Within 1 year, pass the final written exam (95 questions) at a Driving License Center.
Step 10: Receive your driver’s license.
The typical cost of a driving school in Japan is between ¥240,000 to ¥330,000.
The more detailed version of learning to drive in Japan
The fastest possible timeframe for an automatic license is 2 weeks, but the average time it takes for most individuals to complete their studies and pass tests is 2 to 3 months.
There’s a time limit to know about, too: you must pass all tests within 9 months of enrolling and taking your aptitude test. If you don’t pass your final driving tests before 9 months are up, you will need to re-enroll and start over again from the beginning.
It is not mandatory to enroll in a driving school to be eligible to take the tests, which means you are free to self-study if you wish. However, if you choose to self-study, you are required to
practice on public roads for at least 5 days within 3 months before the final tests with a qualified instructor
record the results of your practice on the Roadside Practice Report Form (PDF)
have a sign that says you are practicing with a learner’s permit, 仮免 練習中, clearly visible on the front and rear of your vehicle, fixed at least 0.4m to 1.2m above the ground
For more details about the requirements of practicing on public streets, check here (Japanese).
The learner’s permit is called 仮運転免許証 = kariuntenmenkyoshou and is a provisional license for the type of driver’s license you are studying for.
The biggest difference between the learner’s permit (karimen) and the driver’s license (honmen) is that you are not allowed to use your learner’s permit for any purpose other than practicing driving on the road or taking the final driver’s license test, while there are no restrictions for your driver’s license.
Your learner’s permit will be valid only for six months. So if you do not pass the final driving test within that time frame, you will need to retake the writing and driving test for your learner’s permit again.
Make sure your schedule is open enough for studying, practicing, and sitting for exams so you can complete your driving license studies and tests within six months after getting your learner’s permit.
The different types of driving schools in Japan
While we mentioned that self-study is allowed, here are the two primary ways that people in Japan get their licenses.
Attending classes by commute. The first way is by attending classes at a driving school when you have the time, on weekends, holidays, evenings, etc., by commuting to school from home, 通学 = tsuugaku.
Going to a study camp. The second way is going to a study camp, 合宿免許 = gasshuku menkyo, where you stay at a dorm or a hotel partnered with the school for an intense 2 to 3 weeks of cramming practice and study, concluding with the final driving test.
A study camp will grant you a graduation certificate in the end. In contrast, if you are commuting to school, you might not receive a graduation certificate, depending on whether the school is designated or non-designated.
Designated schools are schools officially recognized by the Public Safety Commission that fulfill the standards and requirements of their curriculum. Most tests (both for a learner’s permit and the final driving test, but not the final writing test) can be done at designated driving schools, and test fees are usually included in the learning course you purchase. After passing the final driving test at a designated school, you will be issued a graduation certificate that grants you a whole year to take the final written exam given at a Driver’s License Center.
Non-designated driving schools have a fluid schedule and varying teaching methods, giving learners more flexibility and freedom in dictating how fast or how slow or even how many classes it will take them to pass the exams. Non-designated driving schools tend to have lower prices because of comparatively shorter learning periods. However, because they follow their own curriculum, all tests must be done at designated exam centers, and learners pay-as-they-go for exams.
If you have the confidence to pass on your first try, non-designated schools are a reasonable option, but the process may quickly become pricier than first expected if it takes you more than a few tries to pass.
Additionally, not all non-designated schools teach mandatory classes取得時講習= shutokujikoushuu (first aid, hazard anticipation, driving on the highway) that you must take to get your license. But designated schools will have these mandatory classes already included in their curriculum.
When deciding which schools to enroll in, be on the lookout for the following keywords:
指定自動車教習所 = shitei jidousha kyoushuujyo (designated driving school)
特定届出教習所 = tokuteitodokedekyoushuujyo (non-designated driving schools that teach mandatory classes)
届出教習所 = todokedekyoushuujyo (non-designated driving schools that do not teach mandatory classes)
This site (Japanese) lists all the designated schools in Japan. Alternatively, before enrolling in a driving school, call to find out if the school is a designated school or not.
Bonus: Foreign-friendly driving schools and gasshuku-menkyos
Many driving schools in Japan are equipped with English textbooks, and most designated exam centers allow exams in English plus some other languages. But instructors fluent in English are a rarity.
However, for your reference, here are our picks of the top international driving schools that provide lessons in English and are rated highly on various third-party review sites.
One of the highest-rated driving schools in the Kanto area, EDS has offices in Tokyo and Saitama, offering courses in both English and Japanese. Because they are a non-designated school, you can book by individual classes or a course, whichever suits your needs. They even have academic classes done remotely on Zoom. To get in touch, make sure you add their LINE account, as they only accept calls and messages through LINE.
Although this school is also a non-designated school, it is a school that teaches mandatory classes so you won’t have to book special classes with other schools after passing the final tests. The greatest feature of this school is that it has many experienced and certified instructors from different countries, enabling students who can barely speak a word of Japanese to learn in their native tongue. This school has academic courses conducted online as well. Get in touch to see if they have instructors and textbooks in your native language.
Koyama Driving School is a designated school with 4 branches in Tokyo and 1 in Kanagawa. You will be issued a graduation certificate after passing the final driving test hosted by the school. This school has English-speaking instructors who teach the academic classes fully in English (but not other languages). With one of the most reviews on Google Maps for driving schools, this school seems to be a popular choice for English-speaking foreign residents.
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