Passing the Japanese driver's license test

April 2013

Japan's culture is deep with tradition and set methods of doing things a certain way. From the way a sumo wrestler throws salt before a wrestling bout, to the number of times a tea cup is turned during a tea ceremony (as well as the manner in which the napkin is folded), Japanese culture is very set in having things done a certain way. As a result, typically speaking, Japanese culture values form over substance.

It is for this reason that I was very apprehensive about taking the dreaded test for obtaining a Japanese driver's license. From what I had been told by others and from what I had read, this is not a test to determine if you are a safe driver who drives in a logical manner. It is a test to determining whether or not you are good at memorizing the method required to pass the Japanese driving test.

In Japan, the driving age is 18. I completely agree with this, because I think that 16 year old kids are far too irresponsible to drive. I didn't start driving until I was 18, and I think I am better off for it. Going to driving school in Japan can cost an outrageous amount of money (I think at least a thousand dollars US or so), but fortunately since I already have a driver's license from the state of Arizona, all I needed to do was pass a snicker-inducing way too easy 10 true/false questions and take the practical test behind the wheel on a closed course. People from other countries in which the national government issues drivers' licenses have it easy, and that they can just have their own license translated into a Japanese one without taking the practical test. However, since there is no universal standard for driving tests among America's 50 states, Japan cannot agree upon these standards for each state and instead they require that Americans take the driving test. This may seem unfair, and in my opinion it would be better to have everyone take the practical test in Japan. Americans are forced to study hard for the test and learn what the various signs mean. Some guys from England, for example, can not read a single kanji and yet they get their Japanese driver's license practically handed to them automatically.

Just getting to be able to take the test was a rather annoying ordeal. I think I needed to have a valid U.S. driver's license issued 6 months or more prior to me moving to Japan. That's fine, because even though I had considered updating it to a new one with my father's address, I never did. The problem is that I had to prove that I lived in the US for that 6 months before moving to Japan. This sounds ridiculous, and I was rather incredulous when the police department official looked at my passport and said that there was no stamp for entry into the US from the U.S. immigration. Well, duh! I'm an American citizen. Why would U.S. immigration stamp my entry and departure? Only Japan did that because I was I was visiting Japan. She told me that if I had some sort of tracking of my life during those months, like credit card or bank account statements, then there would be no problem. In the end, I was able to use my payroll statements and they could verify the 6 continuous months that way. What a pain. It's a good thing that I had them, she told me, because in her experience, other foreigners weren't so lucky. Well, I think in terms of preparedness for the potentiality of an IRS audit, we are required to keep our pay statements for up to 7 or so years. If I had somehow lost that stuff, I guess I would have needed to go to an Internet cafe and print out six months' worth of bank account statements.

While taking the practical driving test in Arizona in 1994 when I was 18 years old, I remember that I had to walk around the car once before getting in. I had to make sure to stop completely at stop signs and check my mirrors while turning. My hands had to be at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel. That was easy. Here in Japan, you must stoop to inspect the underneath of the car in both the front and the back, then look both ways before getting into the car. There is a certain method for checking your mirrors while turning. Driving down the center of the lane, which is the logical and safest place to be, will dock you points in Japan. The expectations for body behavior while taking the practical test in Japan is something akin to synchronized swimming, demanding precise body movements and such. You can't just check your mirrors; you have to exaggerate your head movements to make sure that the test proctor knows that you are taking your mirrors. In fact, everything seems to be exaggerated behavior, and instead of smoothly braking before a turn, you must pump your brakes to make it obvious that you are braking. Forget about subtlety. Each body movement must be deliberate and obvious. They may as well make the Japanese practical driving test an Olympic sport or something.

On the morning I took my test, the first wave of test takers went ahead while I was still waiting for my name to be called. Afterwards, they were all standing in the lobby, waiting for the results of the tests to be displayed. When the names of those who passed the test saw their names displayed on the digital monitor, they were exclaiming and jumping for joy as if they had just won on a game show like the Price is Right or Wheel of Fortune. Why are they so excited over it? How many times did they fail for them to get so excited like this? How hard is it to pass this test, really? I figured that this was not a good sign. On top of this, when I took the practical test in Arizona, I was driving on real streets and it felt real. But driving on a closed make-believe circuit, I felt doomed because the experience would feel so detached from reality. I am not good at pretending.

Perhaps in the future, driving tests will be administered in holodecks.

Regardless, after plenty of studying, I thought that I had a good handle of things and felt ready for the practical test. I got a 10 out of 10 on the written test, as it was so easy it felt silly. "It's okay to drink alcohol or take sedatives before driving. True/False?" Duhr-hey. So, I had confidence as I stepped outside of the building to get into the car. As I was checking the front and back of the car, the test proctor invited me to get into the car and I felt silly for stooping so low to check to see if some kitten or a madman was hiding under the car. Did I need to look under the car after all, or what? Then I got into the car and there was some dude who got into the back seat. I thought to myself, "Who the heck is this guy, and what is he doing here?" On top of that, I could not use my own car, and I had to use the test car that I was completely unfamiliar with. If it was a rental car, I could clumsily drive it around for a half hour before I got used to it. But this was my test, and I was expected to get used to it after one lap around the test track. I released the parking brake, set the car into gear, and turned on my turn signal. Or was I supposed to turn on the signal first, then put in gear, and then finally release the parking brake? I started panicking a bit, especially as I fumbled with the unfamiliar gear shift. The car had an option to shift up and down manually to enhance fuel economy, and I accidentally shifted the car into this mode. The proctor pointed this out, and I bashfully apologized. Was I checking over my shoulders enough before pulling into the street? While making a right turn, do I look left then right, or right then left? Oh crap! I felt like I was going to fail.

It turns out that I passed the test on the first try. I was congratulated and told that it is rare for a foreigner to pass on the first try. I was happy that I did not have to use another PTO day to drive over to Numazu from Fuji to do it all over again and waste a day. I was excited that I passed the test on the first try, while my friends and acquaintances failed. That night, we went out to Kappa Sushi to celebrate. I like the little shinkansen train that brings orders to our table there.

Actually, I don't see what the big deal is. It turns out that there is an 8 foot, flying octopus that flies around giving advice and instructions. I didn't notice it at first, but after a while it would tell me things like, "The vertebrate will do well to turn on its turn signals 30 meters before turning, yessssss." All I had to do was do whatever it told me to do. However, I did not obey it when at last it told me to find a sharp object and poke holes in the test proctor until he stopped moving. That would have been just plain rude and probably detrimental to obtaining my license.

"Bust open the vertebrate's hair-covered cranial command module! We wishes to dine on its succulent contents, yessss."

Eventually I will write another essay. Just keep clicking this link repeatedly until something appears someday.

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mail: greg -atsign- stevethefish -dot- net