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My Japanese Driving Story

Note: This article is part of a series about getting a license. See the rest here.

When I decided to get my Japanese license I did some investigating and found out that the closest location for Himeji people is in Akashi. Although you can get there by taking a train to Akashi and a bus that drops off directly in front of the driving center, my wife drove me there for my first attempt. After arriving I took the written test. Surprisingly it was only ten questions long and entirely in English. I scored 7 out of 10 (the minimum score to pass), but they wouldn’t show me which ones I had missed. After passing the written test I went to another area to sign up for the driving test. I have since heard that it is impossible to do both tests in one day, but I distinctly remember doing both of mine on that first day. I took the written test at 10:00 am, but the driving testing didn’t start until 1:00pm, so my wife and I went to McDonald’s for some breakfast.

When I returned I went to the waiting area where they have a film running on repeat that explains the important points of the driving test. It is also possible to physically walk the course so you can familiarize yourself with the layout, which I did.

When it came time to start the test I was lined up with the other test takers in my group and given instructions in Japanese which I did not understand. Then I went outside and waited by the testing vehicles. The test is administered with one test taker driving the course while the next test taker in line sits in the back seat. This caught me off guard and immediately my anxiety level spiked. When I pulled onto the course I turned on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal (Japanese cars have one arm on the right side for both turn signals and the windshield wiper, as opposed to an arm on each side of the steering wheel).

Once I settled in I felt like I was doing well. Then came the tricky part; a zigzag section where you have to maneuver three ninety-degree turns in a short distance. Both sides of the road are lined with ditches, and if you go through one of these it is an automatic fail. If you enter the ditch you can stop the vehicle and reverse out without failing, but that’s not what I did. I didn’t realize I was in the ditch until it was too late. Even worse was that I didn’t fully understand the consequences, and since I thought I had done well on the rest of the test I still expected to passed. When I found out I had failed I was shocked. I had been driving in America for more than 20 years, so failing was almost incomprehensible to me. I collected myself and did the only thing I could–sign up for another try.

I was still feeling the effects when I returned a month later for my second attempt. I remember feeling extremely nervous as I repeated the beginning steps of the test. I was actually shaking as I pulled out onto the course, although I did manage to use the turn signal as opposed to the windshield wipers this time. I calmed down and finished the course with what I thought was perfect precision, even navigating the tricky section without incident. When I finished however the result was the same. I was slightly angered at the explanation I was given, which included the retort, “You are driving like an American.” Later I realized there are certain peculiarities of the test that I was doing incorrectly. Specifically, you must get as close to the curb as possible when making turns; the logic being that this prevents mopeds and bikes from squeezing beside you as you turn. Also I wasn’t looking around enough at the traffic signal that is part of the course. It is very important to make an exaggerated show of looking both ways before proceeding through the light once it turns green. The tester needs to distinctly see that the driver has looked in all possible areas that other cars might be. Another section that might possibly cause some trouble is a series of short turns that come rather quickly in the middle of the course. The tester is expected to cross the closest lane when making the original turn, go immediately into the far lane, and then make another quick turn, rather than turning into the closest lane, putting on the turn signal, and then passing into the far lane.

Once I realized what I was doing wrong I felt much better heading into my third attempt, but as I pulled out can you guess what I did?  Yep- turned on the windshield wipers again. Then I started to fumble with the lever and instead of turning the wipers off I switched them to a faster interval. Argh-instant anxiety attack! I thought- great- failed again and I haven’t even made it 100 meters. The tester, who was the same man from my first attempt, smiled, then reached over and casually returned the arm to its upright position. The irony to this inauspicious beginning is that I actually relaxed, thinking I had already failed. The rest of the test went without incident, and I was thrilled when the tester told me to get out and come around to his window (this is the way of telling successful candidates that they have passed). After the test I got my picture taken and sat down with Ms. Emily Lemmon who had also passed her test that afternoon (third try as well). We were told to wait several hours while they finished processing our applications, but apparently they had decided to make a special exception for us, because someone came out just a few minutes later and handed us our shiny new licenses. I felt great, almost giddy, like I was suddenly 16 year-old again!

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