August 10, 2008 / 4:01 AM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: Devil in the detail for would-be drivers in Japan

(Chang-Ran Kim has covered the Asian auto industry for Reuters in Tokyo for six years. She joined Reuters as a sub-editor in 2000. In the following story, she describes getting a driver’s licence in a notoriously draconian system.)

Chang-Ran Kim has covered the Asian auto industry for Reuters in Tokyo for six years. She joined Reuters as a sub-editor in 2000. In the following story, she describes getting a driver's licence in a notoriously draconian system. REUTERS/File

By Chang-Ran Kim, Asia Autos Correspondent

TOKYO (Reuters) - Here’s my confession: I was a car industry reporter without a license to drive.

I had let my U.S. driver’s license lapse some years ago and, living in Tokyo where it’s easier to get around by subway, I didn’t feel an immediate need to renew it.

Still, over the years I grew weary of having to decline test-drive offers from the companies I cover. With electric cars and other innovative models coming to market, I decided it was time to bite the bullet.

Besides, I’d heard a lot about how hard it was to get a license under Japan’s draconian system and I was curious.

To get a license, you must attend 26 lectures lasting 50 minutes each, and have 34 driving lessons before the final test. If you want an automatic transmission-only license, you only have to take 31 lessons behind the wheel.

The curriculum includes three hours of first-aid training, and a kind of personality test on the first day.

There’s no pass or fail in the latter but, through questions such as “Do you often get into long arguments with people?”, the instructors analyze your mental disposition and suggest ways to make sure negative aspects don’t get in the way of safe driving.

I didn’t want to spend every weekend for months on my quest so I decided to enroll in a 16-day course in the sleepy tourist town of Matsuzaki on the Izu peninsula, southwest of Tokyo.

It cost around $2,500 and I was told this was a bargain, although my U.S. Pennsylvania state license took only a few days and $30 to obtain.

The training and lectures during the first week covered what I needed to know to take a written and driving test for a permit. With the permit, you can immediately start practicing on public roads to go for another round of tests.


The driving course in Izu was the size of a football field, with traffic lights, a railroad crossing and a slope to practice starting without stalling. We trained in Toyota sedans, with extra foot brakes for the teachers.

I started the course with a motley crew of Izu locals: a 41-year-old mother, a young man just out of college and a hotel owner who had had his license revoked.

Though we shared little in common, it didn’t take long for us to bond, thanks to a common enemy: the quizzes we were required to take at least twice a day to prepare us for the mind-twisting exams ahead.

Although the true-or-false tests mostly covered material from the classes, they were tough. One question read: “If you approach a pedestrian crossing and you don’t know whether there are any pedestrians nearby, you must drive slowly so the car can come to an immediate stop if needed.”

I answered ‘true’. I was wrong.

That’s because all they want you to do is “slow down” rather than “drive slowly”. In precision-obsessed Japan, there’s a textbook definition of what constitutes “driving slowly”.

The questions often seemed needlessly misleading and we had to learn about 100 traffic signs and not-so-useful factoids.

An example: the speed limit for vehicles towing other cars is 30 km/hour, unless the one being pulled weighs 2 tonnes or less and is towed by a vehicle weighing at least three times as much, in which case it’s 40 km/hour.

The passing score is 90 out of 100 points.

The driving test is just as detail-oriented.

Points are knocked off for failing to roll down the windows at a railroad crossing or forgetting to adjust the rear-view mirror. Stall the car twice on top of that and you’ll probably be disqualified.

It’s hard to fault the authorities for being thorough. Japan has one of the lowest rates of road deaths among the world’s richest nations, while the United States is neck-and-neck with Greece as the worst offender.

Despite all my preparation, I had a moment of panic during my big test on the final day.

Halfway through, the examiner told me to park, handed me a map and asked me to get us to another point. I am not good with directions. I felt my feet tense up so to give them a rest, I put the car in neutral, and yanked the handbrake up.

Once I explained how we would get there, I started the car, totally focused on remembering the directions. When I put the car in second gear, something didn’t feel right.

“Let’s put the handbrake down, shall we?”

I was floored. I couldn’t remember if a verbal intervention from the examiner was an automatic fail. I mentally prepared myself to stay an extra day and take the test again.

Thankfully, we all graduated on schedule. Now, there was just the final written test, to be taken in Tokyo.

Back home, I went to the test centre the very next day before the esoteric rules I had learnt escaped my memory.

I made the cut, but about a third of those who took the test that morning didn’t.

And I still haven’t driven in Tokyo.

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