So, you want to get your Japanese license…
Congratulations! You have just embarked on the most soul-crushing journey of your life.
Here’s a very comprehensive and somewhat up-to-date guide (as of 06/2023) on how I passed the Maebashi AUTOMATIC driving test.
I’m sorry you have to do this.
~Written by a person who passed on their 4th try~
For information relating to the MANUAL driving test, I recommend you consult someone who has passed the manual test. The course is the same, but it is helpful to know what gear to switch to and when during the test.
Basic Key Points
Gunma Prefectural General Traffic Center, 80-4 Motosojamachi, Maebashi, Gunma 371-0846
(big stupid building by a very tiny river, across the street from a gym)
Always wear closed-toed shoes, otherwise they won’t let you take the test. In addition, I’ve been told that it’s helpful to make yourself very presentable to give them a good impression. You might consider wearing business casual, or at least modest clothing. I personally had to ride my bike to the center a lot, so I usually showed up in casual work-out type attire, mostly consisting of Uniqlo airism stuff. Some people have gone in business attire and it seemed to help them a bit. People in T-shirts still pass of course (me), but it’s something to consider.
Keep a positive attitude always when dealing with the staff and testers. I naturally smile and laugh/make light-hearted jokes when I’m nervous, which really helped me with the meanest staff members. They aren’t always mean unless you give them ammunition to act as such (which is very easy to do). If this is difficult for you, just do your best to relax. Use that “customer service” voice you might have learned in those crappy part-time restaurant/retail jobs. If you’ve never worked in those places, god help you.
Try, Try, Try Again
Treat every try like a practice test, especially the first test. “This time, I’m going to work on x.” Always aim to improve, don’t set your sights too high and don’t get your hopes up. You need to convince yourself that it’s OKAY to fail, even if it happens 5 or 10 or more times. I treated myself to a nice dinner every time I failed. Amazon shop the pain away. It’s okay to fail but keep improving each time. Here is how I went about it:
- 1st time: I’m going to get familiar with the layout and do my best
- 2nd time: I’m going to get more familiar and improve what I did wrong last time
- 3rd ~ nth time: I’m going to improve, improve, improve.
Try not to compare yourself to others, especially if they’re taking the manual test; they’ve got a whole different beast to deal with. But just for reference: most ALTs I know have taken the test at least 3-5 times. Some more, some less. Your mileage may vary, but 3 tries seems to be the average among Americans that I know. There are so many factors at play, so it’s difficult to determine how many tries it will take for you personally.
Every tester is a retired cop with an ax to grind, basically. Some will give you feedback, some won’t. Some will yell at you, some will give you directions for where to go during the test and others will say absolutely nothing and expect you to be some mind-reading savant. They will each fixate on something you’re doing wrong and sometimes (from what it seemed to me) they’ll fixate to the point that they seem to ignore every other thing you’re doing right/wrong. I think they do make notes about things you consistently do wrong. For me, it was the way I looked around (I did it too much, or too fast, or at the wrong times, etc.). For others, it might be not moving over enough while turning, or braking too much/not enough, not turning smoothly enough, etc. If you keep failing, you might suss out what is your ultimate weakness and focus a little more on that for future tries.
Before the test, you will have the opportunity to look out the windows at the course itself. Study the layout of the course in real life. You might get disoriented like I did, so make sure when you are on the ground floor that you can get a quick feel of where the starting point is facing. You might get disoriented right at the start or end. That’s okay, just do your best and be vigilant.
There are a number of ways you can get familiar with the course. Here are a few that I’ve gleaned from my experience and the experiences of others:
- Study the map – They give you a printed out diagram of the course map (I’ve notated and highlighted my own, which is attached to this guide in the Diagrams/Guides section). Practice the course in your head while sitting in an office chair that swivels, doing the motions as you go.
- Walk the course – I actually did not know you could do this, but supposedly if you go to the traffic center during lunch break (probably around 12-1pm), they will let you just walk around on the course itself. A lot of people do this. Try it for yourself! Please note you are not allowed to take pictures or videos.
- Just take the test – for some people like myself, the best way to get familiar is to just take the test. You’ll get familiar with it one way or another!
When they call your number, answer with a clear, firm “はい！” and follow in the correct order.
Crossing the street
Never step into the street or walk anywhere other than on the sidewalk and on the green crosswalk part. Always look both ways before crossing the street (you’d think that’s obvious, but I still frequently saw people breaking this rule).
Getting in the car
According to the driving school, this is the order of operations when you get in the car:
- Lock door
- Adjust seat
- Adjust mirrors
- Turn on car (the car will already be on for the test, so skip this step)
- Shift to drive
- Remove E-Brake
Getting out of the car
Order of operations when getting out of the car:
- E-brake on
- Car in park
- Foot off brake
- Seatbelt off
- Unlock door
- After you get out DON’T FORGET TO CLOSE THE DOOR. The test technically ends when you shut it. Don’t leave it open for the next person; it’s every man for himself out there.
Turns and Curves
Drive 15kph or less on turns/curves but keep to a speed of about 25-30kph on straight ways. There is a part in the beginning after the first obstacle that you must maintain a minimum speed of 30kph or so. (30-35kph is fine. Probably 25kph is fine too). You can absolutely drive too slowly on the Maebashi test, so be careful.
- Drive smoothly on curves and turns, meaning don’t brake while turning. Always break to 15kph or under BEFORE the turn.
- Always look at the center rearview mirror and respective side mirror BEFORE indicating. (Center – Left mirror = turn left. Center – right mirror = turn right), indicate, move left/right, then check your shoulder. Look all the way back, turning your body slightly, THEN turn. Always start this process at least 30m before you turn (give yourself plenty of time to do all the checks at a comfortable pace. Obviously sometimes it’s hard when there’s a turn right after a turn, but in that case slow down to give yourself time to do all the checks in the proper order).
- Always look over your shoulder quickly before turning, but NOT WHILE turning. I got dinged for that a lot.
- Be careful not to cross into the other lane while turning. Hug the white line.
- When turning onto a two same-way lane road, you must end up in the left-most lane unless you need to be in the right lane to turn. It’s weird and dumb because it’s the opposite in the USA.
Many people will tell you that you have to look at every mirror constantly, or look around really obnoxiously, and this is simply not true. DO NOT just constantly look around. I kept failing because they determined that I was looking too erratically and often at the wrong times (especially during turns, which you should not do. Always look forward while turning.)
- When you “kakunin” (check), you must do it pointedly, and with purpose, and you will not need to look at every mirror at every check. Don’t just look all over the place constantly, checking “left, right, left, right, all mirrors, shoulder, etc.” That makes you a dangerous driver and gives them an excuse to fail you because they know you aren’t really looking. Before turns, you will always have to look at only two mirrors: Center, and one side mirror, depending on the turn. Left turn? Center, left mirror. Right turn? Center, right mirror. In that order.
- It’s helpful to verbalize things you do during the test, especially when you make checks. This helps the tester know that you are checking things so they can’t easily argue that you weren’t “looking” at your mirrors and so forth. I tend to parrot Japanese phrases I learn, so I picked the word “kakunin” up from the driving school. The instructor would say, “ミラー (center mirror)、ミラー (left or right mirror)、ブリンカー (blinker)、ショルダー (shoulder)、かくにんして (look right/left or both ways)” and I’d just say “かくにんです” whenever I “checked” right/left or both. You might also say “ミラー” or “はい” softly while checking the mirrors, but I didn’t do that because I didn’t want to annoy the tester (they get that way sometimes).
Center line goes through the center of the car when driving around obstacles
Always slow just a little bit before driving through an intersection (let go of the gas, or lightly use the brakes, but don’t fully brake). Look at the street (right and left, or whichever direction traffic can possibly come from) just before crossing the intersection.
- Toward the middle of the test, there is a blind intersection with bushes. Slow down a bit before passing through it. Don’t stop.
Watch hand positions. Hold 10-2 o’clock positions, thumbs up like you’re holding a game controller kind of (but relaxed), and turn with the over-hand technique. Don’t ever let go of the wheel while driving.
On the 50kph part, the trick is to start accelerating as soon as they prompt you, press the gas until you reach 48kph, and then IMMEDIATELY let go. 48-50kph is a pass, so once you’ve reached the threshold, you’re golden.
Crank and S-Curve
If you have trouble with the crank turn, make sure to take the back of the car into account when turning. DON’T STOP on the crank or S-curve, but you can tap the break or gas lightly. Always take them smoothly and at a consistent speed (5kph or under)
Sometimes they give feedback during the test, sometimes after, sometimes never. If they don’t give feedback afterward, that’s usually a fair indication that you passed. They gave me no feedback when I passed, but I’ve heard some people receive feedback and still pass, and vice versa. It’s a mixed bag.
- If they give advice at the end, always answer, “はい！ありがとうございます!” or “わかりました!” even if you don’t understand them. Don’t poke the bear with clarifying questions. Sometimes they’re nice and will ask if you understand Japanese before giving you advice (that tripped me up once, haha). Sometimes they’ll just rattle off what you did wrong and your head will spin. Just do your best to listen and maybe ask the other test takers later what a certain phrase meant if you’re not sure. Most of the people there understand a little Japanese. My N4 level Japanese was perfectly sufficient for me most of the time.
- Also, if they feel compelled to give lots of directions during the test, or they have to prompt you to do things (i.e. “Go,” “Stop,” etc.), that’s a sign that you’re going too fast/too slow, or making mistakes. I had the toughest tester on my 4th try, and I basically shut him up by making turns and doing all the proper actions without him needing to say a word half the time.
- Try not to ask questions during the test, or after—or ever, really. Don’t ask questions. They’ll just bark that “this isn’t a driving school” or that “you should have memorized the course.” Showing any uncertainty will give them an excuse to fail you. Be confident but careful.
Don't go right off the bat!
For some people, the best way to pass the test is to fail a couple times. You very likely will fail, especially the first time, and that’s okay. However, I was recommended to take the test at least 3 times before going to the driving schools. I have some friends that passed without taking the schools, and I have friends that still failed even after going to the driving schools. You really have to give yourself a few tries on the main test before you can hone your skills. I waited until after my 3rd try to go to the Amagawa Maebashi Training School twice. I passed the 4th try thanks to those practice lessons. They are NOT a guarantee that you’ll pass, but they can help tremendously.
But you SHOULD go, and then SHOW OFF
I’ve been told that going to the driving school was the key to passing for some people. They would do the test perfectly and still fail because some testers really just want to see that you’ve gone to the driving school at least once (OR that you’ve been studying in general [coughcoughprint this guide outcough]). If you go, be sure to place that stamped and dated practice test permission notice right on top of your documents to show that you’ve gone. They won’t ever ask for that paper, but they’ll look for it while you’re testing. Keep any notes and study papers in with your docs too. Annotate those suckers. SHOW THEM YOU’RE TRYING!!!
How to go
You have to fail the test at least once before you can ASK THE STAFF for a paper that gives you permission to go to the driving school for practice sessions. When you schedule your next driving test at the main window, you want to say, “れんしゅうしたいんです。” (I want to practice) or if you want to sound really super polite, I’d say, “れんしゅうのかみがほしいんですけれども。” (I would like the practice test paper, if that’s okay.) The more formal and complete your Japanese sentences are, the nicer they’ll be, but they’re more than happy to give you a chance to give them more money. If you still fail the test after taking practice sessions, you don’t need a new paper. Just keep taking the same one each time you go to the schools.
There are two driving schools in Maebashi, and each one as far as I know charges ~11,000yen the first time, and then 4800~5500yen each subsequent time. It’s worth it, in my opinion, to go at least once or twice. I recommend Amagawa because the staff are super nice, and they had a lot more flexibility during the summer months (You can also take practice lessons on Saturdays there!!).
Something to note
The courses at the driving schools are NOT the same as the traffic center test. They have some of the same features (crank, S-curve), but they are specifically designed differently so that you have to learn to apply the skills to the main test, not just do the test over and over like a robot.
Dianne's Big Dumb Point-By-Point Guide lol
- KAKUNIN (かくにん) = “Check” Right/Left side or both
- CENTER = Look at center Mirror
- SHOULDER = Look over relevant shoulder
- WAITING ROOM: When they call your number, answer “はい” and follow.
- CROSSING STREET: Look both ways before crossing the street. ONLY walk on the green part.
- NOTE: WHICH LANE you start at (1, 2 or 3) which is where you will END at, and pull up to the farthest pole if there isn’t a car ahead of you when you finish.
- CAR: If you are first, wait for everyone to get in the car, inspect everywhere starting from the back, passenger side, check for traffic before stepping in front of the car, including under the car, glance at the driver’s side, check for traffic again, and open the door to get in the car with BOTH HANDS, traffic check, shut the door with BOTH HANDS.
- PAPERS: Hand them papers with “よろしくおねがいします”.
- LOCK DOOR
- ADJUST SEAT
- ADJUST MIRRORS: TOUCH CENTER – LEFT – RIGHT. LOOK AT EACH MIRROR FOR 3 SECONDS
- (Possible brownie points: Ask “シートベルトだいじょうぶですか” to everyone in the car. )
- (Extra brownie points: Ask if you can start, “はじめてもいいですか” )
- RIGHT HAND ON WHEEL
- FOOT ON BRAKE
- CAR IN DRIVE
- E-BRAKE OFF
- CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, SHOULDER. Physically turn head almost to where you can see the backseat passenger.
- START: Announce, “はい。はじめます。” Pull out.
- FIRST TURN: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, get as close to the right side as possible. Slow. KAKUNIN LEFT/RIGHT, SHOULDER, and turn.
- OBSTACLE: Go about 15km
- BEFORE obstacle: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, SHOULDER, move right, drive with center line going through the car.
- Immediately after moving right: CENTER – LEFT MIRROR, BLINKER, SHOULDER, merge left. Start this quickly and smoothly.
- AFTER obstacle, pick up speed to about 25-30km.
- CURVE: ALL CURVES SLOW DOWN BEFORE, THEN MAX 15KM. SMOOTH.
- INTERSECTION: Keep an eye out for the intersection right before the next curve, let off the gas, KAKUNIN RIGHT, LEFT, go.
- CURVE: SLOW DOWN to about 15km, then let off the brake and idle through the curve.
- 50KPH PART: When they tell you to, immediately press on gas until 48kph and immediately let off (so you just barely hit the minimum speed while giving yourself a buffer in case the speed goes up a notch or two)
- BRAKE X3: Immediately slow down, pushing brakes 3 times: softly, then a bit more, then a bit more than the last.
- CURVE: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, turn 15km – This is the only time you will use your blinker before a curve because, for some reason, they always want you to indicate at least 30m before an actual turn. This curve happens within 30m of the next turn, so that’s why you’re going to indicate before the curve. Otherwise you NEVER need to use the blinker for regular curves.
- TURN RIGHT: LOOK RIGHT, move right, SHOULDER, *DON’T STOP* then turn and end up in the far-left lane
- SPEED: Go about 30km.
- STOPLIGHT: Yellow/Red: STOP SMOOTHLY before limit line, Green: let off gas, KAKUNIN RIGHT, LEFT, GO.
- After stoplight, before BUSH: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, SHOULDER, turn right at the giant bush. Blinker still on.
- RIGHT TURN: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, SHOULDER. Turn right again, enter crank.
- CRANK: idle through, NEVER stop. Keep 5kph or under. At the end: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER, STOP. KAKUNIN LEFT, RIGHT, SHOULDER, turn right out of the crank.
- CENTER – LEFT MIRROR, BLINKER, SHOULDER. Immediately turn left into S-curve.
- S-CURVE: Idle through again, 5kph or under, NEVER stop. Once you reach the end of it, CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER and keep it on (it will reset as you turn but it’s fine). STOP. KAKUNIN LEFT, RIGHT. SHOULDER. Turn.
- LISTEN for directions:
- LEFT turn (ひだりへむがって) = go back to start. That’s a fail
- RIGHT turn（みぎへむがって） = keep going. There’s still hope!
- STOPLIGHT: CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER. Hug the right line. Green: KAKUNIN LEFT, RIGHT, SHOULDER, turn.
- BUSH AGAIN: let off gas, LOOK LEFT, RIGHT before crossing through, go straight. This is the blind intersection. Be careful.
- STOP SIGN: Just after passing the bush, CENTER – LEFT MIRROR, BLINKER, MOVE LEFT. Continue to stop sign, stop smoothly before the limit line. KAKUNIN RIGHT, LEFT. Pull up slowly, SHOULDER, KAKUNIN RIGHT AGAIN, turn.
- CURVE: Last curve, 15km
- LEFT TURN: Just after the curve, CENTER – LEFT MIRROR, BLINKER. Move left, SHOULDER. Turn left at “B”.
- STOPLIGHT: Just after left turn, CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER. KAKUNIN LEFT, RIGHT, SHOULDER. Turn right at the light when green.
- TURN RIGHT: Just after light, CENTER – RIGHT MIRROR, BLINKER. Move right. SHOULDER, turn right into the correct numbered lane (1, 2, or 3).
- FINISH: CENTER – LEFT MIRROR, BLINKER, pull over to left, hug the curb. STOP when the pole is aligned with the front of the hood. Keep the blinker on.
- E-BRAKE ON
- CAR IN PARK
- FOOT OFF PEDAL
- Leave blinker on with both hands on the wheel and WAIT.
- PAPERS: They will hand your papers over. If advice is given, reply “はい。ありがとうございます!” Otherwise, if they say “おつかれさまでした” then you ariGETTO out of there—politely. Carefully.
- SEATBELT OFF
- UNLOCK DOOR, RIGHT MIRROR.
- DOOR: Open door with BOTH HANDS slightly, SHOULDER. Get out, CLOSE DOOR with BOTH HANDS.
Diagrams and Guides
If they don’t collect the driving school papers (sometimes they do; in my case they didn’t), make sure the stamp page sits right on top of your documents when you hand them to the tester.
Picking up your license
You will have to go for another 1pm-5pm stretch because they have to take your paperwork at 1pm, put it on a desk for 3 hours to ripen, then they actually start making your license at 4pm, after which they give it to you by 5pm.
Something something, there are certain circumstances that determine if you need to use the “new driver” stickers on your car for a year or not. I think it depends on how much proof you provide that you’ve driven in your respective home country for longer than a few months. I had just renewed my license before coming to Japan and for some stupid reason, my California driving records from the DMV only showed records for my renewed license, not for the years prior. So I guess I wasn’t exempt from using the new driver stickers because of that. I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter because new drivers stickers are a dollar at Daiso. Just keep that in mind.
FYI: Be sure to keep the new driver’s stickers on your car for one whole year. You will be fined if the police find out you didn’t use the stickers during the required period.