Like a black fly in a pristine bowl of white rice, my attempts to get a Japanese license have been the black cloud looming over me. Not to mix metaphors.
Many of you might be wondering how I've been driving for a whole year without a license, but fear not--I haven't been driving illicitly for twelve months. Before I left Denver, I went to the AAA office and got an International Driving License, something I could use in tandem with my passport to legally drive for one year no matter where I happened to go. Of course, time passes and things expire, so sometime around mid-April I started the process of getting a Japanese license. Two and a half months seemed like plenty of time, despite the warnings I'd gotten from other foreign drivers. The warnings usually went along the lines of: "The people who work at the Driving Center are a bunch of bureaucratic racists who will take all your money."
"Bureaucratic racists? No problem! Personal strife slides off me like water from a turtles back!" I thought to myself. I'd heard so many horror stories about people taking the driving test six or seven times, going without a car for months because they couldn't jump through the right hoops. The owner of a local curry restaurant told me about his friend from Pakistan who took the test a whopping sixteen times before he finally gave up, ripping up his paperwork, dropping in on the DMV floor and washing his hands of the place. Still, I was determined that this wasn't going to happen to me. I buckled down and began to research Step 1.
Getting a Japanese driving license as a foreigner in Japan involves four general steps. Step 1 is to get a Japanese translation of your foreign license. The JAF--Japanese Automobile Foundation--will do this for you if you ask nicely. Except, as I was soon to discover, they won't do it in Toyama. After driving to Toyama City (an hour and a half each way) on one of my rare work-free weekdays, I was informed that they no longer do translations at that office--as of October 2013. Shucks. Undeterred, I drove home, photocopied my license and mailed it in instead.
Step 2 is handing in your paperwork and doing written and eye tests. As per requirements, I asked one of my teachers to call up the driving center and make a reservation for me near the beginning of June. Translation in hand, I packed up all my things, took a day off work and headed down to the Driving Education Center, all set to hand in some paperwork, answer some questions and look at some stuff. Unfortunately, I was missing one of the key paperwork items--a form that proves my residence in Japan. One would think that my official Japan Foreign Residence Card would be enough to prove this, but alas. After five minutes in line, they politely shuffled me out the door and told me to make another reservation at a later date. Instead of simply sitting in my car and plotting my revenge, I drove to Starbucks when I could plot my revenge in cool, comfortable style before heading home.
Having already wasted two days on this, when it came time for my next visit (three weeks later), I was going to be prepared. I made a reservation, went to City Hall to get my residency paperwork, locked everything securely in my favorite clear plastic zip folder--it details the particulars of dairy farming--and asked my supervisor to come with me as back-up.
Just kidding. They did send me home again, though. One of the prerequisites for getting a Japanese license as a foreigner is having held your original license for at least three months in your country of origin. Since I got my American license eight years ago, I didn't foresee this being a problem. Silly me! "Come back with proof that you didn't spend the last eight years on a beach in Tahiti, and then we'll talk," she said.
To which my trusty back-up relied "Well, I guess it can't be helped."
Thanks, bro. Of course, because the people at the DMV don't believe in human decency, they refused to let me take the written and eye tests and hand in my gold-plated kitten blood paperwork another time. Beaten but not defeated, I retreated home to organize my next wave of attack.
The DMV is open roughly during work hours from Monday-Friday, so I'm not sure what they expect people with normal jobs to do. I have classes every day, so the soonest I could take a day off of work without inconveniencing my school was July 14th, a mere half-month before my International License was set to expire. It was getting down to crunch time, and the end was nowhere in sight.
Don't get me wrong, I don't need a car. I don't use my car to get to work, and my town is small enough that I can bike pretty much anywhere within twenty minutes or so. Without a car, though, my plans of going backpacking during my summer vacation wouldn't happen. There are a lot of places in Japan that you can visit by using public transportation, but the far-flung hiking trails certainly aren't one of them. I didn't want to be stuck in Kurobe all summer just because the DMV was strong-arming me at every turn.
When they told me to bring proof of my American residency, they said that college transcripts would be acceptable. They wouldn't accept copies, though--they needed a bonafide, stamped and sealed transcript. I went online and ordered a transcript from the University of Colorado to prove that I'd fulfilled the three month requirement (by going to college for four years), crossing my fingers that the transcript would get to me in time. It felt like a really boring action movie.
Fast forward to July 14th, my third attempt. I gave her everything (including the transcript which had arrived just in the nick of time) and she retreated behind her curtain--presumably to preform some sort of arcane ritual with my paperwork. After making noises about the fact that my transcripts only listed the season and the year (Spring 2009, for example) rather than a concrete date, she finally allowed me to take the supremely challenging written test.
For your enjoyment, here are some example questions.
"If a policeman tells you to stop, is it OK to keep driving?"
"If you want to turn right across an intersection, is it OK to cut off oncoming traffic to do so?"
"You see a stop sign, but you don't see any oncoming cars. Is it OK to ignore the stop sign?"
"The stoplight in front of you is red--is it OK to go through the intersection anyway?"
It's a miracle I passed, really.
The eye test was equally ridiculous, and after giving the DMV some money, they allowed me to make a reservation for my driving test. The soonest date they had available was July 30th, three days after my license would expire. I took it.
I'd finally made it to Step 3--driving lessons. Apparently summer vacation is a busy time for the lesson center, but they managed to squeeze me in. I did have to reschedule my test date for August 1st, but sometimes that's the way the sushi crumbles.
It's hard to explain why the driving lessons were so ridiculous without going in to one of the fundamental issues I have with Japanese culture as a whole--memorizing things. They're a nation built on the idea that memorization is the key to Good Things, something that just isn't true.
Imagine if your high school history teacher told you that you could pass the class by memorizing the Gettysburg Address. You didn't have to understand anything about its cultural relevance, who said it, or the events leading up to it--you just have to memorize it and you'll get an A. To a less severe extreme, this is how Japan functions. They seem to believe that the only way to prove your mastery of something is to memorize it. When you apply this to the open road (or to most things in real life), it becomes pretty ridiculous. Driving isn't about memorizing a course--in fact, being a good driver is all about being able to respond to spontaneous situations. I took eight hours of driving lessons in three days, all with the same instructor. Here are my two favorite pearls of road wisdom.
"You don't need to check your rearview mirror when you turn." (Because anything going on behind your car is completely irrelevant.)
"You already checked to make sure no cars were coming. You don't need to do it again." (Because double-checking is for the weak...and people who don't want to run anyone over.)
Now, my driving classes consisted of two things: memorizing how the driving center wanted me to drive (an unsettlingly militaristic driving style) and memorizing the three potential courses for my driving test. I spent the first four hours memorizing DMV Style (c) and the next four memorizing the courses. After I finally got the green light from my instructor, I was ready for my actual driving test.
All things considered, it went pretty smoothly. We got there an hour early and I walked through the course twice, making sure I could perform the driving dance with perfect execution, then we waited around for them to corral us over to the testing car.
Since I'd gotten to the testing center early, I was the first driver. For some odd reason, they required one of the other testing candidates to ride in the back seat during each person's attempt at the course, but I assumed I would be exempt from watching another driver since I was the first person to go. Not so. I rode in the back of the car during the last examination of the day--a Chinese woman's fifth attempt at the course.
Her test finished early because she almost drove off the road, which made me feel a bit more comfortable with my chances.
At the end of the day, I did end up passing on my first try, though it was officially my eighth visit to the Toyama DMV in the past three months. Because there is a certain joy human beings get about accomplishing a task set to them, I even felt a bit self-congratulatory about having memorized and completed the driving course, no matter how ridiculous or completely inane it may be. A bit like a rat in a maze, I suppose, being observed with casual amusement. I might have completed the course, but I certainly didn't do it on my terms.
"Well," you might be thinking, "that's all very unfortunate, but at least it's just wasted time, right?" Wrong! It was also a significant amount of wasted money. Let's take a look, shall we?
Written test fee:
Lesson center entry fee:
Lesson fee (1 hour x 8):
Driving test fee:
License fabrication fee:
Magical Unicorn Fun Land entry fee:
Complimentary ballpoint pen:
And that, as they say, was that. I had joined the ranks of officially-licensed Japanese drivers. You might assume that Japanese drivers, having taken hour upon hour of lessons and paid an inordinate amount of money, have driving skills that would rival those of paid stunt drivers. This is completely false. Japanese drivers are easily the worst, most inconsiderate drivers I've ever encountered (granted, I haven't been too many places). Aside from their complete inability to understand a four-way stop, it's as though Japanese people take all their cultural niceties, respect for other people and generosity, bundle them in a plastic bag and chuck them out the window when they get in the car.
They go too slow, they go too fast.
They love using their brights, but seem reluctant to use their headlights any time before 8:00 pm--even when some extra visibility might be a good thing.
Their disdain for red lights knows no bounds. There was a car that actually drove around me when I was slowing down for a yellow light so that they could speed through the light.
They insist on backing into their parking spaces, even when it's tremendously inconvenient for the other drivers.
They seem to have an unavoidable urge to run over as many bicyclists as they can manage.
Instead of pulling into available driveways, they simply park their car in the middle of the road. It's alright, though--they make sure to put on their hazards.
They don't believe in two even lanes. They believe that the more aggressive drivers should be able to drive in the middle of the road while the meeker ones should be forced to drive through rice paddies instead.
It's mind-boggling. I can only hope that I don't pick up bad habits while I'm here.
And that's the story of the DMV. I hope you never have to go through it yourself, but if you do I have one piece of advice for you: start early (and two and a half months early does not count as early).