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Friday, Oct. 11, 2002

THE ZEIT GIST

Motorists driven round the bend by license laws

Regular license renewal is a real trial


By RICH FREEMAN
Staff writer

In May 2002 the Tokyo District Court rejected a suit by freelance journalist Yu Terasawa in which he claimed 1.2 million yen in compensation for driving license renewal fees.

Terasawa had filed the suit two years previously against the state, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and police-related organizations, claiming Japan's 74 million drivers are basically getting ripped off due to the extortionate fees for renewing a license.

Drivers who have remained accident-free and who have not committed any traffic violations are required to renew their Japanese license every five years. Those that have committed an offense are required to renew every three years.

Maybe I am spoiled in that my British license is valid until the day before my 70th birthday, but having to go through what I did the other day every five or three years to renew my Japanese license is a frightening thought.

At least it gave me an insight into where all the money (thought to be around 45 billion yen a year) goes.

For drivers from the U.K., Australia, Italy, Sweden, Spain, France and Germany, getting a license basically involves transferring your home license to a Japanese one. A translation is needed of your home license (provided by the Japan Automobile Federation for 3,000 yen) and, providing you pass the eye test, the license is yours (for 4,150 yen).

For those from other countries, however, things are more complicated as a driving test is also required (should you fail, subsequent tests cost around 3,000 yen and should you fail more than three times you are required to go to a driving school often found conveniently close to the driving centers!!).

We have all come across Mr., Mrs., or Ms. Jobsworths -- as in "I can't do that. It's more than my jobs worth" -- but those at driving license centers take the biscuit.

It seems anything out of the ordinary is a reason for failure or a hold up in the procedure and at times it even seems as if excuses are made up on the spot -- "You didn't check for children, homeless people or stray tanuki under the car before you started," or "I'm sorry Mr. Quasimodo, we can't give you a license you were not sitting up straight in the driver's seat."

Not only that but the driving test is undertaken on an enclosed road and bears no relationship to what one can expect on the open roads and, you are prevented from taking the written test and driving skill test on the same day -- meaning two days off work.

Some drivers are failed because they are simply awful drivers but for those lucky enough to get their license, the fun is just beginning.

Now I know that bureaucrats like their paperwork, but surely renewing a license can be done by one or two people. Well not at my local driving center, it seems.

On arriving at the center by bicycle I was told where to park by two parking attendants; directed to the correct payment desk by a lady at information; paid my 3,900 yen renewal fee to yet another lady, before a fifth person gave me an eye-test.

Having gone through the paperwork with yet another person (No. 6) I was suddenly asked, "When did you change your name?"

"I'm sorry," I replied. "What are you talking about."

"You have different names on your gaijin card and your driving license."

"No. They are the same. The driving license people in Osaka realized my two middle names wouldn't fit in the space provided so they left them out. The two names there are my family name and given name."

"But it is not your name."

And so it went on until I agreed to have my middle names included. I was then directed to the next stage -- to have my photo taken.

However, before that, I was intercepted by another lady (No. 7) who told me there was a problem. Ten minutes later she returned to say that my name was too long for the space provided -- and that the last two letters of my middle name would have to be written on the back of my license.

Having had my photo taken by person No. 8 I was sent upstairs to a classroom with pens and paper on the desks. My first thought was that I was going to have some type of test but after speaking to the man (No. 9) on the door I was told I had to listen to a two-hour safety lecture.

I explained in very broken Japanese that I would not be able to understand what was being said so why did I have to go -- not to mention the fact that of my 3,900 yen renewal fee, 1,700 yen was for this lecture, even though my license is unblemished.

This proved too difficult a question so I was first directed to another man (No. 10) who listened intently before sending me to another desk.

"You must have the lecture," a dour-looking woman (No. 11) told me. I demurred. I was told: "No lecture, no license."

So I eventually sat through the lecture along with a number of other renewers and miscreants, some of whom snored loudly over the ramblings of the lecturer (No. 12).

Finally I was sent to another building where person (No. 13) gave me my new license.

On my way home I passed a car with a young mother, holding her baby as she drove, talking into her mobile phone while the TV on the navigation system was showing her favorite soap opera. Chances are -- even though she is an accident just waiting to happen -- she has a gold license and only needs to go to the police station every five years to renew it. It seemed to sum everything up.



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