Round the bend: How NOT to get a Japanese driver's license in Tokyo

Round the bend: How NOT to get a Japanese driver's license in Tokyo

My head-on collision with the capital's most hellish, anti-American driving school

Japanese driver's licenseYou go now -- no license for you, Americano.

There’s an old Japanese proverb that assures us, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” And at the Futamatagawa license center in Kanagawa, I learned that nothing brings out that hammer quite like the sight of a would-be American driver eager for some validation Tokyo-style.

Thanks to some bad luck, I recently found myself at Futamatagawa to convert my U.S. driver’s license into a Japanese one.

My first bit of misfortune was that my apartment juts into Kanagawa Prefecture by just a few meters -- literally. My Kanagawa address meant I couldn’t go to the more lenient Tokyo license center.

Then I discovered that every G12 country except the United States has a reciprocal license agreement with Japan -- simply fill out some papers and you’re done, good to motor the length and breadth of the country.

Thanks to a silly U.S.-Japan stalemate -- the two countries won’t work out reciprocal license agreements with all 50 U.S. states -- Americans like me, who already have home-issued licenses, are sent as fodder onto local driving courses to qualify all over again.

Police state

The American-trap begins with the fact that Japan’s National Police Agency runs the license centers. And the driving course examiners that sit in the car beside you come straight out of Hollywood teen comedy -- totally unbending, humorless police officers.

But the final nail in my coffin was Futamatagawa’s famously rogue foreign policy, worthy of Kim Jong-Il.

“At that place, even when Americans drive perfectly, they routinely fail,” says Miki Koshino at Relo Japan, a Tokyo relocation services firm that offers to help Americans prepare for the test. “And they never tell us why.”

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The Futamatagawa driving course is an oval maze comprised mostly of short straights and ultra-tight turns. The bonsai-like trees and neat grass lining the course give it a deceptively simple look.

But, like many things here in Japan, layers of complexity lurk beneath the Zen-like surface.

I sensed an ambush right before the first test when the examiner handed us the course map. His rapid-fire Japanese explanation of its twists and turns somehow sounded both demanding and vague at the same time.

Down and out

There was another American there named Brian who had already failed three times, and he clearly looked like a beaten man.

He threw up his arms when I asked what happened before: “I honestly don’t know. They won’t tell me.”

Brian went on venting his frustration. He said you have to wildly exaggerate your every movement during the test, so you appear conscientious.

So, not only should you constantly be checking your mirrors, but try to do it so obviously that your neck cracks.

He suggested giving constant verbal cues to the examiner -- a snappy “Yosh!” (“Yep, OK”) -- whenever doing anything.

As he went on explaining, he saw I was getting nervous. That was good, he said. They want Americans to look humble.

I told him this all sounded like I was preparing to perform not a driving test but rather the Japanese tea ceremony.

And Brian was right. They aren’t looking for confident, smooth drivers. They want obedient performers visibly checking off the idealized rules of their Japanese driving ceremony.

The cartoon car turn

Japanese driver's licenseThe Futamatagawa course map spells doom for Americans many times over.

When my name was called, I jogged up to the examiner with polite, choppy steps. I bowed and offered him a respectful “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu,” (“Please regard me well”).

I briefly shuffled my feet, trying to look servile, and then got into the car.

Less than a minute later, I’d already flunked the test, failing on a left turn (from the left side of the road, mind you).

Their requirement is that the wheels of the car on this turn should never venture farther than 70 centimeters from the curb, even while turning 90 degrees.

Brian and I later laughed at the impossible physics of this. He called this the “cartoon car” turn.

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The theory is that hugging the curb in this way blocks bicycle riders -- surely suicidal -- from sneaking up from the left and dangerously rounding the curve with you.

The examiner said nothing of these details at the end of test, offering me only a sage-like, “You should get better.”

Off the rails

Several failed attempts came my way over the subsequent weeks. To my growing frustration, a different stone-faced examiner would fail me each time on some mysterious error, with no explanation.

I hit rock bottom on test attempt number four. I think I forgot a second mirror check before a lane-change. The examiner drew out and then clicked his pen, and I snapped at him, “Dammit -- come on!”

I quickly unraveled, crowning all mistakes on my next turn by maneuvering into the wrong side of the road.

“Dame desu ne,” (“It’s no good, isn’t it?”) the examiner remarked flatly, instantly failing me. “This is bullshit!” I shouted as he took charge and steered the car off the course.  

Uncovering the way

After my fifth failure (each attempt costing me about ¥2,500 and a half-day of priceless company holiday), I finally got an explanation after I refused to leave the car.

Suddenly, this particular examiner came to life. He read my file and explained that I was a typical American driver. We drive like we’re on big, wide roads with little traffic. Japan is different.

True enough, I said.

He went on. Americans lazily look straight ahead far too much. Japanese examiners want to see constant effort through checking of the sides and rear.

I drew a deep breath, and then nodded. OK, I can play that game.

Also, smooth, gradual braking was penalized here. Each time I should pump the brakes so he could “feel” the car “hop” into a sudden, more obvious stop.

At this I lost all patience, and I scoffed loudly. This ended the conversation.

But just when I thought my outburst had sentenced me to another five failures, they proceeded to pass me on my next test. Brian passed on the same day, his seventh glorious attempt. And I have no idea why.

So now I have my Japanese driver’s license, and despite all my complaining, I’m ludicrously proud of it.

Yet, I still give any new Kanagawa-based American this piece of advice: move to Tokyo. Futamatagawa is no joke.

Japanese driver's licenseLicense to drive -- worth it in the end? That's a definite YES!