Yesterday I went to my local DMV to renew my Japanese driver’s license. Back in the “good old days” there was a loophole that allowed foreigners living in Japan to drive with an international driver’s license indefinitely as long as they returned to their home country to get a new one each year. This basically meant that whenever a police officer pulled me over for some infraction in Japan they’d let me go with a warning, as I wasn’t registered in their computer system and held a (legal) document that required them to read English, which is always mendokusai (a pain in the butt) for them. Then around 2005 the government changed the law, essentially requiring everyone who lives in Japan for a year or longer to get a proper Japanese license. Some foreigners including those from the U.K., France, Canada and Australia can change over to a Japanese license automatically, but most, including anyone from the U.S., has to take the dreaded Japanese driving ability test.I’ve done some difficult things since coming to Japan, including climbing Mt. Fuji, giving speeches in Japanese before hundreds of people and passing level 1 of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (I actually passed it twice, as I was trying to get a higher score than a Chinese friend of mine just to prove it was possible for a white guy). But it’s hard to think of much that was more challenging than getting that Japanese driver’s license. To pass, applicants are required to drive a pre-set course with an examiner sitting next to you taking notes. The course only takes five minutes to complete, but there are hundreds of ways to screw up — not turning your head left, then right, then left at just the right point, not slowing the car by pumping the brakes three times, etc. Japan is really into hansei or self-reflection, and the examiner will never tell you what you did wrong after each attempt, preferring that you reflect on your own driving performance to divine the answer. As a result, it took me 11 tries before I passed the damn test and finally got my license. I get the whole idea of making the test difficult so we actually think about our driving, but some of the arbitrary skills I had to learn just to please the examiners felt pointless, like learning to play Super Mario World while blindfolded.
Getting my Japanese drivers’ license was hard…almost as hard as learning kanji.