So I finally got a Japanese driver’s license, which anyone who lives here for more than six months should really get. Well, okay, so I got a scooter license. Contrary to popular belief, this does not automatically make me gay. Astride my Japanese moped, I’m easily as macho as that construction worker from The Village People, plus I have more chest hair. Man, I love that guy.
Photo © Alfie Goodrich
Life and Death in Japan
They say that life is a series of accidents waiting to happen. But I say, why wait? Get yourself a tiny scooter in a country that rains all the time and hug the side of the road at 19 mph. Ken Seeroi lives for danger. People say that all the time. They do. No, really.
For such a safe country, it seems like people in Japan can’t kill themselves quickly enough. Like I was in Shibuya Station last weekend after midnight, waiting for the last train. A guy in a suit was drunkenly rocking back and forth in front of me, like he’s dreaming of falling into a nice, soft futon. I’m always super-careful when I’m on the platform, because it’s dangerous, really, with all these trains coming in. I guess I should mention that I’d also had a couple of cocktails. But according to the Japanese Wikipedia, no one’s ever waited for the last train in Shibuya without being “drunk as a tanuki.” Now, that’s a true fact—you can look it up. I entered it myself. Anyway, I was kind of fixated on this guy, because I had one of those bad feelings that I sometimes get. And as the train roared in, sure enough I saw him stumble and take a header for the tracks.
A lot of people don’t know that I have cat-like reflexes. But I do. Even cats are like, “Wow, damn, that’s pretty fast.” Really it has nothing to do with my childhood years spent training as a Shaolin monk, although I can seriously walk the hell out of some rice paper. Whatever. So as this businessman lurched off the platform, at the last possible second, I lunged at him, grabbed a big handful of suit, and yanked him back. The train rushed past his head. I was like, “Wazaa! I save you with kung-fu!” He just looked at me like, “Who the hell are you?” And I was like, “Dude, what the eff? You almost died!” Only I said it in Japanese, and then he looked sad. He just stared at his shoes, and suddenly I felt bad, because I’d saved his life only to hurt his feelings. Jeez, Japanese people can be so sensitive.
“What the eff,” is the equivalent Japanese phrase you can expect to hear from exactly everyone when you tell them you want to get a Japanese scooter. In the minds of the Japanese, riding a moped is on par with being a kamikaze pilot, only you look way gayer.”
Everyone was quick to tell me about friends who’d been vaporized by trucks. But I scoff at that, partly because I’m without fear. The other part is that there’s nothing I fear more than being without coffee for a couple hours, and I seriously needed an easier way to get to Starbucks. So after riding my tiny Japanese bicycle for half an hour just to get a Venti soy latte, I went to the DMV.
The Japanese Driving Center
In Japanese, they call a moped a gentsuki, which is good because it sounds way less effeminate. And from what I could gather online, there was a book about the Japanese rules of the road available at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Unfortunately, the DMV happens to be stuck in about the year 1972 and hasn’t yet discovered the Internet.
The DMV building looks like a square version of the Death Star. Inside the enormous entrance lobby was a little Japanese lady sitting alone behind an information desk. She looked kind of sad. I know I can be rather intimidating, in a big and white way, so when I walked up I tried to use my smallest and cheeriest Japanese voice. I said, “Excuse me, I’d like to get a gentsuki license. Might you tell me where one would find a driver’s handbook?” She just glared up at me and said, in English — “We have no English help.” That’s when I realized she wasn’t sitting; she was standing. Christ, she really was mighty tiny. So in an even smaller Japanese voice, I bent down and said, “Okay, a book in Japanese is no problem. Where might I obtain one?”
She squinted at me and said again in English, “We don’t sell a book.”
Then she thrust a sheet of paper at me with Japanese instructions for obtaining a gentsuki license. I thought, “Isn’t this kind of sending mixed messages—speaking in English and then handing me this sheet?” But whatever. Then I noticed that with her tiny arm she was pointing to another counter, so I went that way. Two women were standing at attention behind the counter, waiting all day just to deny the existence of any book covering Japanese rules of the road. I was like, “You mean that the DMV has nothing to do with the rules of the road?” And they looked at each other, like it was the first time anyone had ever thought to ask such a question. “Maybe you should go to a bookstore,” they said.
A small, black cloud formed over my head and I walked out of the DMV mumbling. As soon as the double doors closed behind me, I saw a Japanese policeman walking into the building. Suddenly I was like, “Well, let’s just see what this fool has to say on the matter.” So I ran up behind him and said, “Dude, really, is there no book for the rules of the road? Isn’t this country a bit lacking in documentation?” He turned around, looked me up and down, then out of the corner of his mouth said, “Go around the corner. There’s a driving school. They have a book.”
I went around the corner.
The Japanese Driving School
I walked past the driving school three times before going in because I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a homeless shelter. It was easily the most ghetto place I’ve been in Japan, rivaled only by the izakayas I typically hang out in. When I opened the door, a fat guy with sweated-out armpits jumped bolt upright behind a glass case. Papers and books were everywhere. He’d obviously been sleeping in his own filth. I was done with the pleasantries.
“Rules of the road book,” I said.
“We have no book,” he countered.
“I know you have it. A cop told me. I want it.”
At which point he rummaged through the display case and finally produced a green pamphlet covered in Big Mac stains. “2000 yen,” he said. I opened it and it even smelled like hamburger. There was a list of true/false questions written in Japanese, and below them, an English-esque translation. Here’s the first one, and I swear to God I’m not making this up:
T/F: When operating. When making a operation plan. Because it has taken a feeling to that. It had better do operation the place, the place.
I looked up at him. You are effing kidding me, right? Really? He just shrugged and looked away. I stared at him intently and he gazed out the window, like maybe there was going to be an eclipse or something. Reluctantly, I picked two 1000 yen notes out of my wallet, handed them to him, and took that delicious-smelling book back to my place, my place.
I studied like crazy for about a week, because the test has 48 questions and you can only miss 3. To make matters worse, the DMV is only open on weekdays, and as I actually succeeded in getting yet another job here in Japan, I had to take a day off work. It sure is a lot of work to get a moped just so you can get flattened by a bus, but I was determined.
The Day of the Test
I spent so much time studying for the gentsuki test that I kind of overlooked one small detail, which was the entire licensing process. Like, I knew the test registration opened at 8:30, so just to be on the safe side, I got there at 8:15. Count on good old Seeroi to be the first one in line. With an easy stride, I breezed through the sliding doors, stopped, and promptly crapped my pants.
The entire population of Japan had decided to relocate to the DMV. Every kid, office lady, and grandpa had gotten up at dawn to go to there and stand in line for windows that weren’t open. Even people who didn’t need a license had gone to the DMV just to hang out. Everybody was filling out forms like mad. Now, whenever I see that, I reflexively know I also have to fill out forms like mad, so I started running around the entrance hall trying to find the right ones. Only I couldn’t find them, because there’s about a hundred different forms and everything’s in Japanese. And for the first time in years, I wished for English. Then I felt guilty for wishing that. But I felt guilty in Japanese, so then it was okay.
I mean, I’m pretty good with Japanese in bite-sized portions. I can mail a letter. I can order a pizza, but only thin crust since I can never remember the word for “thick.” I once even went to the dentist. But in the middle of this ginormous room surrounded by posters in Japanese and signs in Japanese and everyone speaking Japanese and about a million forms, everything started to go black and rotate around me and I thought, “The hell, I’ll never manage this one.” Might as well just go straight to Narita and airlift out. Then I looked at the form in my hand and I heard a voice. It said, “Remember your training and trust your instincts. Use the form, Ken.”
You know, any time you hear voices, you really shouldn’t be allowed to get a motor vehicle license. Whatever. I started to decipher what I needed to enter. I asked a pretty girl for help and she said she’d be right back. And then she ran away. So I was like, okay, better find an ugly dude. I went up to the ugliest guy in the room and he told me “Just check all ‘No,’” which was exactly the kind of easy answer I was looking for. I was like, “Thanks a bunch, man, and have you heard about Proactiv?” I mean, just trying to be helpful. Anyway, pretty soon I’d filled in all the necessary boxes and even some of the ones I shouldn’t have, and got in line with everyone else.
Oh, one small piece of advice for anyone getting a Japanese driver’s license, in addition to “be born in Japan.” That is: be able to write your address freaking perfectly, because you’re going to need to do it about a billion times. Every single form needs your name and address, so if you, like me, take about two minutes to write your own address, you’ll be hating life. I have a really complicated address, seriously.
The Japanese Gentsuki Test
Somehow I managed to fill in all the right forms, pay some cash, and fool the DMV into actually letting me take the test. At which point I was herded into a room with about 50 Japanese kids, all about sixteen years old. Everybody got a test. And then there was me.
It was really a toss-up between taking the test in English—with its bizarre grammar—and taking it in Japanese—with its, well, Japanese. I eventually opted for English, because if I’m going to fail a test, at least I want to do so in my native language.
Practically though, this meant I had singled myself out, which I hate to do. I mean, it’s not like I don’t already stand out. So the whole class had to wait for me, the white guy in the front row, while three Japanese ladies carried in the precious English version in a plastic bag. They unwrapped it and laid it in front of me. “Don’t look,” the one lady said in English. I glanced at the page and in about one second had read every question. Gotta love English. “I won’t,” I said.
To be honest, the gentsuki test is pretty damn hard. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to slow down when I reach the top of a steep hill, or speed up. I mean, how fast am I going, how steep’s the hill, and what’s the visibility like? Anyway, I put True, because blasting over top of a hill on a moped just seemed like the greatest idea ever. But the question that really stumped me was the picture of a One-Way sign, facing left. It read:
T/F: This sign means the gentsuki can turn left.
I marked False, because that sign means One-Way. Then I read the question again, and I thought, Well, wait, that sign doesn’t prohibit a scooter from turning left. It doesn’t mean you can’t turn left. So I erased it and put True.
After the test was done, I walked out in the lobby and was like, “No, you fool. You should have marked False. You’ve just doomed yourself to a life of riding a one-speed mamachari.” Then suddenly came the excited squeals of a dozen teenage girls as the overhead a scoreboard lit up with the numbers of the people who’d passed. My number was 0419. For some crazy reason, the numbers on the scoreboard were only 3-digit numbers. I was like, “What’s my number? 041 or 419? Am I even looking at the right number?” Anyway, some of the digits were up there, so close enough, I figured.
The rest of the morning was taken up with eye tests, paying more money, getting pictures taken, and writing my address about a million more times. Then we sat in a classroom and listened to this retired guy tell us how not to get crushed by a minivan. Since he’d seen me do the English version of the test, he made it a special point to explain everything in Japanese to the whole class, then turn to me and say, in English, “Do you understand?” That made me feel special. We watched a video of people getting run over by tractor trailers. After it finished he turned on the lights, looked at me and said, “Mister! Do you understand?” I mean, really, some people.
Then we had lunch. You know, I’ve held licenses in four different U.S. states, and I don’t recall the process ever taking more than a couple of hours, including waiting in terminally long lines. But amazingly the Japanese have managed to stretch it out to a full day event. After lunch we were given one very special form. Whatever you do, the retired guy said in Japanese, don’t make a mistake on this form. Then to me in English, “Do you understand?” I was like, “Yeah, I understand you’re a d@#k.” I took the form and started to write with a vengeance.
I got two kanji in and effed it up. I completely omitted the left half of one character. Maybe I can sandwich it in there, I thought, but when I tried all the lines bled together, so I started retracing the strokes to make it clearer. Thirty seconds later the whole thing was a dark blob. Everyone else was already finished. I wanted to die.
The retired guy made me sit in the back of the class, then went out and got a new form and this very ancient Japanese lady who was probably his mother to sit beside me. “Write the first character,” she said. “Very good. Now write the second one. Oh, very nice. Okay, let’s do another one. Oh, jyooozu.” I was like, “Jeezus, grandma, I made a freaking mistake, okay? I’ve already written my address a hundred times today! How do you think I even got to this point?” But of course, it was my own fault for screwing up, so I didn’t actually say anything. Plus she was a pretty sweet old bird.
The Gentsuki Safety Course
After that ordeal, listening to more safety talks, paying more money, and filling out even more forms, we were led outside for a Safety Course, where we’d actually get to ride the prized gentuski. “Goodbye, Mister,” said the old guy. “Write your address more!” Everybody laughed. Oh, will you please go to hell. I smiled and waved thanks.
Five instructors divided us into two groups, guys and girls, and gave us helmets and white gloves. They put me in the girl group. All of the girls giggled. Like I’d just failed gym class.
We filed outside. It was a beautiful, warm day, with a line of mopeds basking in the sun. Five instructors divided us into two groups, guys and girls, and gave us helmets and white gloves. They put me in the girl group. All of the girls giggled. Like I’d just failed gym class. Two girls near me said, in English, “Hello. Where are you from?”
“America,” I said.
“Heeeey. Do you know a famous person?”
I thought for a moment. No, actually, I don’t. Like, I met Bill Clinton once, but that’s probably pretty boring to a 16 year-old chick. And it’s not like I actually know the guy.
“Sure,” I said. “I had dinner with Michael Jackson.”
“Waa sugoi,” She cooed. “Michael! Sugoi!”
“Yeah,” I said. “He has really small hands.”
I’ve never ridden a moped before, which turned out to be an extremely good thing, because the course was boring as hell. We spent half an hour practicing getting it off and on the kickstand. I gazed at the warm mountains in the distance just filled with gentsuki-ridable roads. After an hour, we’d ridden in a straight line. Maybe I could steal a gentsuki and bust through the fence. At an hour and a half, we’d learned to go in a circle to the left. In my mind, I was half-way to the mountains with a horde of gentsuki instructors chasing me, when I heard a voice say, Well, that’s it! You’ve all passed! And everybody stopped and took off their helmets and gloves and started saying “congratulations” to each other. I was like, What? I still haven’t learned to make a circle to the right.
So we went back inside and paid some more money. I think the whole thing came to about 80 bucks. Finally, I got to the last window and they handed me a license that, if I showed it to you, you’d be like, “Wow, you look like you just spent a full day being humiliated by the Japanese DMV.” That’s what you’d say. The guy behind the window handed it to me and said, in English, “Good job.” “Thanks,” I said, “you too.”
And that was that. I walked outside a free man. It was still a beautiful day. I am now licensed to ride a scooter of 50 cc’s or less. I cannot carry passengers or transport loads that extend more than 1.5 meters on either side. But ride I can. Now all I need is a scooter.