Well, at long last I have completed the ordeal of obtaining my Japanese Driver’s license. I’ll shorten the story for retelling since it is very similar to that of many other JETs. In Japan you can only use an international drivers license for 1 year. After that period you have to transfer it to a Japanese license, or you can’t drive. I heard about this, and was anticipating a busy spring/summer so I went ahead and started the process during Winter Break. First you have to go to JAF, the Japanese equivalent of AAA. They will translate your American drivers license. You have to get it done by them because of some official mumbo jumbo, and it costs like 3000 yen or something. Then you take that to the driving center and submit it with a bunch of other paperwork and take an interview. The interview is pretty simple, just verifies that you’re a human being with limbs that can operate a vehicle and that you know the difference between a car and a bovine. Then you have to wait some arbitrary period of time. During that waiting period you can start paying for practice sessions, but you have to bring someone along that has had their Japanese license for 3 years or more. I did that 4 times, in order to memorize the courses. There are 3 driving courses that you will randomly be assigned one of during the day of each test.
So anyway, the first time I took the test I was gung ho, confident, I had studied, I practiced 4 times, I knew what I was doing. I had read the rules over and over and ingrained them into my head. I’d been driving a car for about 8 years in total. This was old hat. I drove the course, being careful to say “Yoshi” at every dangerous intersection. I made all my head checks over obvious and easily visible to the proctor, and took my time without being sluggish. Getting out after feeling confident about my test he commented that although I was “jouzu” meaning talented, I apparently did not know how to turn right. This surprised me. Although I knew turning right was like turning left in the US, I knew how to do it! I was careful about my right turns during the test, and yet apparently I did not know what I did wrong. A little later I get the results back and find out that, despite being talented I had failed. My supervisor was with me and he too was puzzled by what was meant by how to turn right, since he had been with me when we were practicing. After looking it up online he gave me a guide, pictures, and detailed explanation of how to turn right. It’s a complicated process involving lasers, but apparently the most important aspect of it is that you have to do at least two sets, if not three sets of separate head checks. Once before you signal, once as you pull up to the turn, and once right before/as you’re crossing oncoming traffic lane to make the turn. This is, as I found out, the most important part of the test for foreigners, who of course don’t know how to drive in Japan. (grumble)
The second time I took the test I was nervous as hell. I was thinking about nothing but the test and I was really really scared of failing. The first failure was bad, but I had never really failed anything before in my life and I wasn’t ready to fail the same thing twice. This was my main problem. I was too nervous to drive appropriately. I overcompensated almost everything, driving extremely slow and making an abundance of unnecessary head checks. What really killed me was the right turns. In overcompensating the headchecks I ran my tires over the marks in the middle of the intersection. Which if not an automatic fail, is a huge minus. I got out of the car this time, knowing I had failed only 45 seconds into the test and prepared myself for a reaming. I wasn’t prepared however for what he said. “I think you need to practice the course a few more times, get used to being in a car and the feeling of driving before you take the test again.” This isn’t exactly what he said, and in fact I’m not entirely sure what he said, but from the words I understood this is the meaning I constructed. At this point, having failed twice and been humiliated regarding a subject I had eight years of experience in I held back tears in a fake smile. The stress from worrying was really getting to me. I took the afternoon off, went into the city and found a bar with some good people, talked shit about the test, learned a Japanese drinking game, got fairly intoxicated and trained home relieved that I wasn’t taking the test again tomorrow.
The third time I took some advice from a guy that runs a website called All Japanese All the Time. The advice? “Aim to fail.” Why would you do that you ask? Failure is a fantastic learning opportunity. You learn a lot more from failure than you do from success and it helps you grow. So with this attitude, and because of my extremely busy schedule today I was actually somewhat hoping I would fail. Work out the kinks in the test and I wouldn’t have to wait the extra two hours sitting around waiting for my license to be made. I met a newbie on the course after pulling the deciding chopstick that determined we would all be driving on the A course. She hadn’t prepared, it was her first time, she didn’t know what she was in for at all. I asked her “Do you know the special rules?” She said, “No? What do you mean special rules?” I proceeded to guide her through course A (which she hadn’t memorized yet) teaching her how to merge and the correct order of head checks and verbal notes. I showed her the 30 meter rule and the 3 second rules. I showed her the correct times to throw on your turn signal, and to always check for imaginary bicycles and pedestrians running out across a red stop light at the crosswalk. She probably didn’t retain much, but she might’ve gotten correct path memorized, I hope. She was third in line, I was second, so she had some more time to learn it. While riding in the backseat while the first tester (who I had been in the exact same situation with my 2nd try) I noted her mistakes and imagined the correct things to do at every moment. After she finished I got out and entered the car correctly. I really didn’t want to pass this time since I needed the two hours to get more work done at the office so I wasn’t really stressed at all. I just got in the seat, fixed the seat and put the mirrors in position so I could actually see something. Turned the car on, took off the E-brake and pulled out to the road. I did the course pretty smoothly, I knew I probably forgot a head check or two and might’ve been a few feet off on my merges and turns but It seemed like a decent run through. Getting out I go listen to what the proctor has to say. “Well, you really didn’t hit the 30 meter marks, you gotta merge sooner. And you missed a bunch of cars that would’ve been in your way in real life! You can’t just turn without checking. But overall, it was good.” Something like that anyway, again my Japanese is lacking but that was the gist of what I understood. I was already prepared for the failure so while back inside waiting for the real results after they tabulated our scores I was talking to the lady that I rode behind, the same one that I had met the previous time. She was really hassled by the whole process, it was her 5th time taking it and I noticed she was still making several obvious mistakes. I went ahead and gave her the little advice I could and we just reassured each other, “Next time, or at least, Some day!” Completely prepared for the reports of failure the guy came out, looked at me first (which was odd, since I was the second driver and they usually do things in order) and just said, “ok.” I was like, “What?” He nodded at me and gave a quick face that I can’t describe, but it was sufficient for me to understand that he meant by not giving me any other comments that… I passed. WTF! Why? Damnit! You mean now I DO have to sit here another two hours and not get my work done for tonight and tomorrow! Fuck. Well. Wait. SWEET! I finished this process!!! I FINISHED.
So then after a crap ton of waiting and a lecture that really didn’t apply to me much, I got my sleek new Japanese driver’s license… in exchange for my international license. Which means now I’ve got to get another international license from Japan so I can drive in Korea and the Phillipines. *sigh* Oh well. For today, I won.