Published: November 11th 2006August 24th 2002
In early July, I received an ominous fax from the bureaucracy of the JET Program five weeks after the fact stating rather concisely that effect one week later my international drivers license would be null and void and could not be renewed. In an effort to catch Japanese people who go to America to get an international license and renew it indefinitely, the Japanese government decided to limit the validity of such a license to a single year. Caught in the crossfire, I was required to head for the Japanese DMV, and slaughter the demons that I had vanquished four years earlier. I will not repeat here my sordid history of taking the New York driving test, but suffice it to say it was not an experience I was not looking forward to reliving. Just about the only mitigating factor was the fact that many of my friends, in fact every last one who drives, was required to take the test too.
And so I headed for JAF, the Japanese Automobile Federation armed with my passport, a translation of my New York State driver’s license, my actual NYS license as well as a chunk of change. My license having conveniently expired while I was in New York, I lost the ability to drive to the testing center so I was forced to return to the railways which I had largely given up when I bought my car six months prior. Unfortunately, the railways stubbornly refuse to go directly north to south from my little fishing village to the major population centers to the south. Instead I had to take a twenty minute ride (the 5:11 AM train to be on time for registration), wait an hour, and then take a two hour ride to Ogori, the only place in the prefecture, indeed in all of Japan, where I could take the test. From the train station, I took a ten-minute cab ride, not certain what direction the driving center was.
I opened the doors to the Yamaguchi General Driving Center to set my eyes upon hundreds of Japanese people of all ages milling around, waiting patiently in lines as they always do. I headed for the window for those converting foreign licenses to Japanese ones, and waited half an hour while the guy tried to decipher all the foreign scripts on my passport to see where I had been. The trickiest one: the Israeli one written entirely in Hebrew. If I had driven in England, I wouldn’t have had to take the test. Try to guess why! Finally, he gave me a thick sheaf of papers with my photocopied info and sent me off to the eye test.
The test consisted simply of circles with a piece missing. I had to identify whether the missing part was left, right, up, or down. Successfully completed, I proceeded to take the written test, which was just as easy. Sample question: A police officer is holding up his hand in front of a green light. It is OK to proceed. True or false?
Knowing all that remained ahead of me was the test, my heart started beating a little bit faster but it was still several hours in the future. Different than the American version, the Japanese one is conducted on a course specially constructed for testing applicants. Those from Long Island might remember Safety Town, a simulacrum of a town with streets and traffic lights designed to teach us fourth graders the rules of the road. This version was a bit more sophisticated with sharp curves, railroad tracks and a ramp. I was given a map detailing the route I was supposed to take and invited to walk the course to help memorize it. Sometimes the test giver says not a word.
After waiting for a half an hour, the instructor called upon me to take the test. There was no parallel parking, no three-point turn, indeed no technical concept more difficult than stopping at a red light. On the other hand, the test giver knows the course like the back of his hand, and focused intently on how I made left turns and navigated curves. When I had finished, he gave me a short lecture about my excessively wide turns (My Japanese car is half the size of the one I was driving) and my inability to correctly make a left turn from the right lane at an intersection. Ordered to return to the TV watching/waiting area, I fidgeted for another thirty minutes until he came back to tell me of my failure. I was not surprised. Up until that point, all my friends failed the first time. In the down time, we discussed various theories. Our money was being used to pay the pensions of the retired officials who administer the test. They were prejudiced against foreigners. They were ill inclined to pass the test for those who hadn’t paid the $2,500 cost of driving school (no exaggeration). Our conspiracy theories took our minds off our failures.
There are no reservations to be made in Japan so I wasted no time in returning to the scene of the crime. I came back the next day at 9:00, accompanied by my friend, Daven, at whose house I had stayed the night before. Another joined us, and the three of us set out to take the test again. It was the second time for each of us, and we all failed again. They didn’t even waste any time talking to us individually. The guy say, simply, “You three, come here. You all failed. Here’s why...” The Japanese take the efficiency shtick to extremes. We had lunch, and then I took the three-hour trip back to Tamagawa.
The next day, Wednesday, I again headed back to Ogori on the 5:11 train. I briefly contemplated taking a day off, but my friend called and inspired me with his successful passing on the first try. It blew a big hole in our theories, but at least I found out that passing was now a possibility. I saw Daven squirming in his seat as I headed for the driving test waiting room. I could not even get myself to sit, instead pacing back and forth for a good fifteen minutes. Thankfully I was the first to go, and the butterflies let up before I stepped behind the steering wheel. I unlocked the parking brake, checked the mirrors, put on my seat belt and set off on my quest for success. If you know how slow I usually drive, take half of that. I was so obsessed with being chastised for going too fast (failure #2) that I was barely moving through most of the course. On the S-shaped curved which requires extensive maneuverability, I drove at about 10 kilometers an hour. (Hint: it is less in miles) An eternity later, I pulled into the slot designated for my car. The guy only had two things to say to me, a good sign. My left turns still needed work and I didn’t look carefully enough at the cars around me. (People wishing to drive cars, school buses, motorcycles etc. take the course simultaneously)
I headed off for the TV room. I flipped open the mystery novel I had been reading but could only read a couple of lines before raising my head upward, looking for my friend who took the test after me. He showed up, his head down hinting of expected failure, but he didn’t say a word. A Brazilian woman came over to me and said I tried hard, but I probably failed which didn’t do too much for my confidence. After ten minutes, the inspector came and signaled Daven and I out and told us to go to window number ten. We went there still uncertain of our fate when the guy at the window told us to watch a video because we had passed the test. There would be no congratulations or well wishing. We were simply ushered into a viewing room where we were left alone to watch a video that could have been stolen from good old Trinity High School in Hicksville, NY’s driving school. We spent our time revising our theories. My friend who passed it on the first try endeared himself to the staff by showing up with his Board of Education staff members. Another guy didn’t pass it until his fifth try because he had displayed his emotions when they told him to go home to get his passport the first time. As for us, we were in the middle: three tries for just being normal, neither good or bad. One picture taking session later (no smiles allowed), I am the proud recipient of a Japanese driver’s license. Back to the roads!