Context: I had to get a driver’s license in Japan. I wouldn’t own a smart phone for another two years, so I navigated by drawing maps on paper ahead of time.

Originally published on May 29th, 2012

Having an American driver’s license automatically qualifies one for an international driving permit (issued by AAA). The Japanese government apparently trusts in our own licensing procedures enough that holders of said permit are allowed to start driving from day one, even if they’ve never done so on the left side of the road before. A risky decision, if you ask me, judging from the preponderance of foreigner-caused accidents. But for whatever reason, that trust is limited to a single year. After that point, simply renewing the international permit is not good enough, which means that foreigners who would like to continue driving must apply for and obtain an official Japanese driver’s license. Easier said than done.

My own permit wasn’t set to expire until August, but the length of the process and rumors that during the summer the DMV is lousy with frustrated JETs struggling to succeed before the deadline made me decide to tackle the challenge early. The first step involves getting one’s foreign license “translated” at JAF (Japan Automobile Federation), which is essentially Japan’s AAA. The office is on the outskirts of Sendai, and I’m proud to say that I found my way there without a GPS of any sort and with only one of my patented hand-scribbled maps of the neighborhood. After correctly identifying the convenience store that I used as a landmark on the map, I parked, started walking, and realized that my map didn’t quite communicate the scale of the area, which meant that it was about a two mile walk. It would have been shorter if I had been able to cut straight through a strangely placed military base, but the camo-clad guard and barbed wire fence made me reconsider. So I took the long route along the perimeter of the base and received dirty looks from the soldiers running on the other side of the fence. I usually stare back angrily when stared at in this country, but not this time.

I reached JAF without causing an international incident. There, they basically charge $40 to look at your license and write down your birthday and address on a separate piece of paper. While there, I also bought the regrettably unnecessary English version of Japan’s “Rules of the Road.” It’s mostly full of common-sense stuff (“Roads are slippery when wet!”), but admittedly, it does explain a few of the more cryptic road signs, like the one that means “Road only open to three-wheeled vehicles weighing less than 500 kilograms with two or more passengers, one of whom is handicapped, on Sundays and the Emperor’s birthday, but never during a leap year.”

license road sign

The next step was one of several trips to the Miyagi DMV, also located in Sendai. I really shouldn’t complain about my own travel time, because some people have to come from hours away and stay the night, but I will anyway. For some reason, (I want to say…xenophobia, but it’s probably just a lack of demand) they only offer the 30-minute window between 1:00 and 1:30 Mon-Fri for foreigners looking to get licenses, so I took a half-day of vacation time and headed to Sendai around lunch. The large gray DMV building was just as imposingly dreary-looking as its average American counterpart, with the comically dreadful and familiar sight of unnerved people waiting on unreasonably long lines for far too few clerks. On the eastern side of the building, a throng of nervous 20-somethings sat around waiting for their practicals to begin.

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait on any lines and went straight to a secluded back office, one broom closet of which is reserved for foreigners and their matters. Day One at the DMV only involved filling out applications. The man designated to assist foreigners in this process is named Mr. Masatsugu. A long string bean with a lazy eye and a penchant for repeating himself and blinking uncomfortably often, he’s known to pretty much every assistant language teacher in Miyagi prefecture, as he essentially serves as the first gatekeeper on the treacherous path towards obtaining a license. He ran through each question about five times in extremely slow and broken English despite my insistence that Japanese was fine. It took about an hour for him to establish my entire travel history since obtaining my American license, which was necessary in order to confirm that I had had it in America for at least a single, uninterrupted one-year period. Should I have failed to meet that requirement, I would have needed to slap a mortifying “new driver” sticker on my car here. Thankfully, Masatsugu was genial and quirky. With the application out of the way, I made an appointment for the following week to take the tests. Unfortunately, Americans are required to take both a written and a practical test (Canadians are exempt from the more troublesome practical; something to do with Canada’s overall willingness to accept Japan’s driving standards when Japanese try to get Canadian licenses, whereas, as expected, our 50 states, each with their own standards, have not done that. So no reciprocity).

Day Two started out well. I passed the eye test no problem, and the written test was a joke. Hopeful native drivers have to answer 100 extremely technical multiple choice questions, but foreigners have only ten true-false questions, complete with illustrations. A rare time when low expectations/standards of non-Japanese work in our favor, indeed. My questions included, “One should heed the instructions of traffic cops,” “One should slow down so as not to hit old and/or crippled people who are walking in the road,” and other such brain-teasers. While waiting for the practical (and it was a long wait, because naturally, native drivers get priority in the queue) I commiserated with the other foreigners who were there that day. I met a gregarious young woman from – I want to say Tennessee?- who came to Miyagi with her missionary group for some long-term 3/11 disaster relief effort. She and the others told me how many times they had each failed the practical and how strict the proctors are, so by the time it was my turn, I knew I had no hope of passing.

The test course consists of a few straightaways, turns, a traffic light, and an s-curve, but the most infamous challenge is known as “the crank.” Drivers must navigate through two extremely tight right-angle turns without bumping the poles around the edge or falling into the surrounding gutter. Backing-up up to three times is permitted, but each time costs valuable points (one starts with 100 points that are reduced with each mistake; 70 are needed to pass) and bumping the poles results in immediate failure. Interestingly enough I had no trouble with the crank. What did me in was a list of minor issues so long that the proctor said my final point total was “near zero.” I looked right and left when I only needed to look left. My right turn was a bit too tight. My hands slipped from 10 and 2 to 9 and 3 at one point. I was on the left side of the right lane instead of the right side of the right lane before making a turn. “But you handle a car very well!” he said. “Have you driven before?” “Yes, for the past 8 years.” I went home feeling frustrated at the prospect of having to return a week later and drop another $50 on application fees (requisite for each testing attempt).

But I did return, with a bit more swagger this time, now that I knew what to expect. I had drilled the five or so big mistakes from last time into my head over the past 24 hours, because while the disappointment I felt with myself for failing was pretty soul-crushing, it would be that much more shameful to fail again for the same reasons. I paid the money, took the eye test again (but not the written test? They think my vision might have degraded over the past week but that I haven’t forgotten how important it is not to run over crippled people in the road?), and challenged the course for the second time. The fact that I had a different proctor was a little distressing, because he wouldn’t notice how diligently I corrected my previous mistakes, but I was still feeling confident. When he started enumerating an entirely new list of screw-ups at the end of the test, I thought I was toast, but he passed me. It was probably just to fulfill the “pass-one-foreigner-per-day” quota that we all imagine they have.

Anyhow, my experience was not nearly as bad as it could have been. I’ve heard anecdotes about people who don’t manage to pass until their fifth or sixth attempt and others who resort to dropping ~$1000 on a training course that doesn’t even assure victory. I drove away proudly that day, that much closer to personhood and with that same distinct RPG-character-building feel that I first experienced after leveling up from bicycle to car many months ago.


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