To start at the beginning, read Part 1 here.
- The Third Appointment (A Crash-Course in How to Pass the Test)
The day after embarrassing myself with my failure, I was back at the Menkyo Center, or rather, the test prep center next door, for two hours of driving practice. This class isn’t so much a class on how to drive as it is on how to pass the test. That sounds pretty dubious, but in Japan, a land where test scores are seen as the ultimate proof of one’s abilities, it’s quite common. For every kind of test that exist, there are also classes on how to pass.
I met my first instructor, an older Japanese man clad in a navy tracksuit. He asked if I could speak any Japanese.
“Skoshi,” I replied. “A little.”
He looked nervous.
You and me both, I thought.
He had me approach the car, and quickly stopped me. Only two minutes in, and I was already doing something wrong. Before you get in the car for the test, you must inspect it, checking the tires and underneath, and also checking for oncoming cars as you open the door. I did this, got in, adjusted the seat and mirror, fastened my seat belt, and I was off.
He had me take a lap around the track. I figured I could handle that, but nope, I was doing something wrong again. I was too far from the curb. In Japan, one should hug the curb, much more tightly than I had expected. After a few more laps around the track, with me mastering my curb distance, we moved on to The Parked Car.
This obstacle is exactly what it sounds like, a car parked in the road that you have to maneuver around. If you are passing The Parked Car on the Japanese driving test, there is a series of steps you must perform. First, you should signal, then count to three, check over your shoulder, move to the center of the lane, signal back, check the door of the parked car, lean over the steering wheel to check the front of the parked car, check over your shoulder, and change lanes. It’s a lot to remember, and the timing has to be executed perfectly. It took me a long time to get it down, and 6 or 7 laps later I was deemed fit to proceed.
In the first hour, I only made it as far as left-hand turns. No wonder I had failed the test. I was doing so many things incorrectly without even realizing it!
For the second hour, I was given a new instructor, also an older man, also in a navy tracksuit, also nervous about my low level of Japanese, which actually turned out to be not that big of a problem, thanks to mime and pictures.
The second hour of class saw me mastering right-hand turns, and the intricate obstacles known as the S-turn and L-turn. Japan has many narrow, curvy roads, so to make sure that drivers can handle them the track at the Menkyo Center includes these hindrances. Amazingly, these were the only things I did correctly on the first try.
After two straight hours of driving test practice, I felt pretty good. If I had gone straight from there to the test, I’m sure I would have passed it. Unfortunately, I had almost a week to wait before my second crack at it. Hopefully I could keep everything I’d learned in my head until then.
- The Fourth Appointment (Test Attempt #2)
I was a little less nervous when I arrived at the Menkyo Center to take the test again, but just a little. Despite my efforts to keep all the rules and customs in my brain, I was sure I’d forgotten something.
This was also the first time I was alone at the center, as my colleague wasn’t able to stay with me this time. But I could check in by myself without fucking up, surely.
When it was my turn at the reception counter, I gave the man my name and residence card.
“Zenbun, onegaishimasu,” he requested. He wanted all my documents.
I scrambled around in my bag, fully aware that I was holding up the line, and produced my passport, American driver’s license, and JAF translation. He double checked all my crap, and then gave me a few forms to fill out. They were the same forms as last time. Again? Really?
I took the forms to the line of sad, worn counters lined with sad, dying pens and sad, crusty sponges. I took a closer look at the form and gulped. Last time, my coworker had done this for me, since it was all in Japanese. I compared it to another piece of paper I had with my information and dutifully set about copying. My name was fine, but my address in kanji was another story – the scrawl looked like it had been done by a kindergartner.
Finished, I went to pay at the payment window. In Japan, if you are paying for something official or government-related, you can’t just pay for it with money. Instead, you have to buy revenue stamps, which look a lot like postage stamps that you stick on your forms and documents to show that they have been paid for.
While I understand the meaning behind this, I find this practice to be incredibly archaic. I took my revenue stamps back to the sad tables and grimaced as I used the disgustingly old sponge to stick them on, accidentally getting them far too wet in the process. My hands were still a bit sticky when I brought my forms back to the reception window.
In my flustered state over having to write in Japanese I’d forgotten a form, a questionnaire asking about my alcohol consumption and if I’d fallen asleep at the wheel. I ran back to the sad tables and hastily checked all the boxes, only to find when I went back to reception that no, the boxes shouldn’t be checked, they should be marked with an “x”, so I had to do it again. Finally, I was told to wait my turn for the test, and stepped aside to memorize the day’s course route and watch other foreigners struggle through.
After I’d watched an African man pass and a Chinese girl fail, it was my turn. My test administrator this time was all business. He briefly checked that I knew the day’s route, and we were off.
It’s true that I felt much more confident this time, but I still had no idea if I’d pass. I made it through some basic turns OK, then proceeded on the S and L-turns. Halfway through the L-turn, I misjudged the dimensions of the car, and my back wheel went off the road into the little ditch. I came out of it, but the test administrator applied his brakes. It was over. I’d failed. Again. I didn’t even make it to The Parked Car.
The first time I’d failed, I had been embarrassed, but now I was just pissed at myself. I had done the L-turn so well in the practice course! How could I have fucked that up? Why can’t I pass this thing?
Although it was hot, I didn’t want to be in that building another second, so I waited outside for my coworker to pick me up. I leaned against a brick wall and fumed. Near me, a frumpy middle-aged woman sat on the steps, waiting for the bus. She stared at me. I stared back. Here we were, two losers who couldn’t pass the driving test, waiting for our rides.
Would I ever pass this thing??? I’d have to wait another week to find out.
Stay tune for Part 3 . . .