July 05, 2008

Driving Me Crazy (or) Getting a License in Japan and Driving on the Left

After nearly three months and three attempts, I finally have a Japanese drivers license. I was told that this was fast-- let me explain.

A foreigner who had a drivers license for at least six months prior to coming to Japan can convert directly to a Japanese license. However, you must be from a country which Japan deems has a tough enough system to meet its own stringent requirements. Canadian drivers, for example, are accepted-- Americans are not.

Since I have license from the state of Nevada, I needed to take both a written and driving test. The written test was relatively simple-- ten fairly straightforward questions, although some were in rather strangely translated English. Then an eye exam, and I was asked, 'automatic or manual?' I asked for a manual transmission, because, if you test in an automatic your license will be limited to driving automatics.

I failed my first test.

If you've never driven in England, Australia or India, you'll have to focus more intently as you learn to drive on the opposite side of the road. I kept turning on the windshield wipers when I was changing lanes-- so embarrassing. Everything is the opposite, not just the side the driver is on-- the shift lever too. Thank God the clutch, brake and accelerator are the same!

Do you remember the familiar "look left, look right, look left again before you cross the road" chant from childhood? Well, in countries where the traffic drives on the left (right-hand drive) is the opposite. Twenty-five years ago, my second day in India, I was nearly flattened by a speeding bus. I looked left, then began to look right as I stepped off the curb and... WHOOSH! That got my attention!

Even after a couple years in India, I would still sometimes end up on my bicycle in the wrong lane as I pulled out of a roundabout (traffic circle). Of course it wasn't too bad in India, as everyone is used to dodging-- the rule of the road being, 'If it's bigger, it goes first-- Elephants, buses, water buffalo, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians... and, as you can see by this photo I took in 1984, there wasn't usually much space for speeding.

Back to Japan and my second test.

People told me, “Don't worry, nobody passes on the first test-- or the second-- and few on the third or fourth. They just won't let you pass.” I took this to be 'sour grapes' from people who had flunked repeatedly. However, I started to believe them when I went for my second test.

As I waited in the DMV lobby, I saw a man talking to himself as he pretended to drive the course. I struck up a conversation with this West Point graduate and former Patriot missile unit commander. He was there for his fourth attempt, and assured me that it had nothing to do with skill and everything to do with knowing the test itself.

His advice:

“You need to memorize the course and the numbered turns. The inspector will tell you, but it's better if you know what you're doing. You can't go too slow, except in the backstretch, where they expect you to speed up to 45 kph. Be respectful to the person who is giving the test and exaggerate every action, showing that you are checking that the mirrors are set correctly and keep moving your eyes from side to side and mirror to mirror while driving.”

I then failed my second test-- I pulled into a wrong lane due to not understanding the road markings-- and turned on my wipers once-- so I understood why I failed that one.

So I took this young man's advice (by the way, I still don't know if he passed) and poured over the course as much as possible, imagining myself making all the turns-- signals and all. I also watched others take the test while I referred to the course diagram. This probably explains the vivid dream I had several times the night before my third appointment. In the dream, I was driving the course with an examiner who kept telling me to use the right lever for the turn signal and excitedly instructing me which lane to turn into.

It must have been just what I needed, as I passed the third test. Only one other person I've heard of passed on their third try, but maybe I should count the dreams and say I passed on my seventh.

To summarize:

Ask for a photocopy of the course diagram before you go to take the written test and get familiar with it. You could ask for one at the same time you purchase a “rules of the road” manual in English.

If possible, watch others take the test. I suggest that you sit in a borrowed car to practice shifting with your left hand and turning on your signals with your right-- unless, of course, you've been driving with an International license (you can for your first six months) and feel you have it down.

When you take the test, be respectful, relax, go slow, two hands on the steering wheel, exaggerate your safety precautions-- moving your head and eyes.

If you fail, they won't tell you immediately. They'll announce to the entire group who passed first-- a round of applause here-- then tell each one in turn what they did wrong-- including showing you on the course map.

Stay calm. Ask the inspector to explain anything that is unclear-- a Japanese speaker could come in handy at this point. Don't forget to thank him-- He might give you your next test.

That's all-- have fun!


If it helps, you could tell yourself that you're getting a mini-course in Japanese culture-- a culture in which taking a test properly can seem more important than demonstrating that you are knowledgeable and skilled.


Driving on the left or right-- facts and myths

Japan Automobile Federation-- rules of the road, changing an overseas license to a Japanese