I felt like an idiot. Of course, it wasn't the first time and I wasn't alone. There we were checking our imaginary mirrors, clutching our imaginary steering wheels, walking around a miniature course on a cold, January morning. We were at the Okayama Department of Motor Vehicles getting our Japanese driver's licenses.
A new law was passed in 2002 that affected few Japanese people's lives. It did affect me, however. The law stated that all foreign residents must possess a Japanese license in order to drive. Previously, it had been ok for foreigners -- tourists and residents alike -- to drive using an international license that was easily purchased in one's home country. Now only tourists would be allowed to drive with International Licenses.
For years I've been doing fine in Japan with an old bicycle and a public transportation pass, but not being able to drive was going to cramp my style a bit, so I decided to look into getting a license. Besides, I thought it might be kind of cool to have at parties.
I asked a few fellow foreigners and began to hear horror stories: "I'm convinced it's all part of the greater plan to get the gaijin out of Japan," said one friend. "It's all but impossible to pass on the 1st try despite the fact that foreigners take a simplified version of the test." It seemed the average foreigner passed the test on around the 7th attempt. My friend Craig told me that for my first visit, I would need to take a 1 hour bus ride to the Okayama DMV, a shiny, new monolith out in the middle of nowhere. There I would need to spend a whole afternoon, taking leave from work, just to verify that I already had a license in the US. I got a totally different story from my Japanese friends. They assured me that I'd pass on the 1st try, due to my clean record and years of experience.
Out on the course, my foreign friends' predictions were proving more accurate. The test administrator took my Oregon license, photocopied it and began asking me questions:
"Exactly how many hours of driver's education did you receive prior to getting your license?" "I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I remember... it was 20 years ago." I smiled and tried to be polite.
"What does this say?" "Oh, it says I am qualified to drive anything under 26,000 lbs, including small fire trucks." Now he looked impressed. I hoped I wouldn't have to prove it. I'd never driven anything heavier than a minivan - except for the summer that I drove a short school bus too close to a parked Winnebago...
Next he asked for my passport. He had my license which I figured should have been enough, but he still needed to prove that I'd had it and used it for at least 6 months in the US. To do this, he began documenting all the dates I entered and exited Japan. Since I've been to about 30 or so countries in the last 10 years, I could see I was going to be there a while. I went and sat down.
31/2 hours later, he called my name again. I naively believed that this was the end of it. "Apparently you've been living in Japan for quite sometime, is that correct?" "Yes." "Well, I can't see any proof that you've been living in the US during the time that you've had this license." It was true that I'd only had my current one for 3 years. "But I've been driving since I was 16!" "Do you have your original license?" After telling him where I've been for the last 20 years since age 16, he finally caved in. I was now free to move to the next level. I passed the eye test and the written test. Fortunately, it was in English. I guessed my way through the questions.
I figured that had to be it. The administrator looked at me and smiled. "Well, everything seems to be in order, now if you could just sign up for a time to take the driving test..."
The 1st Attempt
Back to that cold January morning. The real test wouldn't take place until 10am. I spent the interim in a small waiting room filled with other nervous foreigners. Most smoked to pass the time. All the windows were sealed shut. I pictured myself on the course. I could see my breath as I cruised in my imaginary car. I turned on the imaginary heater.
A middle-aged Japanese man saw me sitting there and decided to take me under his wing. He told me to "be careful of my left turns." I wasn't sure what he meant at the time. I asked him why he was there. He explained that he was there with his wife, pointing to a small Filipina 1/2 his age, knitting a few feet away. "You sound like you know this test pretty well." "Today will be her 16th time!" he smiled proudly.
I should point out that not all foreigners in Japan are required to take the test. Australians and most Europeans can obtain their Japanese license, simply by showing up, producing their home country license and taking the eye test. The Japanese government decided to draw the line with countries whose driving fatality level is higher than theirs. This would include most of the developing countries, as well as the US.
In walked our examiners. They were spotless in their blue uniforms, white shirts, buttons and polished shoes. Their hats perched perfectly on the tops of their crew-cut heads. They explained the basic nature of the test and began calling out names. It was for the automatic test. I was in the stick-shift group, along with the previously mentioned Filipina. I chose this more difficult route because, according to Japanese law, if you pass the automatic test, you're only qualified to drive an automatic, whereas if you pass the manual test you can drive both.
I was 1st up in the stick shift group. I tried to mimic the examiner's every move as we went out and approached the vehicle. Stopping before crossing the lanes, his arm shot straight up into the air. With his arm still erect, he looked both ways and crossed the lane. There wasn't a car in sight, but I did likewise. When I reached the car, I checked it thoroughly: both sides, front, back and underneath. Of course my hand was still up the whole time. According to the manual you're supposed to check the vehicle like this every time you drive.
In the car, I finally put down my hand. "Is this your 1st time?" he asked. "Yes." "Well, don't worry. You'll learn a lot this time around." Wow. I failed already?
I proceeded with the test. I was pretty tense, but managed to finish with no major mistakes, at least from my point of view. The most difficult part was making sure I did everything according to the rules. On that small course, I never drove more than a full block at a time, so I was in a constant state of up shifting, down shifting, mirror checking and turn signaling, not to mention just plain driving. It had me a little dizzy at times.
Craig had warned me that I would fail horribly on my 1st try. That didn't happen. I didn't make any wrong turns or drive the wrong way down any one way streets or collide with anything. Still, the examiner was sure busy with his clipboard. Once we finished, he let out a heavy sigh and started pointing out my errors, or should I say "error."
"Your left turns were too wide," he said. Damn! That old guy had warned me about the left turns. I assumed correctly that he was referring to bicyclists, so out on the course I made sure to give them room. "When you come to a stop light and you're planning to make a left, you need to get as close to the curb as possible and make a tight turn. This will eliminate the possibility of a bicycle squeezing into the space and causing an accident." OK, now I know. "So keep that in mind next time. You can make another test appointment inside." "I'm failing because my left turns were too wide?"
"You made a lot of left turns!"
I shuffled inside and made another appointment for the following Friday. It was the earliest they'd let me come back.
Another vacation day down the drain. Another January morning, map in hand, going over the course. Everything went pretty much the same as Day 1. I was getting a little better at the constant movements I had to perform while driving. I struggled with the challenging 90 degree S-curve, but thought I performed well enough to pass. The lane, for this part of the test, was only wide enough for one car and there was white plastic tubing hanging from the sides of the road. If your car touches any of the tubing, it's an automatic failure. But they did say that if you come in at a bad angle you can reverse out and try again as many times as you need. Of course, they didn't mention their true belief: that real men make it on the 1st try.
Pulling back into the finish lane, the examiner said that I'd failed again. This time for 2 reasons: 1) while I'd learned to hug the left side of the road when making left turns, I'd failed to get on the right side of the road (often the middle lane in Japan), when making a right. And 2) I ran a green light. Yes a GREEN light, without looking both ways. In Japan, you must ALWAYS look both ways before crossing even if the light is green...
Shot down again. And everything had been going so well! I even took the S-curves on the first try! I was feeling so confident after the turns, that I dropped my guard. I made my turn onto the straight away and shifted from 2nd into 3rd without putting my hand back on the wheel. Keep in mind that given the small size of the course, there's barely time to put your hand back on the wheel before it's time to shift again. "Wheel 2 hands!!" yelled the instructor in English. I knew it was over.
I knew the drill pretty well now. And the guys at the front desk knew me. I went to sign up for next Friday's test. "Friday, February 13th OK?" They asked. "Perfect," I said.
I was beginning to feel like every day was Friday the 13th. "Perhaps I actually don't know how to drive?"
While waiting for my Friday the 13th test request to be processed, I went and sat in the lobby. 18 year olds about to graduate high school were everywhere. This is the season, between high school and college, when many get their licenses. They looked pleadingly up at the reader board which would soon announce who passed and who did not. The board came to life. Numbers flipped into view causing everyone to either jump for joy, or slump in their chairs and try to disappear.
"Fast-sensei!" It was a student from my bonehead Senior English class. "What are you doing here?" He grinned. "Oh, I'm uh just here to get my license." I replied. "Me too! Did you pass?" "Uhh, no. How about you?" "I passed! I can drive now! Yatahh!" Great. How humiliating was that? I failed my 3rd attempt in a row, despite years on the road, and Daisuke, who had yet to pass one of my English tests, got his license on the first shot.
Friday the 13th
I was ready this time. Bad luck or not, I wasn't going to let them take another day of my vacation. I raised my hand, checked the car, got in, no small talk. Did the test. I checked my mirrors and blind spots, lurching forward and using my whole body to indicate I was looking. A friend recommended that I do this for the test, so they know I'm checking. However I DO NOT recommend this type of spastic driving out in the real world. Jerking around like that is a good way to cause an accident.
I flawlessly navigated the turns. I kept both hands on the wheel. I hugged the appropriate side of the road when making turns. I looked both ways before cautiously but confidently crossing the green light. I could only guess what they were going to fail me for this time. We pulled into the finish line. I was a hair wide of the curb. I've failed again, I thought. "Have you been studying?" asked the examiner. "A little," I lied. "You passed. Congratulations."
And that was it.
I went back inside and gave my results to the guys who'd been rescheduling me every Friday for the last month. "Congratulations." They winked. Among the foreigners, I was an instant hero. Of the 20 or so who'd come that day, I was the only one who passed. Everyone wanted my advice, as if I'd accomplished the near impossible. Perhaps I had. I passed the stick-shift test in only 4 tries!
Upstairs, over a hot curry lunch, I reflected on Craig's theory that the test is all about how Japanese you are and has nothing to do with your driving skills. True, my 7 years in Japan had helped me quite a bit. And the only 2 guys I've met who passed the test in less than 4 attempts have been here a lot longer than me. It seemed Craig was right.
And yet, when I consulted Japanese people about my many failures, they didn't seem all that surprised or sympathetic. In the US, you only fail if you do something particularly foolish or life-threatening. In Japan, you really have to be perfect behind the wheel. To do this, Japanese people are required to go to a very expensive, state approved, driving school for weeks before they can attempt their license. Despite all my failures, the cost of getting my license only amounted to about $200 in fees (plus of course, 5 vacation days). For driving school it would have cost 10 times that.
My ordeal was almost over. I got my mug shot then went upstairs for a 30 minute driver's safety video. I was there with a room full of teens. We were informed that if we fell asleep during the film, our licenses would be revoked. I wish I could say it was unintentionally humorous, with bad acting and gory car crashes, but it wasn't. It was very dull and staying awake was a challenge.
Finally, it was time to leave. My name was called. I walked to the front of the classroom and received my license with a bow. All the 18 year olds were given a leaf-shaped, green and yellow sticker to put on their car. It indicates to others that they are 1st year drivers and should be given plenty of room. I asked why I didn't get one. "You've been driving for 20 years." They laughed.