Department of Motor Hell

Driving in Japan is actually pretty cool. Imagine zipping around winding streets, whipping your box car around like it was a toy. All while avoiding bikes, mopeds, pedestrians, and oncoming traffic on a street barely wide enough to fit your own car. Yup, lots of fun.

I was dreading the moment, but my International Driver’s Permit will be expiring soon. My schools are just far enough from my home that I really do need a car to commute. Therefore, I had to take the Japanese driving test -____-. I’ve heard horror stories over the years about foreigners failing the test two, three, and even four times. I even heard from Japanese friends that no one passes on the first try. How could it be so hard? It just seemed like an obstacle course on paper. No live traffic or street driving. If anything, it seemed less nerve-wracking than an American test. Even so, I still read the Driving Manual cover to cover, and got as much advice as could from foreigners who did pass the test.

In my prefecture, there is only one DMV. It is located in the prefectural capital, two hours away from my city. Imagine there being only one DMV for the entire state of Pennsylvania. How crowded that place might be, how far people would have to travel. Just to take a damn driving test! I already spent close to 5000 yen (50 USD) just to schedule the test and have my US documents officially translated for the application. This was a nice sized investment for my small pockets before I even put gas in my tank. I left my house at 6:30 in the morning and drove as the sun rose; determined to do the impossible. To be one of the few who passed the first time.

After traversing what seemed like hours of crazy traffic, small cities and farms lined with pachinko parlors, I finally arrived at the Mito City Driver’s License Center. It was 8:30, over 45 minutes before it opened, and it was packed. People standing in various lines snaking up to a bunch of different windows. I located the Foreign Drivers window and waited behind seven others.

From 8:30 to damn near 1:00 it was just like that: waiting. Fortunately, I had ran into other teachers in my company who were also taking the test. I had never ran into them on training days because they worked for an entirely different branch. In true American style, we talked loudly for hours in the waiting lobby. Speaking way over the soft whispers of the Japanese people there. The weird thing is, we were speaking in normal voices. Well it felt like it, at least.

Finally, sometime after lunch I was called to a window for the initial interview. In the interview I was asked basic questions about how I obtained my American license, who taught me how to drive, how long I’ve been driving, and what the test was like when I originally obtained my license. I was helped in the interview by an interpreter who works for my company part-time. A half hour after the interview I took the written test.

I took the test at another window with a fairly genki Middle-Eastern man in his late 20s. The test was entirely in English, true/false, with pictures accompanying every question. It wasn’t too difficult, but of course there were those questions written to trip you up if you over think them.

Unfortunately, the man who I took the test with didn’t pass. He looked like he was about to raise hell when we got the results. But I had a feeling he was running into some problems: it took him almost a half-hour to finish the ten-question test. Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to have English as my native language. Even with the many communication problems I’ve run into while here, a majority of the time I can reach a mutual understanding by using very basic English or wasei-ego/和製英語/わせいえいご. I can only imagine what it must be like for those foreigners who come here with English as a second (or even third) language. There’s really no support out here for those who don’t know English or Japanese that well.

After the written test was a quick eye exam and then more waiting. Finally, the test.

The tester decided to have all of us teachers take the test together. One or two of us would sit in the backseat, while another drove around the course. The tester was extremely nice; he even gave us a review of the course before the exam started. I felt confident that I’d have no problems passing. Plus I was the first in the group to drive. I had a better chance at passing than everyone else, scientifically speaking. I rode on the course and did my thing. After we all went through, he gave us the results in private.

I failed miserably on the littlest of things. I went too fast around the curves, reaching the swift speed of 15 km/h. I had to be under 10 km/h, which is the equivalent of walking around the curve. And get this: when switching lanes, I went too slow! I thought I was being cautious and careful. Turns out I was too cautious. Lastly, my turns were too wide. Which I can somewhat (well, barely) understand. I drive a small car to work, so I probably over compensated when turning the test vehicle. I was so filled with cognitive dissonance, so sure of myself that after the tester told me what I did wrong I still stood there waiting for him to tell me I passed. It took me a few moments, and a few awkward glances from my interpreter, before I snapped out of it.

I was just as pissed as my Middle-Eastern friend from a few hours prior. I would now have to use a vacation day and take the test in September, when school was back in session. On top of that, I have to shell out some more money for the retest. (I know, I’m complaining now.) Today, I didn’t become a legend. Let’s hope I do better in September.

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