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 PAST ISSUES
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541: Developmentally challenged
By Hauquan Chau

The Test that Drove Me Crazy

The Japanese driver’s license exam lived up to its nightmarish reputation. And then some

Despite his position as Acade-mic Director at Nagoya YMCA, Hauquan Chau still humbly takes the subway to work

I was thinking right, he was thinking left. I wanted silence, he was talking my ear off.

In any other situation, that would be fine. But when you’re strapped into a Hummer disguised as a Toyota, trying to turn tight corners that even a lab rat would have trouble with, you’ve got a gut feeling that you’re gonna fail the dreaded Japanese driving test. Yes, the Japanese driving test, that scourge of foreigners and Japanese alike, where the urban legend of He Who Passed the First Time gives faint hope to those of us clenching the steering wheel for dear life.

First, the test center in Kanagawa is a Kafkaesque’70s structure, a combination of utility and sterility. Tiny offices with reception windows and classroom-like caverns for the masses are crammed within the whitewashed walls. I start off in one corner, where they give me a list of documents to gather, like a scavenger hunt that takes me all over the building and even across town for the translation of my Canadian driver’s license.

Downstairs they check my eyesight with a prehistoric machine that you look through and indicate if the little light points to the left or right. After the one on the left lit up, I had a vague notion that the right one would soon follow. Yes, my instincts were as sharp as ever that day, as the light on the right dutifully illuminated. Afterwards, it’s back upstairs, where I pay my application fee, then downstairs again to reserve my spot for the driving portion of the test. One step closer to getting one of those cubical minivans I’ve always wanted!

It was a rainy day when I went back for that fateful road test. The map of the course that hung on the wall looked a lot like a plan for a miniature golf course, except there were all these colored lines indicating where the examiner could take you (depending on his favorite color of the day, I guess). The only thing that ran through my mind were the windmills with the little holes at the bottom where the ball entered. I had a hunch that other obstacles would be in my way.
Again, my instincts were correct. Who knew, though, that the obstacle would turn out to be the man sitting in the seat next to me, a.k.a. The Examiner?

Mirrors. Check. Seatbelts. Check. Turn signal on. Check mirror and blind spot, apply pressure on the accelerator and we’re off. Stop! The Examiner, a man who has some sort of vendetta against first-timers like me, just smirks and looks down at the parking brake. It’s up. Damn—at least a couple of easy points lost. Okay, a devastating start, but hey, I thought, no one ever failed a driving test just because they forgot to release the parking brake. Right?!

I take a deep breath and ease into the main lane. There are hardly any other cars on the “road,” which looks more like a golf cart path than any actual street I’ve seen in my 15-year driving career. It was not more than 30 seconds before I realized something was wrong: The Examiner was a freaking backseat driver!

“Watch out for the curb!” “Slow down!” “Speed up!” “Turn your steering column more to the left.” “No, the direction of your wheels are incorrect.” “Stay on the left side!” These were not just simple directions that I expected; they were actual instructions on how to drive or, rather, a criticism on the way I was driving.

When the time came to do the tricky elbow, The Examiner was particularly gabby. By then, all I wanted to do was get out of the car, run screaming home, and wrap myself into a tight ball in a quiet corner. Or throw The Examiner on the hood and do some fancy Dukes of Hazards stunts all over course—like executing one of those Evel Knievel jumps off a ramp, soaring over a row of beat-up cars, and crashing down on the other side with devastating damage to the front of the car.

The sound of the test car’s wheel nicking the curb just as I exited the elbow was enough for immediate failure. I tried to play it off after the test. “That was great, so I passed, right?” But The Examiner just shook his head and gave me the invoice to pay inside. I guess my dream of driving that air-resistant cube would have to wait.

Soon after failing my driving test, the law changed, and Canadians and Australians are exempt from having to go through the ordeal. I can now get that Japanese driver’s license that I so painfully wanted. But now that I think about it, I’d rather take public transportation.

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