Hans Greimel
Hans Greimel
Asia Editor, Tokyo

Driver's license in Japan comes with lots of ritual

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TOKYO -- Japan's automakers love to moan about all the red tape that discourages young people here from buying cars: high taxes, thickets of registration, the need to show proof of an overnight parking spot, onerous inspection regimes.

Add to all that the trials and travails of simply getting a driver's license and then keeping it.

After years of driving in Japan on an international permit, I finally went local. This week I endured my first license renewal.

It was a five-hour odyssey at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police's sprawling traffic safety center -- replete with a two-hour remedial course on rules of the road.

I knew I was in trouble when our 60-something proctor spent the first 15 minutes telling us where the restrooms and smoker's corner were. She also apologized profusely to the two foreigners in attendance that she couldn't speak English and promised to speak slowly and clearly. This was all in Japanese.

No arm crossing!

She also warned: Don't slump your heads or cross your arms in impatience. And keep all drinks in bottles with closeable caps. And by all means, keep those caps screwed tight between swigs.

"If you stay focused with a good attitude, two hours won't seem that long," she assured us. She then inexplicably launched into a 10-minute lecture on proper bicycling etiquette.

Among those lessons: A 50,000-yen ($500) fine awaits those brash enough to bicycle with an umbrella in the rain. What that had to do with our motor vehicle licenses, I still don't know.

The entire process oozed with unbearable paternalism.

Getting the licenses in the first place is even more pedantic.

A failed walk-around

A Nissan Motor Co. public relations executive, a foreigner who had just arrived in Japan but has since left the company, famously flunked his driver's license exam. He failed to do the perfunctory test-car walk-around to make sure there are no kids under the back axle, broken taillights or other hazards.

They made him come back to test again. (He passed, but only after taking a course that forewarned of all such pitfalls.)

My renewal episode included the "Death on Wheels" video of bereaved parents recounting how their precious children were run down on their way home from the neighborhood park.

Halfway through the class, our instructor noticed some nodders. She then led us on a forced exercise march -- directing us to close our eyes, rotate our necks and stretch our arms.

Still, the day wasn't a complete waste.

Among the valuable takeaways:

• In a severe earthquake, all nonemergency vehicles will be banned from entering central Tokyo on major freeways and boulevards. Now that's news I might actually use. (Though hopefully not.)

• Also decoded were the special stickers seen on so many cars. Each of these subsets of drivers is required to affix its own brightly colored decal "warning" others on the road of their presence: hearing-impaired, elderly, handicapped and beginner drivers.

• Aichi prefecture, home of Toyota, had the most traffic fatalities of any Japanese prefecture last year. Its 235 deaths topped the 183 in much more densely populated Tokyo.

Still, Japan had only 4,411 traffic deaths in 2012. Compare that with 27,770 in the European Union last year and just over 32,000 in the United States in 2011.

Of course, the EU and the United States have much larger populations than Japan. But the stats still work out to one traffic death per 29,000 people in Japan, one death per 18,200 in the EU and one in 10,000 in the United States.

So perhaps Japan's nursemaid mind-set, so benevolently despotic to my American sensitivities, counts for something after all.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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