Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Japanese drivers license, Fukushima

For those of you who have found this site in a preliminary search for Japanese drivers license information you have come to a good place. The site icanusechopsticks is a good one for information about the Fukushima drivers test, which is where I took my test, however I would like to add a few things to that. After the blog portion I will add a few numbered tips.
Getting a drivers license in Japan, for an American, is not an easy thing. There are a few reasons for this; namely that the US does not accept the licenses of other countries as transferable. Meaning, if you have a license in your home country, it probably won’t matter, you must take the driving test in America to get an American license. In some ways it’s understandable that Japan has merely reciprocated Americans treatment of its citizens, but in many ways this is just a silly game.
I have held a US drivers license for a decade, that’s 10 years if you don’t know. I feel like this is a good amount of time to learn how to drive. I have also had an international license in Japan for a year, which I used to drive my car on almost daily basis having incurred no traffic tickets and having no accidents. For me, these two things would be enough to prove my worthiness, but it was not so.

To even be considered I had to produce my US license, my passport, a letter from my town stating that I worked for them, a translation of my US license, a letter from my DMV stating when I first got my license, a 2.4x5 cm picture (not smiling), and my international drivers license. There was another foreigner there that day, a man from Taiwan who had an American license. Unfortunately he forgot the letter from his employer and could not proceed to the paper and driving test.
Along with all the paper work I also read icanusechopsticks a couple time, then went to driving school for an hour (5000 yen) then read icanusechopsticks another couple of times and studied the diagrams.
After that I had to get myself to the Fukushima Driving Center to take the test, which takes all day and thereby required me to take a day off and stay in a hotel the night before as the process starts early and Fukushima is over 2 hours away from me. Upon arriving I immediately had to buy a stamp for about 3000 yen. After which I had to wait, then fill out some forms, then wait, fill out forms, etc. After about 2 hours came a challenge. The tester wanted me to prove, by citing dates in my passport, that I had been in the US for at least three months since the issuance of my license in 1998. Well, the first 5 years or so I was in the US, and so had no proof that I was in the US since there was no stamp saying so. After that I had to piece together bits of half inked arrival and departure stamps, some in Arabic, to prove that I had indeed been in the US for at least 3 months.
After everything was fairly well in place I was given a paper test, consisting of 10 questions that you are given 5 minutes to complete. The questions were not hard. These questions were in English and had pictures to accompany them. However, the English was slightly confusing. I scored a 10/10 although to pass you only need 7/10.
Next was lunch time, one hour during which you can safely leave the premises and/or walk the course. I walked the course once, with my diagram, pretending to be driving. The man from Taiwan thought I was crazy for being so fixated on detail.

At one o’clock I reconvened with the instructor and two older women. My girlfriend tells me that they were both foreigners although they didn’t look like it and I didn’t pick up any accents in the rapid Japanese they were speaking. The three of us got into the car and the instructor drove the entire course beginning to end explaining along the way what he was doing (Yes! In rapid Japanese, of course). When we returned to the beginning he instructed me to get out and stand over on the curb. An additional instructor then got into the car with the two women and the first woman’s test began. I was pretty sure that she failed right off as the car lurched forward then back again. She had forgotten to release the parking break before starting. The woman did the course, got a good talking to by the instructors after and then went back into the building not knowing if she passed or not (it was her third try, she didn’t pass). The whole time the other woman had been in the back seat, observing the first. Now it was my turn to get into the back and for her to drive.
As I got into the back I said, “Konichiwa” to one of the instructors and gave him a smile. The woman I observed did pretty well, but I knew she had failed. At two separate points her right side crossed the center line thereby being in oncoming traffic. At the end of the course I was asked to stand outside the car and the two instructors then began to tell her what she did wrong. I was trying to listen for pointers when the woman burst into tears and raised her voice. This continued for a minute or two and then she exited the car and entered the building (it was her second try, she did not pass). Then it was my turn.

With just myself and the instructors in the car I proceeded to become a driving robot. Before I started the car I even threw in a “Yoroshiku oneigaishimasu” which is like saying, “please care for me” I proceeded through the test, which is pretty much like icanusechopsticks describes it. The instructor only made one red slash on his scoring sheet, but I was pretty sure that was enough to fail me; here is what happened. At one point I stopped at a flashing red light, about 50cm behind the white line, which is perfect. As I began to proceed, after my full, stop a woman taking her motorcycles test appeared on the left and I promptly hit the brake. Bugger. The instructor told me to wait a moment, then got out of the car to see how far I had gone over the line if at all. It was at this point that the infamous red mark appeared and he told me to proceed. The rest of the course was fine. I did everything perfectly. When I parked and he began to tell me what I did wrong I had to ask him to speak slowly as I only understood a little Japanese. As is the case with most people, this did not slow him down. I got the run down on the red slash, I had not crossed the white line, but come up to it and that was close enough for the possibility of a bicycle to hit me or me to hit them, even though the crosswalk is another 150cm in front of the white line. He then asked me how long I had held a license in the US to which I responded, “ju nen kan”, for ten years. He nodded, then told me to go to the third floor where my girlfriend was waiting. I told her I failed, because no one ever passes on the first try, and we waited. In the next ten minutes both of the ladies before me were called to the counter and told they did not pass and would have to come back. When my name was called we slowly got up and came to the window. The attendant held up and ok sign and said, “Ok des, Kebin san, ok” Wahoo! I passed, first time!
Fortunately the instructor’s whim did not sink me. A drivers starts with 100 points and you must get 70 to pass. There is a laundry list of things that you lose points for, but in reality the instructor can fail you for not turning your head far enough when making checks, or for turning it too far. It’s really up to them. I studied, I knew the course, I drove like a robot, I only made one mistake, I aced the paper test, but in the end it was just good luck that passed me.

Here are a couple things I want to add to the information on the chopsticks site.

1. If you call ahead and make an appointment you don’t have to show up between 830 and 9am, you can come in later, like 930 or 10
2. Release the parking break! My car did not have a lever in the center console, but a pull latch under the steering wheel, that is probably why the first woman forgot it.
3. Be overly polite and responsive to your instructors. (Hai, wakarimashita, arigato gozaimashita, yoroshiku oneigaishimasu)
4. Go to driving school before hand, it helped me on a couple little things.
5. Don’t sweat the paper test, its not hard.
6. Don’t worry about the crank and S turns, they are not hard, just go slow if you need to.
7. Walk the course, walk the course, walk the course.
8. If you can, bring a Japanese friend to help you, it was strides better because I had my girlfriend there.
9. Make sure you have all the proper documents before going, you don’t want to waste a vacation day getting rejected before you get on the course.
10. Cross your fingers, a lot of it is just luck.