The Bureaucratic Machine

Japan is sometimes called the most socialist of democracies or the most democratic of socialists. It’s certainly a more controlled system than many with layers and layers in the bureaucracy. Let me tell you a little about my experience with the machine.

Last month, I decided to work towards my mid-size bus license. This enables me to drive up to 29 people at a time, which is pretty useful for my line of work. I was only prepared for some of what I was getting myself into though.

First, getting a license in Japan is never cheap. For your regular license, it costs around $2500 and takes 2-3 months of attending driving school, practicing a couple of times a week. Driving school camp is another option where you stay at a facility, practice everyday and obtain a license in 2 weeks. There’s an informative Begin Japanology video here if you are interested. A mid-size bus license costs around $1800 and requires 18 hours of practice/instruction. However, you can only do a max of 2 hours a day, and sometimes only one-hour slots are available. So for the month of June, off to driving school I went, religiously practicing my “S-turns”, gear shifting and railroad crossing techniques over and over.

The course is “geared” (haha get it?) for people who can’t yet drive a manual vehicle. I already could, so after the first couple of sessions practicing shifting with my left hand, there wasn’t much to do except keep going in circles around the course. The cranky old dudes would tell me ridiculous mistakes I made, mostly because they needed to say something. I would attempt to roll my eyes without their noticing, while outwardly smiling and bowing. The younger guys, not yet beat down by the system, would chat and tell me “you’re really good at this, there’s not much for me to tell you” and I would think, “thanks, can I skip the preliminaries and just take the final exam please?” But alas, this is Japan, there are no exceptions.

During my many hours of driving purgatory, however, I did arrive at two conclusions. First, much like other bureaucratic policies in Japan, the driving school system is partly about employing more people. There are several driving schools in Nagano City, but the one I attended alone employed at least 30 people between instructors, office staff, managers and janitors. Wages in Japan are low compared to US salaries (educated, full-time entry-level employees typically earn less than $2,000 a month), but so is unemployment. Because costly items like medical care and a pension funds are taken care of by the company, people still have a high basic standard of living compared to similar wage earners in the United States. Some things, like transportation are expensive in Japan but overall I think the “Japan is expensive” stereotype is undeserved. America is great if you have money, but Japan is a more humane place to live if you don’t.

My second revelation is this: I like the fact that other people have to attend long driving school, I just don’t like the fact that I have to. It’s selfish but it’s true. That made me think though, does this system yield results? Are the roads safer because the requirements are more strict? If yes, I’m all for the policy. From my research, Japan has the lowest death rate per 1 million vehicles in the OECD countries, with less than half the death rate of the US. The road fatalities per kilometer driven was actually a little lower in the US, but that’s party because Americans drive so many kilometers on freeways that it skews the figures. The questions then becomes, is it worth adding 10 or 15 hours of driving school and a lot more money to save hundreds of people a year? I think the answer is yes. Realizing that made me more willing to slog through.

But the story of actually getting my license is far from over. After completing the requisite practice, practical exams, personality tests, simulations and driver safety lectures, I went to Nagano’s DMV equivalent to receive my brand new license. At this point, the DMV told me that by Japanese law, I needed to have my regular license for at least 2 years before being eligible for my mid-size license, even though the driving school told me they waved that requirement. If I could prove that I had my US license for at least 2 years, and that I had been in the US at least 90 days after receiving the license, however, I would be eligible. The 90 day rule was implemented because Japanese people were going to Hawaii on a tourist visa, getting their US license for much cheaper, then converting their US license to a Japanese license. So defeated, off I went to get my old passport to prove that I had been out of Japan more than 90 days after receiving my US license.

Two days ago, I finally waltzed into the DMV to triumphantly claim what was rightfully mine. The system, never one to give up so easily, hurdled its final missiles at me. First, there is a new eye-test that supposedly tests depth-perception. There are three sticks in a line. The two outside sticks are immobile while the middle one moves back and forth. You must click a button when the three sticks are aligned and do it three times to pass. Now I think I have decent depth-perception, but for the life of me I could not do the test. I learned from the driving school eye test, however, that when the middle stick came all the way forward, it made a small clicking noise. Exactly six seconds after that, the sticks would be aligned. To my despair, the air conditioning at the driving center was so loud that I couldn’t hear the click! What saved me was that after failing twice, the driving center guy helped me out by saying when the stick started moving backward. I counted my six seconds and voila, I passed. Now I faced the final hurdle. Apparently I was supposed to bring my temporary license this day, which of course no one told me. I forgot it at home so they made an exception if I promised to bring it soon. I still haven’t gotten around to completing my license saga but when I do, it will be all over, at last.

Once again, I hope this doesn’t sound like a criticism of Japan. It is a wonderful place to live and functions so smoothly in some ways because of the bureaucracy. You will never spend time waiting for a late train in Japan even though you spend 18 hours at driving school. There are trade-offs to everything I suppose. I’ve also been challenging myself to think of these bureaucratic hurdles as barriers to entry. They are a pain and they take a long time to jump through, but once through you have differentiated yourself that much more. The more hoops I jump through, the fewer people remain, especially with my particular skill set.

That’s all for today, as always, thanks for taking the time to read.


The Making of a Culture

First, let me say it has taken me far too long to get back to bloggin (almost a year to be exact). Mostly it’s that Japan doesn’t feel like a foreign country to me, so it’s difficult to find topics to write about that I find challenging. But I will do my best to find more, I promise.

The other day I went to a placed called Gotemba right at the base of Mt. Fuji to get certified in Wilderness First Aid. As I’ve mentioned on Facebook, I’m slowly collecting certifications and licenses so that I am more qualified as a travel professional. This month, it’s the highest level of the Japanese Language Placement Test and next month, it’s my mid-size bus license.

Anyway, the facility where the WAFA (Wilderness First Aid) course took place looked like a cross between a summer camp and Juvie. Named the National Youth Exchange House (my translation), it featured ugly barrack-style dormitories, a huge cafeteria with the worst food I’ve had in a long time, and an open area with two flag poles: the Japanese flag and flag of the National Youth Exchange House. Right next to both Camp Fuji (American Combined Arms Training Center) and Takigahara (Japanese Self Defense Force Base), you could hear mortar rounds being fired for practice all day and the daily wake up/lights out trumpets. Various groups of junior high and high school students came though during our stay for a night or two each, and did activities during the day like hiking, orienteering and campfires. I actually think this aspect of the facility was great: Japanese kids who live in cities are so focused on upcoming exams that they rarely get to go out and be kids.

The title of this blog post, however, came about mainly because of the twice daily flag raising and lowering ceremonies. First, let me say that while patriotism in America is prominent and loud (ie the national anthem before every game), in Japan it exists but it’s subtle. Post WWII, the Japanese flag became a symbol of right-wing extremism rather than national pride, and it is only now returning back to the streets as people start to believe that they have a right to be proud of their country too. Nowadays, national pride in Japan looks more like the belief in Japanese exceptionalism or that the way things are done in Japan are best.

Anyway, during the ceremonies each day four students would assist with the flag raising and flag lowering. Afterwards, they were expected to make a short speech, and inevitably, they would make pre-recorded statements about doing their best at camping or working together as a team or what they should have done better that day. Afterwards, the head of the facility would speak, usually discussing the importance of loud greetings and bows, or the requirement of folding your futon mattress up exactly as the picture shows so that you consider the feelings of the person who will stay next. Then everyone lined up exactly how they were supposed to in perfectly straight lines, bow, and the ceremony came to a formal close.

My continuous reaction to this facility was how Japanese it was. It felt like Japanese school all over again, but more harsh. It also felt like North Korean propaganda, but more nice. I really think the Japanese government got together, thought about how to instill Japanese values like group think, collectivism, and social responsibility, and tailor-made this facility just for that. It really hit home when I was reading a book by Bruce Feiler called Learning to Bow. He says “American schools exist to teach kids how to think, while Japanese schools exists to teach kids how to become good citizens”.

I think each systems’ strengths are reflected in their performances. Japanese schools do great in rote memory performance like math and science because school is not about asking questions but about writing down what the teacher says and memorizing it. It’s about following instructions, much like Japanese companies. “If your boss says a crow is white, a crow is white” goes a famous Japanese saying. American schools perform terribly in the lower levels, but no Japanese universities can compete with any Ivy League school. You cannot do innovative research or write interesting theses when you have never asked the question why.

I hope this doesn’t come off as strictly a criticism of the Japanese system. In many ways, there are really great things about it. Because of its collectivist nature, Japan doesn’t have crime to speak of (only white collar), the trains run on time, and it’s a challenge to find trash on the street. However, the culture of just following the leader and not asking questions has had huge consequences (in my opinion) on the economy. Entrepreneurship is just not that big of a thing. Job security is valued over upward mobility, and if you have a job that pays enough, even if you hate it, why quit? Last week I got a glimpse into where that mentality begins from: the school system. If Japan is to continue to compete internationally, I think it has to keep the best aspects while reforming some of the worst.

Untimely Samaritinism

My experience today shows me that perhaps I have retained a few too many of my Kenyan driving habits. Also, interesting things tend to happen around Elbert, like my Japanese hiking trip 2 years ago if you want to read about it.

So I’m in Leadville, Colorado, hiking Mt. Elbert in preparation for my annual Colorado Japanese hiking trip. On the way at around 6:30 in the morning, I see what looks to be a homeless guy hitchhiking. I usually regret not stopping so I decide “what the heck, I’ll pick him up”. I pull over onto the narrow shoulder, look behind to make sure no one is approaching, and wave for him to jump in. He looks grateful, but after attempting the door handle realizes that it’s locked. I fumble around, looking for the unlock button on my parents’ car, before giving up and reaching over to open the handle from the inside. He jumps in and in that tiny 20 second window when no one would have known, I see a policeman’s lights blaring in my rear view mirror. I think “crap, I’ve either been speeding, or I’ve picked up a convicted meth-head criminal who is going to pull a knife on me”, neither option of which sounds particularly appealing.

So I pull over, and the cop suspiciously asks me a bunch of questions about why I picked up a homeless guy. Apparently the cop saw a dead animal down the road, and one of my car’s back lights was busted from someone rear-ending my brother, all of which added to his suspicion. I know he was suspicious because he told me my story didn’t add up… so I told him the same simple story again. I think he was calculating the possibility of some sort of Fargo-esque scenario. I can’t imagine cops in Leadville have an excessive amount to do. He gave us both a lecture about how dangerous – and illegal – it is to stop in the middle of the highway and that it is illegal to hitchhike outside of designated areas (I actually thought it was illegal everywhere) and sent us on our way. I dropped off the thankful homeless man outside of town and continued onto a grueling but beautiful hike up Elbert.


Come to think of it, I might have picked up the highway-stopping habit up in Japan too. For some reason, they think that as long as your hazard lights are on, anywhere is fair game to completely block traffic. But legality aside, I do think this was a case of doing the moral, yet illegal thing. There were no places to stop along the highway, and this guy would have had to walk at least 10 miles into town. Sorry cop, I know you yelled at me but given the choice, I would probably do the same thing again.