This article is about getting a Japanese drivers license from scratch at a designated driving school (指定自動車教習所). (If you have a valid license in your home country, consider converting it to a Japanese license through the process described here. Even if you must take some tests, the process will generally be much shorter.) The benefit of attending a designated driving school is that, upon successful completion of the entire course, you will be exempt from the testing center’s practical driving test and also be prepared for the final written test, which is why the majority of new drivers in Japan choose this option.
There are two types of designated driving schools: schools that you attend over an extended period of time as fits your schedule (通学, tsugaku) and those where you stay on site and study intensely to get your license in about two weeks (合宿, gasshuku). Either way, you will be attending a total of 57 (automatic) or 60 (manual) hours of classes. Schools tend to have similar rates (although gasshuku tends to be less expensive than tsugaku in the off-season), so shop around and choose one based on the type, location, and style that best fits you. A list of all designated driving schools in Saga Prefecture can be found here.
第一段階 Stage 1
Upon enrollment, you will start the first half of the course work, Stage 1. Upon completion of Stage 1 and its tests, you will receive a learners permit. There are two sorts of classes: 10 informational lessons taken in the classroom called “gakka” (学科) and 12 (automatic) or 15 (manual) practical (技能) driving lessons behind the wheel on the school’s course. At my school, students are also asked to do a lengthy personality test on enrollment, the results of which are reviewed in one of the Stage 2 gakka.
After taking all the Stage 1 gakka and successfully completing the practical lessons, you can take the Stage 1 test.
**Note: The practical test at this stage is identical to the driving test foreign drivers take to convert their license, meaning you can find plenty of accounts in English of what it’s like. 🙂
Hannah’s Stage 1 Test Experience
There were three potential courses for the Stage 1 driving test, announced the morning of the test itself. Students take the test one at a time, and those waiting their turn ride in the backseat of the student taking their test. I was the first to take the driving test, so I didn’t have a chance to watch the others and mentally practice. After completing the course, parking, and properly exiting the car, I was told to wait in the lobby while the others completed their tests. This was nerve-wracking, as we wouldn’t get our results until everyone had finished. But luckily we all passed! (If you don’t pass, you must pay for both an extra review lesson and for a second test.)
Next was the written test. We were joined by a few others who had previously passed the driving test before but failed the written test. This was a 50-question test, with questions on the information covered in the gakka. You need to score 90% to pass. I read the textbook thoroughly and also used my school’s study app quite a bit, so this was not that difficult. I did become the talk of the school, as my 98% was the highest grade of the day. haha
Passing the Stage 1 tests earns you a learners permit (仮免許), meaning you can now drive on public roads, and it promotes you to Stage 2. (If you fail, you must take the written test again.)
**Note: You don’t have to get a learners permit through a designated driving school. However, before you can take the final driving test, you will then have to document that you drove 10+ hours on 5+ days with someone who has a Japanese drivers license that has been valid for at least 3 years or who is a registered driving instructor.
第二段階 Stage 2
Stage 2 features 16 gakka and 19 practical classes. Of note, gakka include a 3-period CPR lesson and the practical classes will be conducted almost entirely on public roads and include two hours on the highway. My school also had a 2-hour mountain driving lesson (Driving to Kase Dam and back) and lots of parallel parking and reverse parking practice.
Upon completing all the Stage 2 gakka and practical classes, you can take the final driving test. My school has four potential courses for this test: course 1 and 2 done as a set with parallel parking, and course 3 and 4 down as a set with reverse parking. One test-taker will complete the first course in the set while the paired test-taker rides in back, then they switch for the second course.
**Note: The majority of these tests are done on real roads, with the test-taker stopping and parking at designated spots, and finishes on the school course with the final parking test. None of this is done by those converting their foreign license, meaning there is very little information to be found in English.
Hannah’s Stage 2 Test Experience
I was the only test-taker that day, so the principal rode in back as an observer. It is required that a third party observe the test, and normally this would be done by the pair test-taker. This ended up being better for me in the end as the principal is friendly and put me at ease.
For the test we drove course 1, stopping and parking as required. I made some mistakes, but managed to get through it well enough. The course ends when the test-taker has parked, says “I have parked the car,” and then safely exits the car and walks to the sidewalk. But on my test day it was pouring, so I was told to immediately get in the back seat. There was also a lot of traffic, meaning it took a few minutes to have a chance to exit. No worries though; you are graded on safety, not speed.
Next, the examiner drove us back to the school, and I was asked to parallel park. Grading starts when you approach the parking area, and ends after you’ve parked the car and successfully exited the spot. I was nervous and my parking was pretty shallow, but I managed to do it well enough.
After a lecture on my mistakes, I was told to wait in the lobby for my results. 10 minutes later, I was told I passed! After the necessary documents were prepared, I had “graduation.” This included instruction on how to go take my final written test, and then handing over of my certificate and a set of new driver magnets from the principal.
Getting Your License
Those who pass the Stage 2 test are given a certificate of completion (valid for one year). With this, you can head to the testing center and after passing a vision test and the final written test (95-questions, 90%+ is a pass) you can finally get your drivers license (本免許)!
I went to the testing center, 佐賀県運転免許試験場 (at 自動車試験場前 bus stop on Saga City Bus 30), which is next to the Drivers Center 佐賀県運転免許センター (this is where you will go if you need to renew or update your license in the future) the following day. I took the bus at 7:40 and arrived a little before 8:30. After getting my paperwork sorted out at the information desk (総合案内）, I checked-in at the appropriate window and got my testing number. I told them I wanted to take the test in Japanese, but it is also offered in English. The test is 1750 yen, which you must pay for with revenue stamps. I then had a short vision check. At this point, I realized I didn’t have a pencil!! But luckily they sell pencils at the information desk for 60 yen.
We were seated in rows based on license type (MT, AT, semi mid-sized, scooter, and learner’s permit) and whether we had gone to school or were self-taught. Registration officially closed at 9:30, and we were then given a 30 minute explanation of the procedures before the test itself started at 10:00. The test content was not much different from what I had studied, but there were a number of distractions (the learner’s permit people were shown out at 10:30 and the proctor spoke quite a few times) and the mark sheet took longer to fill in than I had expected, so it took me the full 50 minutes to complete.
At 10:50 our tests were collected and we went downstairs to wait for the results on the monitors. My number was shown, meaning I had passed! Self-learners were then to take the final driving test, whereas those of us who had graduated driving school had a short info session, and then just had to wait for a lecture and photo session at 1:00. Thus, we had nearly two hours to kill. (There is very little around the testing center! I highly recommend bringing something to occupy your time and also packing a lunch if the surrounding restaurants don’t look appealing. Like my fellow test-passers, I napped on the sofas after eating. lol)
**Note: Those who fail need to collect all the documents they submitted earlier and return on another day for the test. To take it again, they will need to pay the 1750 yen once again. Those who fail can also ask the staff to tell them their score as a reference for how close they were to passing. But if you pass, they won’t tell you. T_T
At 1:00 we completed some final paperwork, then had our photos taken and bought the 2050 yen worth of revenue stamps to pay for the license itself. We then had a final lecture about license renewal and were asked to make a donation (voluntary, but it looks kind of bad if you don’t pay. f(^^;;), then finally got our licenses! The proctor said this process can take hours during peak season (March and summer vacation), but we were out before 2:00.
Other Types of Schools
Though less common than designated schools, there are other types of driving schools in Japan. Registered driving schools (届出自動車教習所) also teach students how to drive and can offer flexibility and the required proof of driving practice, but students will still have to take the final driving test at the testing center in the end. There are also unregistered driving schools (無届教習所), which are most commonly used by “paper drivers” (those who have a license, but rarely or never drive) as a way to practice driving.