Renewing your driver's license in Japan is a process that, like most others here, is ridiculous for foreigners. Ridiculous, pointless, and a waste of time.
The story starts with May. To add insult to the injury of turning a year older this month, the Japanese punished me with a 30-day window for mandatory driver's license renewal. As an act of (shockingly!) sheer convenience, the station is open on Sundays, and I figured this past Sunday, nestled in the midst of the 5-day Golden Week holiday was as good as any.
As I've mentioned to many a friend in recent e-mails, I believe (and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one) that being a foreigner in Japan is harder than any country in the world, based on the language barrier and the culturally-closed-minded nature of the Japanese people. When it comes to anything, no exceptions for foreigners are made - driver's licensing being no exception. Passing the test the first time was very, very difficult, but the renewal process was just plain laughable, downright annoying, and a bit torturous. I went prepared with stories from my friends - what I was to look forward to was no more than an easy two hours of Japanese lecture, and that's exactly what I got, with a heap of funny stories to boot.
I started off easy in the line to pay for the licensure. ¥2500 (about $25) for the license fee, and then varying fees depending on your level of driving over the years of your previous licensure. I deciphered quite quickly that I was to qualify for the 'offender's' course - having received a ticket within the last two years. This raised my fee another ¥1700 (about $17), which I walked up to the window (at exactly 12:45, when it opened) and paid readily.
The lady behind the counter handed me my change as well as a huge form, written all in kanji (Japanese writing), to fill out before proceeding. I mean, I would like to think she looked at me and thought, 'Oh! A foreigner! Let's see... do I have an English form here? English, English... Nope, not there. Hmmm. Here? Nope, not there either...' before handing me a Japanese form, but alas, no such considerations were taken.
Worth mentioning - to be fluent in reading Japanese, one must know about 2000 kanjis. I can read about 50. So, with the 'stricken foreigner' look (which, mind you, I have perfected), I walked over to a nice uniformed gentleman and held up the form with a 'What the f** am I supposed to do with this?' look (whereas two years ago, I might have politely uttered 'Sumimasen, wakarimasen, tetsudatte, kudasai?' ('Excuse me, I don't understand. Can you help me please?')). He was generous, though, and led me to a table to help me out. I understood the basic idea of the form, and I can read 'address', 'phone number', 'name', etc, but am not privy to the fine print. He helped me get it started and which basic parts to fill out.
But it's what happened next, though, that almost put me in tears.
He turned the form over to reveal a checklist, which I likened to the kind of form you'd fill out before arriving on a flight to a foreign country. You know, the customs paper that says, 'Are you bringing, for yourself or others, any illegal drugs or narcotics?' or 'Are you carrying more than $10,000 of any foreign currency?' and 'I agree that the above statements are said and true, and by withholding information understand that I am punishable by law.' It was that kind of form. And, to add more insult to the injury of being illiterate and feeling stupid, he began reading it to me in Japanese. Mind you, as I am recalling this right now, I am laughing quietly to myself, trying to recall the exact situation, and the look on both of our faces - on his, as he read it to me, was a look of slight humor and annoyance, on mine, as I listened, a look of both horror and contempt. The humor and annoyance on his part was very much from the fact that he was reading me this list of boxes to check understanding fully that I had no idea what he said. And after each question he read, he said (in Japanese) 'No, right?, and gave me a wry smile'. The look of horror and contempt on my part can be attributed to the fact that I quickly realized that I had no choice but to answer 'Right. No.', or go no further with my driver's licensing process. So, for humility's sake, I deferred, and quietly answered 'no' to each of his questions. For all I know (and for which I hoped not), he could have been asking such questions as, 'Are you of sane mind to operate a motor vehicle?', to which I would have obediently and unassumingly answered, 'No.' 'Are you of legal driving age?' ('No.') 'Do you hold a valid alien registration card and can prove to be a legal resident in this country??' ('No').
But for all the frustration that it was worth, the rest of the entire process was truly easy (and often laughable). I barely passed the eye test (good thing I can say 'up', 'down', 'left' and 'right' in Japanese!). I gave a bad-ass smirk for my new picture (tell me I can't smile - ha!) and daydreamed through the entire lecture. The beaut of the story's end is that, when the instructor was done, at exactly 3:00, paying no attention to nor asking for proof of our comprehension (or lack thereof) of what we may (or may not have) learned over the last two hours, they deemed us ffit to drive again, handed us our new licenses, and shooed us out the door.
To be a foreigner in a foreign land. It's something else...