(Originally sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends May 25, 1997)

Long-time residents of Fukuzawa might remember two years ago when I griped about the low quality of Japanese drivers (that essay here).

Well, I got my comeuppance. Read on:

April 25, 1997 was a beautiful, sunny day.

I was driving along at a pleasant clip, minding my own business, on one of my side-road short-cuts--avoiding those infernal traffic lights that are timed to prevent smooth speeding. Down the road ahead was a typical toro-toro truck, acting as a moving barrier in a calculus equation, so I imagined how many seconds it would take for me to see him in my rear-view mirror. I checked--no cars anywhere (hey, only we Dave-Barryesque driving geniuses know about these side roads), so I passed, turned the latest U2 CD up to triple-digit decibels, and left the truck eating my dust. Bruce Springsteen would write a song about me!

Indeed he already has: "Darlington County", or "Working on the Highway". Somewhere hiding in the bushes was a navy-blue-uniformed traffc cop, sitting calmly on a folding chair beside a speed-trap sonar megaphone, just waiting with a walkie-talkie to transmit my licence number to Central Control so I couldn't get away. A few hundred meters down the road (apparently it takes a lot of meters to stop at the speed I was going), out jumped a speed cop, blue togs replete with reflective stripes, brandishing nothing more than a big fluorescent orange flag and one of those extended-tube orange flashlights in case I didn't get the hint.

I have previously watched a Japanese speed trap in action from my bicycle for an hour or so, and always marvel at how brave those cops are, and how compliantly the drivers brake and pull over. I followed suit.

The speed trap (nezumi tori, "mousetrap" in Japanese) was quite typical for Hokkaido. Along every important road (or driving genius's side road) there seems to be a vacant lot that some cooperative citizen donates for a half day just to snare people like me. Ample parking (just about every other car was getting caught--too many geniuses were using my side road), about a dozen navy cops ready to process everyone, and a big grey riot bus (with Hokkaido bear logo and mesh over the windows) where everyone sits down and signs their life away. I was directed to a space like I was pulling into a Japanese gas station, and a cop rapped on my window for my attention.

"Ano ne, supiido ihan desu yo." he said.

"What?", said I, "I don't speak Japanese."

Alright, stop snorting in disgust, dear reader. The reason I was playing possum was not so much to escape (although I've heard from three different sources that switching from genius to dumb gaijin can ease your getaway), but I wanted to see what would happen. Would I get any different treatment from any other offender?

Guess what? No. Why? No, they didn't have an interpreter ready. The dozen of them mustered up what English they could and of course came up with the word raisensu. I handed it over. They looked at my particulars and quickly surmised: "You've been here eight years. You speak Japanese."

I played dumb for quite a while afterwards, but it always surprises me how egalitarian Japan can become when I least want it; a language barrier suddenly comes into play when *I* want something, like service at a store, but not when *they* want something, like my blood.

Anyway, I got out of the car and they showed me how bad I'd been. "You were doing 62 kph in a 40 zone. Speeding." I couldn't argue with numbers off a sonar machine, so I just nodded and let events take me:

onto the meshy bear bus, where my designated cop wrote down my particulars. Name, address, home number, place of employment, office number, licence number. Same as back in the US. But with one major difference:

The police here at all times were polite, and I mean *very* polite. They didn't treat me like a criminal and demand a confession. They didn't wear crash helmets, mirror sunglasses, or even leather. They weren't even supercilious, threatening me with a flashlight in the face or a spread-eagled search on the car! They were just ojisan doing their job, treating me like I was a customer at their gas station. They were speedy (what followed took only fifteen minutes, including language barrier), and clear and patient in their explanation. So much so that when all was said and done, I had to force myself not to say "thank you" just out of reflex.

What came next was an explanation of the legal system, so I clicked into Japanese: "You've got me. You really knew I spoke Japanese." Without even an iota of irritation, the cop said, "Of course. You've been here long enough." And here's what he explained:

"The Japanese driver licence system is a 'points system'. You just lost two points for speeding 20 kph over the limit. Other offenses of course have worse values: for example, DWI (sakeyoi unten) by itself is 15+ points, not wearing your seat belt 1 point. Fifteen means you lose your licence for a year.

(FYI for those of you who can read Japanese, here are the points and penalties involved, from Zen Nihon Koutsuu Anzen Kyoukai's Ruuru to Manaa book, page 102)

"But anyway, what you have to worry about is getting stopped again. Speeding is the worst repeat offense, and your type is always getting stopped. Six points off means you get your licence suspended for 30 days, called mentei. Do you understand things as I've explained them?"

I did. "Okay, your fine is 15,000 yen. Here's a payment slip to take to any bank, post office, or major cop shop. Pay it within a week or else you will get a nasty notice from Central Control with a heavier fine. That's it. Now drive more slowly, please."

I said I would. And I meant it. But guess what:

It was a beautiful sunny day on April 29, four days later.

I was driving along, minding my own business, on a major road to avoid the lowered speed limits that lurk along my genius short-cuts. And provided I drove at the same speed as the other cars, I figured "safety in numbers" and all that:

Wrong. In a crowd of four cars, I was plucked out by another speed cop ojisan and pulled over. I rolled down my window in the speed trap lot only to find:

"Hey, it's you, Debito-san! How are you doing?" It was the very same cop as before!

"Look, I was looking at my speedometer and taking care of my speed! Why did you single me out? I was going no faster than anyone else!"

"Not according to our instruments. You were going 75 in a fifty zone. 25 kph over the limit. That'll mean 3 points off your licence and a fine of 18,000 yen. See? I said people like you are repeat offenders because of your driving habits. You're used to speeds like this. If you keep on going like this, you're going to lose your licence."

After fifteen minutes in the bear bus the shock still had not worn off. I had taken measures to slow down--frequent glances at my speed, staying in the slow lane, passing nobody. I'd even kept my music volume low and avoided disco beats and screaming guitars! What else could I do?

"You'll have to find something, Debito-san, because one more point off and you're mentei."

That I couldn't afford. I would be going to the US in short order to buy up my personal imports, and need an international licence to rent a car or truck. Unfortunately, California's Department of Motor Vehicles (like their voting stations) didn't answer enquiries, so my US licence (like my right to vote last election) went invalid. I have to face the irony of driving on a Japanese licence in my home country!

That is, if I still had a Japanese licence.

"Debito-san, do you have any prior offenses? Think hard."

Well, last November I got caught going through a red light (shingou mushi). I'm pleased he didn't ask for more details on that, because it was embarrassing--I was driving home from school at 2am, enforcing "pedestrian rules" for red lights (i.e. stop, look, if no cars are around, go ahead and cross. Waiting is a waste of time in the middle of the night and there are no "sensor lights" here). At an intersection, I did a "right on red" (which over here means I cross the opposing lane), and got caught--by a cop car that was sitting in the adjacent lane, at 4 o'clock to me, in my blind spot. They got me fair and square, so in the back of their car (where they ticketing takes place) I played no language games. In fact, I spent about an hour inquiring about points of traffic law. Hell, I'd just lost two points and faced a 9000 yen fine, so I was going to get my money's worth.

Back to the second speeding offense. "Yes, officer, there's was a red light offence, but the cops said that if I did no more wrongs within the next three months, those points would begone. It's been five. So I'm okay, right?"

"Yeah, you're okay. Don't go through any more red lights and don't speed again." He was cautioning me with the weariness of a dentist reminding his patients to floss. "Or else."

"And how long will it be until these five new points disappear from my licence?"

"As a repeat offender, one year."

My heart sank. ONE YEAR? How the hell was I going to follow the speed limits? Red lights, sure, easy enough--just don't go through them. But maximum 50 kph on any urban non-toll road when Neil Young is riffing? Far too low--even bicycles beat that! But how was I going to completely remake my driving habits and take the lead out of my foot?

I found a way. I found the speed limits well-posted on every road (turns out my short-cuts were usually 30 kph, which meant I was often nearly three times the speed limit), and followed them exactly. I also discovered that if I never shifted above third gear, my car physically could not go over 60 kph.

And for the next three weeks, I was on my best behavior--I putt-putted along in the slow lane, never (I mean it!) more than 5 kph over the speed limit, no matter how much fellow geniuses honked at me to get out of their way. It doubled my driving time, but no way was I going to lose my licence.

Best laid plans.

I got a notice from the police on May 21. The ancient red-light offense had been counted and I was up to seven points. Mentei. The punishment was clear--unless I wanted to lose my licence for 30 days, I had to come to Sapporo's Department of Motor Vehicles within a week, spend a full day receiving reindoctrination, pay 6,600 yen, and pass a test at the end.

In Japanese. Gulp.

I called DMV up and explained. "The cops said I would lose those 2 red-light points after three months. So why am I mentei?"

"Yeah, those points would have disappeared provided you've had no offenses over the past two years. Have you?"

I then remembered. I was towed for imprudent parking in March 1995. Two points and 30,309 yen fine (including ticket, tow truck, parking garage fee, and tax).

"Well, that's why your 2 points in November are still alive. Our computer tripped you on that. Come in and take your class and test, or else you lose your licence for a month. Got it?"

If you've had the patience to read this far, by now you've probably noticed that my writing style is far more self-deprecating than usual. That's because I am at fault here and am in no position to criticize Japan. So instead of the typical Dave diatribe, I'd like to finish this tale with the pennance I paid at the DMV, and how crime-abhorring Japan treated a repeat offender with exceptional clemency.

My wife (by now quite disgusted with having to pay so many fines, but she held her tongue--she's been towed too) drove me to the DMV, since it was now illegal for me to do so myself, at 8am on Friday May 23rd, 1997. Our kids were thrown in the back, still in their pyjamas, grumbling at daddy for not being able to drive like mommy. I was dropped off, and things commenced thus:

We sat waiting in a lobby, listening to a PA'ed tape that gave us stats on how many traffic fatalities had happened in Hokkaido over the past year (Hokkaido is always the highest in raw numbers, followed by Hyogo and Chiba). And the importance of safety belts, speeding down, all that good stuff. "We" meant that 68 people had come in that day for mentei treatment; they were almost all men, some yakuza and truck driver types, but not a few middle-aged salarymen and clean-cut students. In other words, I was surprisingly unexceptional, except for being the only white boy there in a long while.

At 8:45, the course began. We all lined up to hand in our licence, pay our fees, and get escorted into our all-day classroom. I was taken aside by DMV officials (they knew I was coming), and brought into the main office for a special briefing. Three very friendly officials gave me a verbal explanation of the proceedings, plus a written explanation in both Japanese and surprisingly good English: "You do not have to take this course or this test, and your refusal will not affect you in future. But if you don't take, you lose your licence unconditionally for 30 days. If you do take, we will lessen the time period on your suspension depending on your score on the test. A "C" on the test means we knock off 20 days, so you cannot drive for about a week and a half. A "B" means we knock off 25 days. An "A" means we knock off 29 days, so you will have to avoid driving today only."

I said: "Is there an English version of the test?" I was going to take as many advantages as I could, and many US DMVs have tests in foreign languages.

"No. But you speak Japanese so well, can't you read?" I said that there may be too many specialized words. "Okay, well, we'll provide an interpreter, a special room for you to take the test in, and no time limit. But you can't use your dictionary, okay? Just ask questions. Agreed?" I happily agreed. They were definitely not driving any hard bargains.

The class started at 9:15, given by some really old guy whose face looked like he'd been ravaged by smallpox. He could only slur his speech out of one corner of his mouth through a microphone that didn't work. I was all the way in the back, seat 68, and was having trouble hearing. But I was not alone. At several points, there were plenty of "huh?"s from everyone else in the classroom, and demands for clarification from annoyed old mentei offenders.

First off, we took a preliminary test to evaluate our driving habits. Questions were true and false. Some of the answers were so obvious that they nearly became trick questions: "I enjoy speeding in school zones." "I do not check the opposing lane before passing a truck going uphill." "I often make screeching sounds with my wheels." "I hate seat belts."

But some were a bit full of cultural conceit: "I love gripping the steering wheel." "I love the sound of my [revving] engine." "I have confidence in my driving ability." I had to ask the DMV people later what they were getting at. Reply: "These are habits of bad drivers, like bosozoku. You don't like to do these things, do you?" Oh no, of course not!

In fact, it soon became clear exactly what answers they were looking for. The questions were in the same style of "political-correctness" as American DMV tests. We took a practice test, and after enough time, even with the language barrier, I really started sussing things out.


1) Look for slogans, soundbites, and anything that gives you a warm fuzzy feeling. Those are usually "True". Example: "True or False: Drivers have a social responsibility to drive safely." Duh.

2) Look for absolutes, like "never", "always", "only" etc., because they are usually "False". "Because it is dangerous, one should always speed up to get though a school zone quickly."

3) Any figures that you should have memorized, such as "It takes 188 meters of distance for you, going 50 kph, to pass a car when it's going 40 kph", are usually "False", because the figures are usually more than you expect (it in fact takes 320 meters).

4) Remember that the driver is always at fault, always seen as a potential criminal. "True or False: The cause of accidents may be the road, the weather, or the driver, but most accidents are caused by the road."

In fact, this was not a test of driving ability at all--it was a test of your ability to learn your lesson. Even the DMV officials said so. I spent lunch break with them asking questions about road signs, non-posted speed limits, and other holes in my Japanese road knowledge (I had gotten my licence in the bad old days when all that was necessary was a valid overseas licence, and so I knew the law only by intuition).

The DMV officals told me to relax. "This is not a test to trip you up. There are only a few questions here that are trick. Like, 'You should signal 30 seconds before a lane change' [False: legally you only need 5 seconds, but I would have erred on the side of prudence], or 'This "No-Entry-Sign" means "One Way"' [technically, it does, if you really think about it, but the answer is False; they are only asking for the OFFICIAL NAME of the sign, not the result]. We just want to make sure you were not sleeping in class. Okay?"

I definitely was awake, but most people in the back nodded off, especially when the video came on after lunch. I was expecting something more visceral, like mangled bodies in the "this can happen to you, stupid!" shock-tactic vids shown in high school Drivers Ed classes. Nope. Just crunched-up cars and blood stains on poles and grass. No bodies. Instead, it was a pretty dry series of scientific experiments to show how far you skid at what speeds, how much reaction time an old man, a young boy, and a woman need, and their corresponding speed and depth perception. It was a perfect world of traffic safety: everyone wore crash helmets and gloves, everyone looked guilty when told to speed up for the test, everyone followed the rules, unlike you offenders in the audience.

Lessons: know your shortcomings as a human being. You should have no confidence in your abilities as a driver, you should never say it was the other person's fault, you should always view every driving situation case-by-case and anticipate that the other person will not behave as you expect. It was prime Japanicana, and thus too interesting to sleep through.

But anyway, let's finish this essay. The end of the class was spent reading through a rule book with illustrations and test questions. The Smallpoxed lecturer told us precisely what topic areas to underline because they would appear on the test. And, after a 45-minute study period, the test commenced at 3:15.

Forty questions, true or false, twenty minutes. I took a half hour. My interpreter was a fine young lady in mini-skirt and low-cut dress (and as such was more a distraction than an aid), and she clarified the grammar of questions. I had absorbed enough traffic-specific words in class, so the test wasn't as bad as I thought.

The verdict: I got an "A". Blink! I felt triumphant, and the DMV officials had in fact also been rooting for me. "See, I told you you could do it, Debito-san." I sincerely thanked them for their allowances for my handicaps, and vowed that I wouldn't be back.

"We hope so, too," they said like any good parole officer. "You've had those 7 points reinstated to your licence; provided that you don't get another 4 points taken off over the next year, you won't be back here again. If you do, you will pay more for the course, have your licence suspended for sixty days instead of thirty, and have more days of reindoctrination.

(for those of you who can read Japanese, here are the points-and-punishments levels.).

"Now, Debito-san, just put your seal here on this affidavit stating that you will not drive until midnight tonight. Driving without a licence means you lose it for a year. And write your thoughts down about the class on this piece of paper (I wrote a few platitudes about being reborn as a Safety Driver). Good. Now slow down. Got it?"

I got it, and how. I've learned my lesson. Although this whole things was a bit of an ordeal (and a long story to boot, sorry), it was not an impossible hurdle. I am still surprised how fair the driving system was to me, and how no-nonsense the rules are. You breaks the laws, you pays the piper, or else you can't drive.

Looking the lawbooks over, the system is surprisingly bottom-heavy in terms of penalties. There are many ways to lose your licence, and the law comes down hard and expensively (my fines totalled around 100,000 yen!) on somebody like me, who thinks driving is a right for me and a privilege for everyone else. But no mark on your licence is permanent if you learn your lessons.

Moreover--and all you urban terrorists out there take heed--the law is also surprisingly lenient at the top end. There is no such thing as a lifetime ban on driving--the largest penalty is a 3-year suspension (which may be revised to 5 years in the near future). Even if you kill somebody. You will face fines, lawsuits, sizeable compensation to your victims, and ostracism. But you will still be able to get another licence once you get out of jail. Sweet.

Pity this leniency doesn't cut across bureaucratic ministries. This is my penultimate paragraph, so I'll slip in a criticism of Japan. The Ministry of Justice told me, last time I went in to talk about naturalization (kika), that they do not allow lawbreakers to become Japanese. A person who commits the equivalent of a felony, or breaks two of the same minor laws, invalidates his qualification for citizenship. That includes, he stressed, traffic violations.

So two speeding tickets means I can never become a Japanese citizen? Pshaw! So be it. Japan's loss.

Dave Aldwinckle

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