One of the most difficult experiences of my time in Japan is finally over. This experience left a terrible impression on me, something akin to the nasty aftertaste left in your mouth after vomiting profusely. After nearly six months, around 850 US dollars, 10 hours in driving lessons, 6 vacation days, and 45-50 hours of waiting on a bench in a depressing 4 storied cinderblock, I finally have a Japanese Driver's License at long last. Am I bitter and resentful? NOT A BIT.
Now, many of my longtime friends and family already know that I purchased a car my first year in Japan and was cruising around the rice fields to the castles, hot spring resorts, and ski areas. Less of you probably know how all that came to an abrupt halt my second year, when Japanese law required the procurement of a Japanese license.
I postponed and procrastinated for a variety of reasons, including my extremely busy schedule, my nature of procrastination, problems identifying and aquiring the proper documents, and the inability to find time off work to go get it. A trip to the "menko centaa (center)" from Koriyama involves an hourlong bus or train trip, followed by another half hour on a bus in the city of Fukushima. The center in Koriyama gives licenses to Japanese people, but foreigners have to travel an hour away (for some people in my prefecture, it can be over 3 hours to this city). Am I resentful of the double standard? NOT A BIT!
My first trip to the Menko Centaa took place sometime in April. I arrived right on schedule before 8:30 AM in the appropriate office. I had carefully gathered all the necessary documents the previous night, double checking after hearing all the horror stories about the "menko centaa." I had taken 4 hours of driving lessons the previous week, at a total cost of approximately 50 USD per hour. Much to my charign, what should have been a day of relatively mild bureaucratic torture was cut short at approximately 9:30, by their realization that my passport was issued in Tokyo. Because my passport was issued in Tokyo (Due to losing the original while in transit from Thailand), and my American DL is from Arizona, they had no way of determining if I had ever actually lived and driven in Arizona. I finally was able to prove that I had lived in Arizona, but only after a lot of headaches. Am I bitter and resentful of such anal retentive civil service employees? NOT AT ALL!
I returned the second time, again with all my documents in tow (including a few new ones to prove I lived in Arizona). They gave me a questionaire about my American license. How many questions were on your driving test? Was it multiple choice or true-false? How many options were there on the multiple choice? How long was the driving test? Was it on a closed course or public roads? As I hadn't taken the driving test in the USA since I was 15, I made stuff up that sounded about right. Then this woman came out and said they were going to check with the Arizona DMV. They said if I wasn't completely accurate, that they would refuse me my license. She wasn't real nice about it either.
This is the point when I began to stop taking them seriously, as I knew she had no means by which to corroborate my claims on that particular day. She could barely read the English on the American documents I provided, and even if she did reach anyone over the phone at the Arizona DMV at 8:30 PM on Sunday night, she couldn't speak much English either. And if they did have a Japanese database with detailed information on American Driver's license Tests, why were they going to the trouble of asking me all these questions? Did I take umbrage at this obviously empty threat on the part of the Menko Centaa Nazi Woman? No, not me!
From the beginning, they were always quite cantankerous with me. I never once sensed that these people felt they were government workers funded with public tax dollars and were required to serve the public. It was more like they were trying to be an obstacle. One critical democratic concept that appears to be lacking in Japan (or at least far less developed) is the idea that government exists to serve the people. Believe it or not, the experiences and interactions that take place at an American DMV are far more pleasant as the customer service mindset exists. Did I make negative comparisons between my current situation and dealing with the fantastic efficiency and delightful amiability of Arizona's fine government instutions? Me? No Way!
After another hour and a half of waiting, they came out again and told me that I would not be able to get a license without ANOTHER document from the Arizona DMV. They couldn't explain what this required document actually was or its purpose. This was not due to my still limited Japanese, but rather their lack of specificity. (Another American was there with his Japanese girlfriend to help translate when I needed help.) They could only say that because my license says "Under 21 until..." that I require SOMETHING from the Arizona Motor Vehicles Department!
Prior to this second visit, I had several Japanese friends and colleages familiar with the government call and clarify everything about all the documents ( they apparently require far more documentation and paperwork than they officially advertise). We had double and triple checked with everyone in the menko centaa over the phone, and the consensus (over the phone) was that I had all the necessary documents. They even knew my name before I got there. Now this same woman and another man was telling me otherwise. Having fought the urge to strangle this woman several times, I was about to snap. In the paraphrased words of William Blake, "my wrath did grow".
I've been in Japan long enough to know that showing emotion, especially anger, is rarely, if ever acceptable. This is one reason that I dreaded going to the menko centaa, as I was afraid it would bring about the absolute worst in me. And it did. While I never exploded in anger, I was never proud of the way I conducted myself. And while I exersized as much restraint as I could, everyone could plainly see my exasperation, frustration and anger, which probably didn't help my case. I thought about my character, primarily my ability to deal with mild adversity. In the grand scheme of things, it was extremely trying, but ultimately not something worth getting angry over. Yes, it was a lot of time and money, but ultimately, life would go on just fine without a license.
Fortunately before I did anything really stupid, I demanded to see their boss. I'm glad I did this because he came out and quickly reviewed everything and said it was all OK! There was no need for unspecified documents from Arizona! The two subordinate civil servants were wrong, and I was right! I looked at them and asked them why they were asking me for these documents, and then double checked with their boss, to make sure there was no misunderstanding. Smart people please correct me if I'm wrong, but I was only able to draw two logical conclusions from this encounter: 1. The underlings were actively decieving me and countering my efforts. 2. The underlings were incompetent, and their propensity for ineptitude was costing me a lot of time and money. The underlings looked at me sheepishly and quickly apologized as their supervisor went back into the office. Do I resent having to judge the professionalism of Japanese government workers through such infuriating deductive reasoning? NO, I'M GONNA BE POSITIVE!
Following this episode, the Nazi woman handling my case changed completely. Whereas she was previously an antagonistic obstacle, actively hindering my efforts at aquiring a license (or at the very least appearing to do so), she quickly turned into my willing ally, being helpful and curteous. And while I failed the test that day, she was kind and at least appeared genuinely sympathetic. During my next two trips she was disturbingly friendly, almost a completely different person, even giving me tips about the test and smiling and making small talk. Its a shame too, because she was very tall and actually very pretty. Picture a former model turned shrewish amazon battle-ax in a cheezy martial arts flick. Unfortuately, my opinion of her was already sealed.
I got to take the test that day, but I failed. I had to take the test 5 times. You can only take the test once a day. You MUST wait around a minimum of 3 hours before you take it. Actually you must wait 4-5 hours the first time, largely because they give you the driving history interview, vision test, and a 10 minute written test. None of those things should take longer than 40 minutes. Technically I only had to wait two hours before the second test, but due to train schedules, I wound up waiting there 3. You MUST wait a minimum of 2 hours for your results. Then you learn that you must come back another day. Canadians, British, Australians and most European nationalities do not have to take this 10 minute driving test. Am I resentful about this double standard? NOT AT ALL! (This is largely because the USA doesn't offer a simple transfer to Japanese drivers coming to America, so everybody write your Senators RIGHT NOW!)
The driving test is ridiculous. It has little bearing on driving safely (I actually wonder if a few of the things they want you to do aren't more dangerous) but is more about your ability to follow a script. I think I could have passed it after the second or third time, were it not for the fact that I was taking the test with a clutch (because that's what my car has). With the clutch, they told me I failed because I was in the wrong gear (either one gear too high or one gear too low on turns or the long straight section of the test (where I was supposed to be in 5th gear instead of fourth, even though the length and speed don't really justify it). They are also finicky about how "smooth" you are, whether its a clutch or automatic. The test evaluators will make a big dramatic show of rocking back and forth in the passenger seat if you aren't "smooth." Its pathetic drama, and you can almost taste the puke in your mouth when he does it.
Anyways, I've got a licence again now, and I drove up to the mountains this weekend and did some off roading. Off roading is fun when your car is a 2 door 600 cc Suzuki Alto that could fit in the back end of some American SUVs. The bitter aftertaste of my time at the menko centaa is fading, just as the piquancy of vomit and bile slowly disappears with a glass of water.
If you want to learn more about the driving test, read Ryan's website on the side. He describes the test in detail.