Last week, I finally received my Japanese drivers license. It only took three attempts to pass the practical test (which according to most websites on the subject is about average), but it felt like it took forever. My friends and family on Facebook have heard me complain and celebrate over this topic for the past month now, so this will be my very last post (hopefully) and we can close the book on it. But I wanted to record my final thoughts on the process of getting a Japanese drivers license because one day, probably soon, I will forget the joy and pain of it all.
First, I want to say that getting this license was all by the grace of God and the goodness of friends who encouraged and prayed for me. Yes, I know it sounds like an Oscar acceptance speech, but honestly, it is true. Without my friend Keisuke taking me the first time and translating everything for me, I would have never been able to even get to the practical test. It was an 11 hour day from when we left our station to when we got back and Keisuke was with me the whole time. That is a true selfless act of kindness.
The thing is getting your drivers license in Japan is much more a cultural and language test than it is a driving test. From the language perspective, there is very little written or spoken English going on anywhere in the test center. Even the cafeteria menus are completely in Japanese.
On one form, an employee insisted that I write my address in kanji, not romanji. The first time, Keisuke wrote it for me. The second time, the employee saw my look of panic, crossed out the romanji I had written and wrote the kanji for me. The third time, the supervisor stood by me and watched me struggle to write the kanji like a pre-schooler and offered some coaching when I got stuck, though he still made me write every character myself.
The cultural testing is learning to act like a Japanese person would in similar circumstances. Americans might get frustrated or even angry at the amount of bureaucracy and lack of English at the testing center. That will get you nowhere, and more likely, will prolong the torture because you are completely at the mercy of the employees who work there. So instead, I spent a lot of time apologizing. Apologizing for not knowing how to write my address in kanji. Apologizing for having to ask for clarification on something explained to me in quickly spoken Japanese. Apologizing for not signalling my turn 30 meters before where I am turning even though in real life, nobody does that.
You’ll also learn how strongly the Japanese view of equality among peers is. It doesn’t matter that you arrived first thing in the morning, drew the first card for the practical test and finished your test 2 hours before the last person who arrived did. You will be expected to sit and wait until every person has finished their testing before you can go on to the next step of the process. Whenever there is a group of people in the same status, you will all wait as a group until everyone has completed that step in the process.
People ask me the secret to passing the practical test and I really have no answer. On my passing day, about 30 foreign license holders took the practical with me in the morning and when the group who had passed was gathered together, it was myself and one other woman (and a handful of Japanese) who had passed that day. The passing rate is supposed to be 30% for foreigners but we accounted for less than 10%.
The proctor I had was the same one I had the first time I failed the test. He was so strict, when I saw that I was in his car, I immediately thought I was going to fail again. The first time he tested me, he had his pen in his hand and was marking off points from the second I pulled away from the curb. This day was completely different. The first day, he spoke completely in Japanese and I didn’t even think he could speak any English. On my passing day, he gave me instructions in Japanese and repeated the number of the location I was supposed to turn at in English! As far as marking down my mistakes, I didn’t even see him pick up his pen until we were almost three-quarters of the way done with the testing.
My only explanation for his change in behavior is that I demonstrated that I took his comments about my driving to heart from when he had failed me two weeks earlier. At the time, I thought it was a little ridiculous that I would fail a drivers test over such small details, but as he explained it to me, I listened intently and clarified (in my broken Japanese) what he had explained to me. Getting him as my tester again turned out to be a Godsend because he was able to see that I took his advice from the first time. And I believe that’s all it took to pass on the third attempt.
I mentioned that the process of getting a Japanese drivers license is a humbling experience and now that I have finished it, I can say for certain that it is. Nearly every step of the process, you will be reminded that you aren’t Japanese, especially if you aren’t language fluent. Even if you are language fluent, you’ll be flabbergasted by the bureaucracy and “Japanese-ness” of the process. But in the long run, the process should serve as a reminder that we are strangers in a strange land, that what seems right to us seems wrong to others, and learning how to maneuver within the context of the culture is the best way to accomplish things.