In Japan, your driver’s license gets renewed every three years but it expires within a month of your birthday no matter when you first received it. So since my birthday was in August, I knew I had to renew right away after the summer.
On my first try – and I have discovered that anything I do bureaucratically in Japan takes me two tries – I got to the center in Samezu right as it opened. I waited a moment on line to tell the receptionist what I wanted. He helped me to fill out a form, taking my license and basically photocopying it onto the form. The man told me to go to window number two. At the second window, I had to use a tiny machine to create a pin number. Keep in mind that everything involves waiting on a line – an efficient line – but a line nonetheless. Step three, room three was an eye test. There were four testers, four machines, and hence, four lines. It was slightly darkened in the room so you could see into the lighted machines, but I felt like humming a worker bee type of song. It was perfectly silent with a wave of black-haired driver-wannabes. It’s an efficient, perfect nightmare. There are even lines painted on the floor for people to follow as they negotiate the path from window to window to complete the tasks necessary at any department of motor vehicles.
After passing the eye test, I was told to go to window number five down the hall, where they checked my alien registration card. Unfortunately that first day, they noted that I had forgotten to renew my alien registration card and I had to go back to the Minato-city ward office to do that before I could get the license. I felt like they stamped my papers with a large “rejected” stamp! The ward office is a story for another day, but I had to leave the building right away.
The whole thing was a scene from a lousy 1950’s movie, complete with beige cinderblock walls and pink and beige tiled floors. That place hasn’t seen an update since the sixties at the latest. Everyone stamped papers and passed you on. It was typically institutional and mildly frightening.
I saved the paperwork they gave me, so when I went the second time, renewed alien card securely in my wallet, I was able to start with window number five (where did four go??) after checking in at the reception desk and the man there looking over the papers. That felt almost gleeful!
At window number five, they checked me in, punched a hole in my old license, and sent me to window number 8 to pay. After that, I had to go to room 11, where they took my picture. No smiling please.
After the picture, they sent me upstairs to room/window 200. There, the man behind the desk looked at me and did a typical Japanese, “hmmm. Very difficult.” I started to panic when he gave me the paper back with “room 200, 1:20-3:20pm” written on it. I was passing!
The last hurdle really to clear was the two-hour class. Road safety. 100% in Japanese, no exceptions. And all foreigners have to sit through it anyway. They gave me an English book, but even then, I understood less than 10% of what happened over the two hours. It was a nice rest and time to let my mind wander. I would pretty much do anything they said in order to renew the license and not have to go through getting a new one. The story of doing that was so painful that I did not even write about it for the blog.
The instructor of this looong class, was an older Japanese guy with a small gut and big, gold-framed glasses. He was so anxious that I was all right – it was cute. In the end, he smiled sheepishly at me and stamped my form with his completion stamp so I could go to window/room #15, back downstairs.
Everyone who had been taking the class, even in other classrooms, filed into the room, and they called out numbers from the front in Japanese. When your number was called, you went to the front, retrieved the license and the whole thing was done. I had to listen very carefully to the numbers, and I sat very close to the front, but they looked right at me when they called my number with my license in their hands. I’m sure I was the only foreigner in the room with about 100 Japanese in it. Note the renewal date in blue on the license in the picture above – the year of renewal is 26 – the 26th year of the current emperor, which is in 2014. The current year is 23.
I got my license renewed. I do not have to do anything like this again for three years. The thought, as I emerged from bureaucracy-land, put a spring in my step.
Japanese bureaucracy. Can’t beat it. It’s efficient and omnipresent – and antiquated. Sort of a metaphor for the country.