After more than five years of living here in Japan, and with the expiration of my California driver's license looming (now only days away), I finally decided to get a Japanese driver's license.
Six weeks, six trips to the testing center (more than an hour away), innumerable, insufferable hours spent in plastic chairs crammed too close together to be comfortable, three actual chances sitting in the driver's seat with an inspector, and more than three hundred bucks later...
I still don't have a license.
In fact, given that the effort and expense have already exceeded the license's value to me, I'm thinking about just giving up. For Japan, this is more of an inconvenience to Mayumi than to me; once a year or so, we rent a car and go somewhere, and since I don't have a license, she does all the driving, while I look out the window, fiddle with the radio, read or nap. For most business trips, I'm actually *forbidden* from renting a car (regardless of how realistic a restriction that is for the city I'm travelling to), so it's not a big deal there, either. The only time I *really* need a license is when we're in West Virginia, visiting family, or the far-too-rare occasions when we get to California for pleasure.
(I am told by friends that I *can* renew my California driver's license, even though I no longer live there, but you have to appear in person and get a retinal scan -- and the CA DMV has cut hours and closed offices as a result of the financial crisis.)
There would be a certain satisfaction in taking the moral stand that we actively oppose the use of private cars. But I'm really not in that camp. I think the world would be a better place -- and Americans healthier -- if Americans drove less, used less oil, and ate less beef, and Japanese actually attempted to manage ocean fish stocks rather than simply exterminate them, but I'm not advocating the complete banishment of cars, beef, and sushi. We choose not to have a car here, since we think it's healthier and better for the environment, but don't press that choice on others. (I admit, we still eat sushi, though I'm talking about the fish more, and slowly working toward lowering the catch limit on our take at a sushi restaurant.) And I'd be lying if I said that economics didn't figure into it -- we couldn't afford to buy a car right now if we tried (we have a house and annual trips to the U.S. instead).
Anyway, I've been driving for more than a quarter of a century now. How could I possibly flunk a driving test, you ask? Ah, naive one, let me instruct you in the ways of this country...
First off, flunking is not unusual, it's the norm. The pass rate, I am told, is less than 30%, even among Japanese, and most of those who pass are clearly on their second or third (or fourth or fifth) attempt. In three attempts, in which I sat with groups of foreigners and Japanese returning from living overseas attempting to transfer their license to Japan, I have not yet seen a SINGLE person actually pass the driving test. One Japanese woman drove for years in California, and had driven more than 5,000 kilometers back in Japan using an international license that was about to expire, flunked it three times.
So, if each test were a random, independent variable (they're not) with a failure rate of 70%, about 35% of the people would flunk at least three tests.
The thing you have to understand is that it's not actual driving, it's Kabuki Driving: it involves exaggerated motions, long pauses for dramatic effect, an obscure vocabulary, and improbable sub-plots, and has only the most oblique relationship to everyday life. There's even an audience (they stick another testee in the back seat while you drive). The only thing it doesn't have is exotic costumes. (In fact, if I read the sign right, along with flip-flops, wooden "geta" sandals, and excessively high heels, you are not allowed to take the test while wearing a kimono. Go figure.)
The rules for getting a license differ depending on how you're going about it. Most Europeans can simply take a written test and be issued a license on the spot. Americans and most other Asians have to take the written test *and* a driving one. America is not a signatory to some international treaty (the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war, I believe), and even if it were, there is no central authority in the U.S. Japan would have to decide whether or not to accept licenses from at least fifty-one different jurisdictions.
But still, for Americans with a license, the process is much easier than starting without any license at all. The written test is ridiculously easy -- ten true/false questions (in both English and Japanese) with 70% being a pass. Close your eyes and guess, and you've got a 17% percent chance of passing -- almost as good as passing the driving part with your eyes open. And the driving test is difficult, but easier than the one Japanese people go through.
For Japanese people with no license, the first thing they do is sort you based on whether or not you have a certificate from a driving school. Without one, they give you a harder driving test, which apparently no one ever passes, so in effect, you have to attend driving school first.
Driving schools here are a HUGE business. (I'm convinced that the schools themselves are run by ex-inspectors, making out like bandits after decades of civil servant penury.) There is no learner's permit here, so the only way you get enough experience to pass the test is by going to a driving school. At a cost of three thousand dollars, and sixty (yes, sixty!) hours of instruction.
And they wonder why the number of young Japanese people getting driver's licenses is declining.
The Japanese taking the regular route are herded through the system like cattle, and given a registration number, made to wait, made to drive, made to wait (okay, that part is the same for foreigners). After finishing the test, they are NOT TOLD whether or not they passed. After another round of waiting, the registration numbers of the people who passed are posted on a giant LED signboard. A cheer goes up from the hundred or so people who passed, and groans from the other hundreds who didn't.
Once you get to the actual driving part (which is run on a closed course about the size of two American football fields), the kabuki starts. They tell you that you start with 100 points, and as long as the penalties are less than 30 points, you'll pass. But at the end they won't tell you how many points you have, just whether or not you passed; modulo a few major fauxes pas, ultimately I'm sure it's up to the judgment of the inspector. Most of the tests I have seen actually ended before the course was completed, with an "Okay, you're done, you flunked, please return to the start." But getting all the way through the course doesn't mean you passed; I didn't this last time. For the foreigners, at least, they do have some pity, and the inspector will usually give you an oral summary of what you did wrong.
There are minus points for failing to adjust the position of the driver's seat and mirror. There are minus points for holding the steering wheel wrong, including turning your hand palm up and sticking it through the wheel, turning it from the inside. The easiest one for the inspector to use is, "You didn't do enough safety checking," by which he means that your head stopped swiveling on its neck for several seconds at some point.
The one that got me twice is turning too wide. It's a fair cop, as Monty Python would say: I'm not accustomed to driving on the wrong side of the road, so I pull too far out into the road as I turn, in order to avoid hitting the curb. That was the first and third tries. On the second, I was careful about that -- and wound up hitting a curb, which is an automatic fail. There is a tight spot called the "Crank", with two right-angle turns and tight walls, that the car just barely fits through. I cleared that easily -- then clipped the curb on the corner as I turned out of it into the wider street. Dang. That experience pushed me too far back the other way for the third try, apparently.
Before trying the first time, I read up on the process on the web. That taught me that you need to stop at stop signs for three full seconds, which is an eternity. In California, you could watch a stop sign all day, and the *total* amount of time cars spent stopped at the sign might not be three seconds.
But just reading someone's advice on the web will give you a false confidence that you can pass the test. The course is really not that difficult in terms of where you're asked to drive, but there are many small points the inspector is looking for and they grade quite harshly. After flunking the first time, I did a one-hour practice session with one of the inspectors, one Saturday morning.
It was a revelation. Before doing that, I had NO IDEA that they want you to take turns at 10km/hour -- about six miles an hour! That's the speed at which you pull into a parking spot, fer cryin' out loud! Likewise, there is one place on the course with a "caution" sign, and caution means 10km/h. The one "high speed" part of the course is 40km/hour, about 25mph. After learning this, I laughingly told my lead-footed sister that she could never pass the test, since you have to drive slow. It's probably true.
So, I am contemplating whether or not to give this one last shot. They gave me a test slot for the afternoon of my birthday, which is when my CA license expires. I may simply not go.
I no longer have any ego bound up in my driving abilities, though I certainly used to take pleasure in a sunset cruise on an open road. Now I feel that if I was told that I could never drive again, my reaction would probably be to simply shrug. My father's midlife crisis was a red Toyota Supra. My mom joked that the car was fine, as long as he didn't get the blonde to go with it. My midlife crisis arrived earlier, and has resulted so far in a Ph.D. and a faculty position.
Flunking is something of an embarrassment for me in the lab, though. Murai Lab hosts the "iCar" project, which has been working since the early 1990s on connecting cars to the Internet. We have a lot of car enthusiasts, including one student who reportedly used to race professionally, and several others who own sports cars (Beemers, Alfas, a Lotus, an RX-8) and take them out to Mount Fuji Speedway on weekends.
Speaking of which, one of our faculty members (late forties, has an Alfa and two Beemers, one of which was brand new...) lost his license last year. 55km/h OVER the speed limit. License yanked (not suspended, canceled outright), forbidden to reapply for a year. His year is almost up, so he is now back in driving school, spending sixty hours and three thousand bucks to enjoy the company of eighteen-year-olds hearing for the first time that a car usually has four tires and a steering wheel, so he can get back in the brand new Beemer two-seater. He and the others spend a fair amount of energy discussing "license tourism", taking the three grand and going to Europe and getting a license instead (European ones translate more easily than American ones). Sounds like a win to me.
No one I know will defend the system. It's clearly ridiculous. But in a larger social engineering context, maybe it makes sense. If it's not in Japan's interest to have too many people on the roads, maybe it *should* be hard to get a license, and it doesn't really matter whether it's difficult for a good reason or if it's the equivalent of reading Shakespeare while standing on your head. As a liberal with a belief that government should actively work toward creating the society we would like to have, this could be exhibit A. Hmm. Let me think about that.