So, I have a car in this country. It’s pretty sweet. I’ve been driving for about 8 months now, and have completely adapted to the whole driving-on-the-left thing. I’ve had no problems – aside from an unfortunate incident misreading kanji at a gas station that resulted in a chunk of lost cash and a near-heart attack situation for me. But really, being a car owner and operator has been far easier than I thought it would be, and I have no regrets about investing in such a venture.
But a deadline was fast approaching; one that many ALTs dread…The anniversary of my entry into Japan. That should be a celebration, right? Well, if you’re a driver, it’s chill-inducing. On this day, my international driver’s license would expire.
The international driver’s license (called IDP for short, thankfully) is a magical document from AAA. It took 10 minutes to get and cost something like $15, but allowed me to hop behind the wheel in a foreign land without taking a test or filling out forms. If my American license was legal, so was this. And it was nice. Years ago, foreigners could opt to simply renew their IDP after it expired. Sadly…this is no longer the case.
If I wanted to keep living the fun and fancy-free life without bus and train schedules calling the shots, I had some work to do.
First off, I had to get my American license translated by JAF, the Japan Automobile Federation. I mailed in a copy of my license, paid about ¥3000, and got the paperwork back in about 3 days. Not bad. Then, I had to get a jyumin-hyo (住民票), or city registration form. This was only ¥300 or so, but it absolutely had to have “American” on there…which I forgot to ask for and had to go back to get a second one. With these documents, as well as my passport, Japanese ID card, American license, and some cash, I set off for the driving center.
Better known as “Where Dreams Go to Die.”
The driving center – technically “Unten Menkyou Centa” (運転免許’ ‘センター) – is far nicer than any American DMV I’ve been to, but still a nauseating string of red tape and stress. To top it off, they only allowed registration from 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. or 1:00 to 1:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday – which means I had to take time from my precious nenkyu (年休, paid leave) to go do all of this. Still, that’s not so bad…for some people.
Some countries have an agreement with Japan regarding driving. If you’re from Canada, the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, or a handful of other blessed lands, congratulations (you jerks)! All you have to do is gather the aforementioned paperwork. show up, smile, and you’ve got a Japanese license! You lucky bastards. Those of us from the U.S., South Africa, or anywhere not on the super-special exceptions list is looking forward to the pain of The Test.
The Test requires 2 parts – a written portion and a practical course test. I was worried about taking a written test in Japanese, but I really didn’t need to. The written portion is offered in (interestingly-translated) English. The questions were so simple that a dexterous tortoise could probably manage to circle the required seven out of ten required answers. Some examples I remember were, “True or false – drivers and passengers must wear seat belts” and “True or false – it’s okay to drink and drive.” Seriously. No problem.
The true challenge of The Test is the “practical” portion. This is easily one of the most impractical, ridiculous, unrealistic and completely subjective things I have ever been a part of – and I’ve volunteered at my share of student-run psychology studies at a Big Ten university.
And remember! All the lines are white even though they go in different directions – just to confuse you even more!
Going in to this portion of the test, I knew I would fail. A lot. I’m a pretty decent driver and have been at it for about 9 years now, but the amount of foreigners that pass on their first try is small enough that I knew round 1 would be best considered “just practice.” In Hiroshima especially, there is a huge reputation for failing (foreign) drivers up to 6 times. Why? There are many theories. Maybe they want to reduce the number of non-Japanese-speaking drivers. Maybe since each attempt costs ¥2200, they know can squeeze a decent amount of cash out of us. Or maybe they just want to make sure foreigners are fully committed to the picky Japanese driving rules. Either way, it’s a long commitment of money, time, and sanity to get this thing done.
After turning in your paperwork, you meet your instructor with a group of people taking the same test (foreigners – English teachers or not) who will tell you the testing order. If it’s your first time, you’ll usually get a chance to hop in the back seat and watch someone go before you. Or not. Luckily, I got to observe the careful robotic procedures of the poor Chinese girl before me that was on her 11th attempt at passing this damn test.
She failed, by the way.
At the end of the day, they’re not testing your ability to drive. They’re testing your memorization of the course and awareness of The Ritual. First, squat low to look under the back of the car. Then, squat low to look under the front of the car. This is to check for cats or babies or road monsters that will not appreciate being run over. Then, look both ways and approach the driver’s door. Get in the car (bonus points if you excuse yourself in Japanese). Check the parking break by physically poking it. Adjust the seat, even if you don’t need to. Adjust the mirrors. Buckle in. Slam on the break and start the car. Put on the turn signal. Ask the instructor if you may begin (in Japanese). He says yes (in Japanese), you release the parking break, look 100 different directions, shift into drive, toss out a “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” and roll out as slow as humanly possible.
And that’s just leaving the starting gate.
The rest of the test is full of highlights like the S-curve, an unrealistically narrow snake of a road that you must somehow keep your turn signal on at all times while avoiding going over the too-low curbs out of risk of an instant failure. Even more ridiculous is the Crank, a horrifying monstrosity of two tight 90-degree turns in a row that would also never exist in the real world – and if you hit the curbs or any of the hovering poles, that’s another instant fail. There’s also basic stuff like avoiding an obstacle, safely going around a turn with an obstructed view, lane changes and other basic driving stuff – except for the test, it’s encouraged to do weird things like pump the brakes and leave your turn signal on the entire time. My first try got me through with no bumps, mistakes, or obvious flaws…and I failed. Why?
Before a left-hand turn in Japan, you must shift over in your own lane to exactly a meter from the curb…to box out any surprise bicycles that may zoom by. To me, any kind of “boxing out” in a motorized vehicle seems…unsafe. To the instructor, this is apparently really important – it was my main critique every time I took the test, even when I consciously shimmied over to the side and felt like I was moments from skidding on the curb. Several other people get told off for not doing the six-point head turn at every intersection or lane change (If you’re turning left this means over the right shoulder, in the right mirror, in the rear-view mirror, in the left mirror, and finally over the left shoulder…which adds up to a good 5 seconds where your eyes are off the road in front of you as you’re moving, but whatever) but I had been warned about this and made ridiculously obvious neck-cracking checks every time I could.
Hilariously, even when I failed the driving test I was able to hop right back into my car and drive away. My IDP was still good, after all.
So, on my third attempt, I took a Tuesday morning off from work. I drove the 1.5 hours and payed ¥1950 in tolls to get to the driving center. I handed in my papers and payed another ¥2200 to take the test. I hung around and waited for the instructor raffle, hoping I didn’t get that grumpy guy from my second try again. Mentally, I was already deciding what day to make my next appointment for after I met another inevitable rejection.
It was a busy test day, so I chatted with a Chinese couple (on their 5th and 6th tries) that would be taking the foreigner-test with me. There were motorcycles, pick-up trucks, semi-trucks, buses, fancy cars and two retired taxis that I may be tested in already on the course. I was actually kind of worried at this point, because I had budgeted my nenkyu for an expected 6 attempts at this thing and had only taken a
pretty unrealistic 3 hours off for this day, hoping to fail quickly and move on.
When it was finally our turn, the instructor showed up with a smile and said, “good morning!” in English. Good sign #1. He explained the course in simple Japanese and gave the order – I would be going second. Watching the guy before me, I thought he did pretty well – except he forgot that the course was super-flooded and almost pulled into oncoming traffic while attempting the totally-not-safe 6-point mirror check. That woke me up a bit, which was good, because then it was my turn.
I started the Driving Test Dance as ritual demanded, and it was all going smoothly…until I tried to release the parking break. It wouldn’t budge. The guy before me must have jammed that thing into lock with the force of Godzilla himself. My friendly instructor had to help me release it. Insta-fail, right? But he just smiled and said, “Sticky brake!” in English again. Good sign #2.
The test went exactly the same as the previous two times – no bumps, no obvious mistakes, no miscommunication, just a lot of neck-cracking mirror checks and my cheerful “Hai!” responses to directions. Things were going well, but they had been going well every other time, too. As I approached the place where the guy before me had screwed up, however, something completely unexpected occurred.
“Duck.” My instructor said.
“Sorry?” I replied, not even in Japanese, as cars continued to pass by.
He pointed. “Duck!” and I was confused enough to follow his gesture. On another test car, there was a cartoon duck character cheerfully waving at me. My instructor sounded proud of himself. “Look! Deer!” The following car had a cartoon deer.
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing in the middle of my driving exam. “Yeah! 鹿！” (“Sika,” the Japanese word for deer).
And with both me and my instructor still chuckling, I pulled into the bay and ended my exam. I parked and prepared to hear the same old critique…but this guy was still on the deer thing.
He talked about the deer on Miyajima and asked if I had been there. I told him I had, and made some lame joke about how the deer there are always hungry and stealing food from tourists. He laughed at that and made a few comments about how cool deer are. I agreed. We chuckled some more and for a second I completely forgot this was a test – until he drew me a picture of a left-hand turn and told me that, yet again, I was not close enough to the curb. “But that’s it!” He assured me.
Same critique as usual and I was already expecting the same result. I thanked the guy and complimented his English (he said my Japanese was good, which proved his standards are far more flexible than most – good sign #3?), excused myself (yes, in Japanese again), and bowed my way out of the car while preparing to make my next appointment.
They never immediately tell you if you passed or failed. They need to check with The Overseer first. He’s been looming above the course every time I’ve gone, tucked away in a overhanging gallery and observing the tests from a different perspective. His call is apparently the final push to pass or fail test-takers. Lucky for those who go to the Hiroshima Driving Center, this guy is really friendly. Every time I’ve taken the test, he’s checked in on me, small-talking in an English-Japanese blend. This time, he tossed me an “okay” sign while I was waiting for the paperwork to come through. (Literal) Good sign #4, but I was still doubtful.
They called up the guy I watched screw up first. Fail. Then, they called up the girl that went after me. Fail. As I was pondering why they went out of order, I got called up. The guy behind the desk was one I’d talked to on two of my three tries.
And it was he who bespoke the words: “Emi-san…ok.”
I blinked, confused for the second time and it wasn’t even noon yet. “Ok?”
My desk-buddy smiled – something I didn’t think could happen at a DMV. “Okay. Passed!”
I blinked again. “ほんと?!” (“Honto,” “Really?!”) and burst out some slightly maniacal laughter. Even if this terrified him, it was too late – I had the official stamp of success and was on my way to the much-coveted plastic.
After that, the procedure went pretty quickly. I had to drop an extra ¥2050 which was obviously worth it. I had to have a basic mobility test, a vision test, a sit-down-and-stop-smiling-for-your-picture test, a wait-twenty-minutes-and-realize-you’re-totally-late-for-work test, and then BOOM! Licensed. I was a legal, licensed Japanese driver.
Just a side-note: I took the test 3 times, with 7 other people.
I never saw another person pass.
Honestly, nothing was different about this day…except for my awesome quirky instructor and the completely random deer conversation that bonded us. I’m 70% sure that some ancient car-loving deer spirit was on my side, nudging my instructor to go easy on me and let the ridiculous rules slide a little.
I always knew they were cool.
And that’s how a deer got me my license.
Cost of attempts:
- Tolls: ¥11,700
- Test: ¥6,600
- License fee: ¥2,050
- Gas: about ¥7,000
Total: ¥27,350, roughly $275
Getting a license in 3 tries when you expected it to take 6? Priceless.