Friday, June 27, 2014

Japanese Driver's License: The Tests

The Written Exam
10 True or False Questions
Level: Easy
Time: 30 minutes

For the written exam, I was escorted into a room where I was handed a packet. Inside the packet were large, laminated cards containing questions with pictures and a scantron. The woman who proctored the exam was a novice who spent more time sorting packets and counting people, even though there were only 5 of us, than actually proctoring the exam. After she explained the procedure and time limit, we were free to start the exam.

The exam was child's play in comparison to the written exam in the U.S.
Here are some sample questions:

1.) If you are going to drive a motor vehicle, it is important to know the rules of the road and to follow them at all times (True).

2.) You can turn right even though there is a red light in this situation (see picture above; True)
3.) At an intersection, a police officer signals for you to stop. You ignore the officer and follow the intersection (False).

4.) When turning right you can proceed to the middle of the intersection to turn, but must not obstruct oncoming traffic from the opposite side (For those that driving on the right, imagine turning left; True).

 If you failed the written exam whilst living in Japan, not only are you unfit to drive in Japan, but you are also an idiot. 

 After I finished the test, I was asked to wait outside until the tests were graded. Once finished, we were asked to return where the proctor announced that one person did not pass the exam. I shocked that she announced the results so openly, but knew that there was no way the person who failed could have been me. When she announced those who passed, she called my name, congratulated me on my perfect score, stamped by paperwork, and asked me to turn in said paperwork to another counter in order to schedule my practical exam.

The Practical Exam
Driving Course
Level: Hard
Time Limit: None
On the day proceeding my practical exam, I converged with my teachers about a particular problem. In the U.S., if you turn left into a double-lane street, you turn into the left lane because cars, who are turning right from the opposite direction (right turn on red), could turn into the right lane. In Japan, there is no "right turn on red." Well, actually, it's "left turn on red," because they drive on the left. So which lane was I suppose turn into?
Confused? Look at the picture above! Notice the car turning left? It's heading to the left lane of the double-lane road it's turning into. This was something I was unsure of because the driving center for my practice class only used single-lane roads. Although I asked one teacher, the question brought about a full staffroom discussion with teachers drawing diagrams and searching the Internet for a definitive answer. I love my senseis!
The following day, I drove, one more, to DMV in Naha to take the the despised driving exam. I was asked to wait in a room that opened onto a balcony overlooking the driving exam course. When I conversed with fellow foreigners, I realized  I was the only one who practiced the exam at a driving center.
The examiner arrived and gave a lengthy explanation, conducted in Japanese, regarding the exam procedures. It was fairly simple;  we were to be called into pairs, One person would take the exam while the other sat in the back observing and waiting their turn. We were given one lap around the course prior to the start of the exam to become acquainted with the cars breaks and gears. Moreover, he explained that if we drove onto a curb (especially during the Crank) we were given 3 chances to back up, adjust the car and continue driving. However, he stated that if we drove over the curb, we would fail the exam immediately.
When he finished, the looked down at his clipboard and began calling names.
"Romeu Maria Gaburiera-san."
I quickly raised my hand to indicate that I was present, when he said, "You're first." I let out an audible "Oh my God!" because I thought he was merely calling role. As I gathered my things, I cursed my luck and silently followed the examiner to the driving course.

I wanted to Mario Kart drift the sh*t out of this place
Although the test did not officially start until after the first loop, I exaggeratedly looked under the car and checked the road in order to "safely" enter the car. Once inside, I adjusted my seat and mirrors, and started the car. Before taking the car off of park, I said the one phrase that heard would definitely help my chances in passing:
 よろしくお願いいたします~! (Please regard me favorably)*
The course was set for every possible scenario: intersections, double lanes, single lanes, construction, hills, dead ends, obstructed views, railroad crossing, crank turns and S turns. My plan was to stay calm, but check my mirrors like a psycho. I saw it as a performance where every swivel of my head had its count to an unheard song. As I drove, the examiner would instruct me in Japanglish, "Turn right on 1" or "Turn left on 12." I was confident, but I let the confidence get the best of me as I entered the Crank.

The Crank
The first turn into the Crank was smooth, and I assumed the same result for the second. However, I felt the left, rear wheel drive onto the curb. I slammed the breaks and watched the examiner jerk forward out of the corner of my eye. I had saved the car from going completely over the curb, but I became discouraged when I heard the examiner let out an audible sign. I exchanged looks my fellow test-taker seated in the back, as I backed off of the curb, adjusted the car and cleared the second turn of the Crank.
My morale was low, but I will myself to try my best. I was relieved when the examiner asked me to park. Parking for the test was a side-road park where the car needed to be a foot or less from the curb. If you drive onto or scrape the curb, you fail. After I placed the car in park, the examiner asked the guy sitting in the back to excuse us so that he could discuss my results in private. I braced for the worst, and I knew I was in for it when I heard the examiner suck his breath through his teeth.
"Well, you passed."
I was so shocked to hear that I passed that told him that I didn't believe him. I wanted to jump out of the car and tell the whole driver's license process to "Suck it!" but I sort of kept my composure. The examiner asked if I had taken a course at a driving school. When I confirmed his assumption, he said he could tell by the way I checked my mirrors and that by doing so I demonstrated the utmost respect for driving safely. He also pointed out one mistake from the beginning of the exam where I had turned right from the left lane (in a double-lane street). I wasn't sure if that was still during the practice loop, but he informed me that he asked me to perform the same turn 4 times during the exam, and I executed the turns perfectly. After stamping my paperwork, he instructed me to visit the foreign license counter.

Ironically, I returned to the same counter with the not-so-nice lady, who genuinely smiled and said "You passed!" All the animosity I held towards her vanished instantly. I had passed, and my struggle and the person who caused my struggle (including whatever was my own fault) no longer mattered.

* I also wore a mid-thigh dress, because I heard that wouldn't hurt my chances as well ;)


  1. It's like you read my mind! You seem to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with some pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.
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  2. Unfortunately, I was forced to take this whole testing procedure again after my license expired while abroad, so I can add a few updates. I passed both the written and practical exam the first try (2013) on my previous license application process, but this time around they are finding new ways to make things difficult.

    They updated the written test to a 100 question exam. You can find the same easy 10 questions within there from before, but the added 90 questions were obviously not translated by a native speaker. I sat there scratching my head at the meaningless jumble of word-for-word directly translated questions wondering what half of the questions were even asking. One that I left blank until the end was something along the lines of , "It is inevitable not to interfere with pedestrians not using crosswalks as indicated." (True or False). I was left thinking more philosophically than practically...Inevitable? Maybe?? What I found to be the core of a lot of confusion was the presence of double negatives in the sentences like that. (There are a lot of those in normal Japanese grammar but not in English) one small translation mistake of one too many negatives makes for some pretty perplexing true/false questions.

    To make great chagrin and surprise, I had failed the written exam. From how easy the previous written exam had been, failure didn't even cross my mind as an option. The grader tried to encourage me and tell me to study hard. I had to bite my tongue, since he was honestly trying to be nice, but I wanted to explain that it didn't matter how much I studied if there is no way of understanding the poorly translated questions themselves.

    To his credit, there were a few new questions in the exam that were worth studying for, but the reasoning for them being required knowledge is beyond my understanding. I had checked the cover of my exam booklet several times wondering if they had given me the wrong test. I was testing for just the automatic transmission - regular (普通) license, but in the exam were questions about troubleshooting "air brakes" using exhaust valves, proper shifting techniques, towing weight restrictions for large vehicles, legality of pushing your motorcycle on a sidewalk, etc.

    So I find myself studying for the exam I had previously passed with great ease. They sell a study guide at the drivers license center, that is actually very well translated (seems strange they didn't employ the same translators for the test itself). The study guide is called "The Master of Your Driving" (Well everything but the title is translated well :P ). In the book, I can find very closely related material to what was on the test including all those random topics mentioned above. I recommend buying it and skimming through it for anything that seems surprising (meaning of the hearing impaired driver sticker which happens to be a butterfly made of ears??). But I guess some things won't stand out and you might just end up in the same situation as me and failing once, and then opening the study guide again and all of the crazy questions now pop right out at you.

    Well wish me luck on round two and don't call me an idiot until you pass the new written exam yourself! :P