The driver’s licence adventure

Let me preface this post by saying that it could have been much worse. My comments that follow in no way contradict my gratitude for being able to obtain a driver’s licence in Japan without having to take a test, with language help, and with understanding staff.

However…get comfy, because this is a long one.

Day 1

So, on Wednesday morning, Y and I got up early so that we could exchange my previous driver’s licence for a Japanese one. Our prefecture has a population of 9 million people, and according to Y’s understanding, there is only one licence centre for the entire prefecture. Ordinary renewals can be done at local police stations, but new licences and foreign licence exchanges have to be done at the central place. It took us about an hour to get there (bus, train, walk), but we still made it just a little after 8:00 am, knowing that the services begin at 8:30. After locating the right section of the two (or more?) buildings, we were greeted by the scene below:


In other words, essentially every “don’t” that there is in the user experience or even basic customer service handbook. This is only one section of the room, the main counter, but the theme repeats throughout the place. My favourite part is how all the arrows point different directions. Do you see the small red arrow pointing down? That’s the most important one, because the very first step is to sign your name on the ledger if you want to exchange a foreign driver’s licence. Why put that at the front with a sign that says  “start here” when you can camouflage it so expertly amongst other signs?

Some of the signs are handwritten or hand-corrected, many yellowing with age and disintegrating tape, kind of an archeological layer of signs pasted up when questions arose over the years. Some had English as well as Japanese, with the occasional Korean and Chinese.

Note the hours that the reception desk is open: 8:30-9:00 and 1:00-1:30. When you get up to the ledger, you see the polite sign below:


Yup, it’s looking ominous.

As an aside, I do not “expect” to be provided with English signage in any non-English speaking country and feel very grateful if someone goes to the effort. And I definitely do not presume to criticise others’ language skills when my Japanese is so poor. HOWEVER, if an official government office is going to provide information English, please, for the love of Pete, get an advanced or native speaker to give it a once over.

Anyway, back to the main story. So we found the all-important sign-in ledger, which was accompanied by the useful information that only 10 people could be served per service slot. That is, 10 people in the morning and 10 people in the afternoon. I was number 12. This seemed just a little bit too ridiculous, so we waited around until the personnel started peeking out from behind their curtained windows just before 8:30. Y inquired and found out that yes indeed, only 10 people were served per slot. We were advised to wait around for a bit, though, in case one of the first 10 got booted from the queue if something was wrong with their documentation. Around 9:00, my name was called, and we got to go up to the window. An official looked over my papers and confirmed that everything was in order. Alas, I was number 11; only one person had been kicked out. We had the option to wait until 1:00pm or come back the next day. The good news was that I would be first on the ledger in either case. We wrote my name on the fresh sheet for tomorrow and departed. We spent about 3 hours including travel, but at least now I was at the front of the queue!

Day 2

So, we set out again with the morning commuters and arrived back at the licence centre just before 8:00 (in fear of somehow missing our turn). It was pissing down rain, which set an appropriate atmosphere for the whole experience. The first thing we did was check the ledger: yup, my name was still there. Phew.

I got called up to the front at 8:30 and submitted my documents. They were checked again, still all good. Phew. The staff person then took away my papers and we waited until someone came out to confirm the issue date on my old licence. Then I was called up again, maybe 30 minutes later and had to fill in a form with my name, address, birth date, etc. I can write my name, but alas, I can’t yet write my address in Japanese. They were nice about it and let me write in Roman letters. I then provided a photo that I had brought along, and the staff person used an awesome square-shaped paper punch tool to crop it to the right size and attached it to my form. And then there were more forms about my personal history. I got to read the questions in English and then indicate the answers on the Japanese form. E.g., do you have epilepsy, have you been too drunk to move more than 3 times in the last month, have you lost use of your limbs temporarily in the last year, etc. (Can’t remember them all.)

The next step (which I never would have figured out without Y’s help) was to take my form to the building next door. We went to a counter to purchase stamps, which is how the fees for the licence are handled. (You would think that in the land of vending machines, we would be able to pay money into a machine, but nope, there were real live people at the stamp counter.) We had to buy four different stamps with different denominations, two of which we stuck on my form. The other two would come into play later.

A machine came next, though. I must have entered some kind of ID number or scanned a payment receipt (I can’t remember) into a machine that looked a bit like an ATM or ticket machine, and then I had to select two different 4 digit PINs. To my chagrin, these displayed in plain text on the screen. The machine then printed out a slip with my PINs and a barcode.

Then it was back to the first building, where we were instructed to put my form (with stamps and photo) in a cardboard tray that stuck out from behind the main counter, which was all shuttered and barred again at that point, being after 9:00) The tray in question looked like a homemade cardboard in-tray, vintage ca. 1973. When Y tried to put my papers through, he saw that there was a little bell hanging down into the tray and he was confused as to whether he should try to ring it, or …? As he was fussing with it, a hand shot out from the other side of the counter (behind the shuttered windows) and snatched the papers before disappearing again.

That’s when I lost it. The whole thing was just too hilarious and I was laughing to the point of crying. Y laughed at me laughing and that just made it worse. I tried so hard to pull myself together so that I didn’t look too suspicious and unworthy of a licence, and with great will power, I managed to stop. But whenever I think of that stupid cardboard tray and the hand, I still just start laughing again.

Anyway, after I stopped laugh-crying, we sat down and waited for another 30 minutes or so. (Silly me, I thought we were getting close to the end. The order really starts to get fuzzy at this point, so I might have gotten the steps scrambled. I know at one point, we stopped for a snack in the little cafeteria, but not sure when.) I think the eye test was next. I got called back behind the big wall / counter for the test. They showed me images of a circle with a break in it at different points, and I had to say whether the break was to the left, right, top, or bottom. Then I had to identify the colours of lights. Fortunately, all the necessary words are in my vocabulary.

We waited for a while longer, and then the next step involved a staff member kindly escorting us up a flight of stairs where there was a buzz of activity with people taking exams and getting photos taken. I was directed to sit on a particular bench for a while, and then a staff member appeared and told me to go to a particular queue. Soon it was my turn, finally, to get a photo taken. I had to hand over my slip with the barcode (from the machine a while back) so that the photo-taking staff member could scan it. Then it was back to waiting in the first room again. At some point, maybe with the photographer?, I was given a blue piece of paper to which I had to affix my two remaining stamps. We were told it would be another hour or so for the licence to be printed. Well, at least it’s nice to have a time estimate.

Finally, at long last, they called my name and the number on my blue paper. I got to join a queue of other people with yellow papers who had been called at the same time. I think they were getting licences for the first time? I handed over my blue paper and got my licence.

Last step: log in with my PINs at the machine by the door to make sure all my details were correct in the system. I still don’t quite understand what the system is, but whatever it is, I’m in it.

And behold, around 11:40am, a mere four hours and 40 minutes after we set out from home, we could take the train back to Y’s work, where the poor guy had only 10 minutes for lunch before having to go to a meeting. (Thanks for helping me!) Check back in 3 years for an update when I have to go back to renew the licence! (The first renewal has to be done at the central centre, but after that, locally is ok.)



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