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.

5 thoughts on “The Bureaucratic Machine

  1. Hi Daniel, I love reading your blog entries. Your objectivity, along with your biases, are expressed in a side-by-side manner which always leaves me with an increased fondness and respect for your adopted country. I do hope to return. In May of next year I’m off on a two week tour of Western China.

  2. A very accurate depiction of the true Japan, which for a rebel like me, drove me absolutely crazy since I hate following the rules, but for people that don’t mind them, it is a fabulous, safe and secure place to live!

  3. While overall I think Japanese drivers are safer than British drivers (I’m British), in the Mie countryside I used to live in, people didn’t seem to look when they went round corners. Not just one or two times, but constantly. I had a friend who was knocked off her bike this way. I also found that the drink driving was much higher than the UK.

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