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Driver's License in Japan

Recently we have been thinking of getting a car. Although not typically necessary (or even useful) in Tokyo, with baby #2 on the way there are some benefits to having a car rather than exclusively hauling two kids around on the train system when we have to go out. Of course, getting a car requires a license and a license involves....(drum roll)..the government.

From my time at Microsoft, I had an old, expired, Japanese license. This license was obtained at a time when you could simply show them your US license and they would automatically issue a Japanese license. I dimly remember that it wasn't *quite* that simple but I choose to ignore the bells going off in my head. Since then they have changed their rules such that US citizens need to go through the same torturous application process as everyone else (except the Canadians who, for some reason, can easily convert their licenses into Japanese licenses - hmm...). The driver's test here is feared by all and passed by few - most people get their license by going to a certified Japanese driver's school which then issues them a certificate allowing them to skip the DMV test. At perhaps $1000 this is not an attractive option and, furthermore, I have to wonder what kind of political favors are being exchanged that allows this scam to continue. Obviously the notorious Driving School Cartel has its grimy fingers on the levers of power.

Day 1 Although my old license is 5 years expired, I make the one hour trip out to the Japanese equivalent of the DMV with my pregnant wife and kid (for emotional effect) in hopes they will renew the license. Note for future reference: bringing irritated wife and wiggly kid doesn't streamline the process and makes for a longer trip back home.

I went to one window, they sent me to another and yet another. I had heard from friends that talking in English will sometimes fluster them into giving you better service just to get rid of you. What a myth. English just gets you blank stares and nasty comments in Japanese. Failed tactic #2.

Finally I am at what I believe is the correct counter: Steve: "Can I renew my old Japanese license?" Mr. Bureaucrat: "No." Steve: "Can I use it to get a new license?" Mr. Bureaucrat: "I don't know." Steve: "How can I help you help me?" Mr. Bureaucrat: "Show me your passport." I show him my official Japanese ID card. Mr. Bureaucrat: "We need your passport to confirm your nationality and residence" Steve: "Cherished Bureaucrat, whom I deeply respect, as you can see, that information is here on my humble card, written in Japanese and certified by the honorable Japanese government" (We are studying honorific verbs in class..). Mr. Bureaucrat: "Please come back with the passport". Steve: "If I bring the passport, will it help me get a license?" Mr. Bureaucrat: "We will know when you bring the passport". Geez - you'd think I was in Russia.

Day 2 Passport in hand, I go straight to the correct counter on the third floor. I'm getting smart. Mr. Bureaucrat takes the material and tells me to sit. 30 minutes later (not bad..) they call me. Mr. Bureaucrat: "Where is your Japanese translation of your US driver's license?" Steve: "??". Mr. Bureaucrat: "We need an Official Translation of the license".

There are like 5 fields on a US driver's license. Reading Dick and Jane would be harder (I didn't mention this out loud).

Steve: "If I bring a translation will it help me get a license?" Mr. Bureaucrat: (non-committal response). Steve "sigh.." Total time at the DMV: 31 minutes.

Day 3 I go to the *one* organization certified to do translations of driver's licenses. Cost of translating 5 or 6 words: $40

Day 4 Back to the DMV. Back to Mr. Bureaucrat. I hand in my materials and sit down. The place is packed with forlorn looking people standing in lines for indeterminable reasons. However I note with some satisfaction that, contrary to most of my bureaucracy experiences, they are Japanese and not foreigners. The DMV is the great equalizer in Japan.

Eventually my name is called. They hand me my documents and I am directed to the 1st floor. Is there a driver's license at the end of this rainbow? I do not know. Down at the 1st floor, I pay $40. Now, I'm out $40 and they have my old Japanese license. If I don't get a license today, I am truly screwed. I am directed back up to the 3rd floor. Mr. Bureaucrat stamps something, takes something and directs me back to the 1st floor. What is on the 2nd floor??? I go to another line, get another stamp and go to another line. It turns out to be the eye examination line. My left eye needs a new prescription but I take a truly wild guess and answer the ONE question per eye. With a 25% chance (up, down, left, right), I have to wonder how many people slip through the cracks and are driving around blind. Based on my experiences as a pedestrian, quite a few. I, to, slip through.

By now my pile of documents is down to one lonely piece of paper with mysterious stamps all over it. They direct me to the building next door. Clinging to my slip of paper as though it were my daughter, I pass another long line of sad looking people. Past the Blood Donation van. Are they trying to send a message? I sit in the back of a room I believe is where I am supposed to be. Every once in awhile they call out names and a crowd of people surge forward. Finally it is my turn. I hand them my last, cherished, slip of paper, close my eyes and hold my breath. They give me a license. I high five the person next to me. Well, I don't, but I want to. I take my license, get on a bus and am trapped in traffic for 90 minutes. Somehow that seems appropriate. Life is good.