On 23 May 2018, I received my licence to drive in Japan!
Expecting to take at least two times, I was so surprised and elated that I ended up with a headache after the announcement.
The myth about how difficult it is for foreigners to pass on the first try has been debunked! I passed on the first attempt!
I took off from work to take the driving test and I rescheduled it so that I didn’t have to wake up at 5am to prepare. There were only two slots; morning and afternoon which starts at 1pm.
It was raining, and I was ready to fail. How could I pass when even the weather is not on my side. My impression was that the examiners are evil, and they will fail you at all cost. I reached the new building of the Kanagawa Police Driver’s Licence Center around 45 minutes before the start of the registration for the test. After getting familiar with where I should go to pay the fee and register for the test, I went to walk the course which was opened from 12pm to 1pm. Holding an umbrella in one hand and my application form in the other, I went through the steps in my head as I walked along the road.
“Left indicator here, pump brakes, half-clutch, look right, rearview mirror check, left side mirror check, blindspot check, turn slowly and 90 degree…”
I was following a lady who started walking ahead of me. Halfway through, she came to me and asked me if I know the route. Having been through the practice session a few days ago, I walked with her and told her what I was taught to take note of. She told me she failed the first time a few months ago and would be taking the test the next week. She was practising nearby with an instructor so she came to familiarise herself with the new course. Best part was, she asked me how I know Mandarin if I am a Singaporean. I then had to explain the difference between nationality and race.
At around 12.50pm, I returned to the building and saw that the payment counter had reopened after lunch, so I went and paid 1,450yen for the stamps again. It’s super old-fashioned, but I guess it is kind of cute?
Then, I went to the test registration counter which still had its windows down, but many people were already waiting. At 1pm sharp, all the windows lifted at the same time, like a stage curtain. I wonder if they treat this as a performance and rehearse this behind the scenes. As a kiasu Singaporean, I was the first to submit my form and was given the number 1. I immediately regret. I’m the first one? Gosh.
The person instructed me to go to a building in the circuit area, which was where I went for my practice session. That would be the waiting place.
After waiting for 30 minutes in a shipyard container-like building, the examiners entered the room. They turned out to be the same people who processed our registrations. There were different groups of examinees and they grouped the foreign licence conversion examinees together regardless of vehicle class. I think only one Pakistani took a different class from us; he applied to take a truck class.
The examiner for our group entered and called the nine of us to a corner where he briefed us about what was going to happen. In summary, he told us that he knew that we were licensed drivers and we should not have problems with driving skills, but this test would be a test of Japanese rules. He reminded us that the test begins the moment we enter the vehicle and ends when we step out of it. Everyone starts with 100 points and it gets deducted for every mistake we make, except for immediate failure. We need 70 points to pass, but we will not know nor will he tell us how much points get deducted for what kind of mistake.
He then mentioned that he will be the examiner for automatic transmission and I have to wait until the manual transmission examiner calls me. While waiting, I observed the auto peeps as they entered the car and moved off.
I ended up talking to a Saudi Arabian who was also taking the test for the first time. I gave him some advice which I got from the practice session and wished him all the best although I knew from the back of my head he wouldn’t make it. You really don’t just pick up that fake confidence, have no clue of what will happen and expect to pass the test one time. He was telling me he had been driving for 8 years in Saudi Arabia. Again, this is not a test of driving skills. It’s a test of your obedience, ability to follow procedures and display of effort.
After the Arab went out, I talked to the Pakistani. It turned out that he got his auto licence 5 years ago and he was taking the truck licence. He gave me lots of advice in his own words. Thinking that he was more experience, I listened attentively but… I don’t think they were useful. Why? Cuz he was saying stuff like you have to check your blind spot and signal early, which obviously I don’t need telling.
My examiner finally called me over the public announcement available in the room, using a microphone outside. He called the Pakistani over too. The Pakistani guy would sit behind and observe my test and I would do the same during his. I was first. So only two of us were taking the manual transmission test.
Once I entered the vehicle, I was asked for my full name and birthday. I was told to start the engine at my own time. I began my checks. Adjust seat, adjust rear view mirror, check handbrake up, check gear on neutral. Engine start. Adjust side view mirror (It uses electricity so you have to start the engine before adjusting the side mirrors). I told the examiner I was ready.
He said, “Let’s go. Turn on the wiper.” (He was nice to remind me about the wiper)
Clutch in, engage the first gear, release handbrake. Signal right. Left blind spot clear, left side mirror clear, rear clear, right side mirror clear, right blind spot clear. I released the clutch gradually, and the car started to creep forward.
The following were things that went through my mind continuously.
“Right clear, turn right, accelerate and shift up. Signal left here, check rear, pump brakes, free-wheel, left bend, engage clutch and accelerate, shift up, signal right, ease right close to the center divider, check rear, pump brakes, shift down, check clear, turn right, stick close to the left kerb…..”
The examiner will give simple commands in Japanese like, “Turn right at red number 10”. The junctions were marked with numbers in either black or red, and for my course, all were marked red. These went on and I was rather glad nothing major happened and there were close to zero traffic. All I had to do was to act as though there were lots of traffic.
I wanna talk about the crank and S-course but let’s save it for later.
It was almost the final part of the course, and I just exited the S-course. I remembered to put on the left turn indicator and made a left turn. I was focusing on controlling the speed as well as sticking close to the kerb but not hitting it as usual, and in front of me was the stop sign/line. I was ready to stop, but I got distracted by the checks while slowing down so I forgot to signal left! I guess I let my guard down too early too because it was going to end.
After stopping, the examiner said, “ウィンカー出そう～” (put on the indicator) and I knew it was over. I failed. I cursed under my breath, signaled and continued the remaining route, this time remembering every step I had to do. After stopping the vehicle (signal to the kerb side before you park), I put the gear to neutral, pulled the handbrake and turned the engine off.
The examiner told me, “Please check carefully”. I didn’t know what it meant. Does it mean I failed and he was giving me an advice to be a safe driver? Or is he hinting that the test is not over and I should do my checks carefully? I took the latter and before I exited the car, I looked at the right blind spot, pretending to look out for traffic, opened the door a little and checked again. Then, I stepped out of the car. Test over.
A hell of a ride
Next, it was the Pakistani’s turn so the examiner would replace the sedan with a 1-ton truck. I don’t get it actually, I could use my Singapore licence to drive a 1-ton truck/lorry and I actually rented one when I moved house in Japan. Why is a separate licence needed?
Before the truck came, I talked to the Pakistani again. He was praising me for certain things he observed, but I told him I knew I had failed. He kept saying he thinks I will pass though. Suddenly, another thing struck me. I forgot to put the gear in reverse after parking! Maybe that was why the examiner tried to remind me?
Well, let’s just try again then, I thought.
After a little more than 3 minutes, the truck came. I was ushered to the back cabin. It was a two-cabin one-tonner. The Pakistani was so nervous he couldn’t say his birthday when asked. He just threw the digits out one-by-one. Obviously I am not going to publicize it but he was 36 years old. When it was time to move out, he put the gear in first, signaled and… I immediately knew what was gonna happen. The lorry gave a huge screech sound and I couldn’t stand it so I whispered, “Brakes brakes!”
The examiner turned back and gestured me to shut my stupid mouth. He asked me to sit back and don’t make noise. That dude just tried to move off without releasing the handbrake. I wasn’t trying to help him, I felt pain for the vehicle. I had a bad feeling.
This guy, he probably haven’t driven a manual vehicle for a pretty darn long time and most likely didn’t go for a practice session too. How can you expect to pass when you can’t even control the clutch? His vehicle positioning was also quite bad.
Then came the horrible part. I have never experienced such g-forces in a land vehicle.
He went up the slope and the examiner asked him to stop. The examiner could most likely tell he didn’t went for the practice session. He looked so clueless. I was glad he remembered his basics when pulled up the handbrake. He revved the engine and did a half-clutch, but I couldn’t feel the jerk so I knew that wasn’t enough. This hero released the handbrake and we all went free-fall backwards. He panicked! So he released the clutch fully while flooring the accelerator, so we all went up again, and I thought it was a good 2 to 3gs. I finally felt what it is like to be in a Lamborghini. It was lucky that the vehicle didn’t fly off the slope maybe because it was a heavy vehicle. We would probably have smashed into the house just outside the fence of the course 50 meters away if it had been a sedan.
I don’t know whether to laugh or to pray for him.
After getting off the slope, we came across the obstacle I faced earlier. This hero went so close to the cones (20cm?) I thought he purposely wanted to fail. I was thinking, why would you do that?? By the way, the minimum is 1-meter. I was surprised the examiner allowed him to carry on.
Next, at a four way junction, a tractor was coming from the left. We had the right of way. This guy just stopped and waited for the examiner’s instructions. The examiner then directed him to go around the tractor which had its scoop cutting into our lane. After passing the tractor and making a left turn, the examiner said, “Go back to the starting line, the test is over.”
The examiner reminded him not to use one hand to drive as we entered the parking spot. He probably didn’t give a shit anymore after knowing he had failed.
I was instructed to go to the waiting area where we waited to register for the test. I sat beside the Arab and asked how did it go. He failed too, after mounting the kerb at the crank course. Bro, 8 years of driving. How did that happen? I shared my experience and told him I’d failed too.
Above the shut windows were screens joined together that formed the words, “Candidates who passed the test will be called out by a staff via the counter.”
At around 3.30pm, one of the window shutter began to creep up slowly. The examiner who administered my test revealed himself and called out to us, “blah blah blah, foreign driving licence conversion number 1…”
That’s me isn’t it?
I could hardly believe I passed, but I went forward, still expecting that he would tell me I had failed. When it was my turn, the examiner didn’t dish out a folder which contained my information on it like he did to two Japanese in front of me. Instead, he fumbled around looking for a piece of paper which turned out to be the map of the current floor.
He told me, “ウォンさん、合格です。”(Wong-san, you passed)
I couldn’t believe it and I thought I heard 不合格 (failure) so I asked again. I opened up my ears and listened attentively for the “fu”-word and elation engulfed me so much when it didn’t came!
不合格ですか？(Did I fail?)
ありがとうございます！(Thank you so much!)
Half of my mind was already unable to concentrate when he started explaining what I was supposed to do to collect my licence. So this is what taking heroin feels like, I thought, as endorphins rushed through my body.
I went to purchase stamps worth 2,050yen for the licence issue fee, printed out two sets of 4-digit code using a machine as I was instructed to. Then, I made my way to the designated waiting area. Not long after, people began to join me, and I saw a Chinese couple and a Chinese lady who took the test too. Only the husband took the test, while the wife accompanied him. So, including me and one more guy from Peru, 4 out of 9 passed and I was the only one who passed the first time. After chatting for some time, we figured out that the rain was probably a factor for leniency, and the center probably have records of our practice session, so they were most likely more lenient to those who took the practice session. Actually anyone could easily tell whether someone has taken a practice session. This is because we would all display attributes of a learner driver and knowledge of Japanese style driving. That was probably the main reason I could pass the first time even though I made a few mistakes. Another probable reason was maybe the examiner compared me to the Pakistani. If he would pass anyone today, it would be the guy from Singapore hahaha.
I was so happy that I got a migraine late afternoon. But never mind, all that matters is the licence to drive in Japan.
I’ll write another post on tips to pass the Japanese driving test.