Home > Focus on Japan 2008 > All Set for ID

All Set for ID

July 4th, 2008

Went down to Samezu today, which for Tokyo is the Mecca of driving: that’s where most people in central Tokyo go to get their driver’s license. Mine was just a few days away from expiring (you get one month after your birthday). As it turns out, this has been my year for renewals–American and Japanese driver’s licenses, and my “gaijin card.”

I really expected a longer ordeal at Samezu. I used to go to Fuchu, out in the less-crowded western Tokyo area, and that would take quite a bit of time, mostly waiting for this and waiting for that. You always have to take a 2-hour lecture if you get a ticket for anything. I’ve been 20 months without a ticket, but it has to be for the whole three years. I remember having to wait a while for that lecture in Fuchu–a long time, in fact, if you came too close to the lunch break–but even if you came early, you had to wait for a while before your session started. It could easily take more than half the day.

At Samezu, though, at least for today, it went quick & slick. Walked in the door at 8:50 am, swept through the lines for vision test, photograph (a much better one this time), payment, and a few other formalities, and was waved into the 9:00 lecture. After the lecture, go up to the 3rd floor and pick up your license. In Fuchu, just that would take up to a hour; here, they fed us through the room in about 5 minutes.

The lecture itself wasn’t too bad–usually these things are practices in boredom and futility, teaching us virtually nothing of importance. Today’s maintained the “useless” tradition, but in a slightly more interesting way. Much of the subject matter was more than just useless, it was so useless it was almost weird. These were all drivers who were forced to attend this lecture because they received citations (even parking tickets). But they spent a full twenty minutes on bicycle safety. I don’t mean tips on how drivers can avoid hitting bicycles–I mean twenty minutes on how to responsibly ride your bicycle. You know, don’t go too fast, stop at stop signs, walk your bike across crosswalks. I started wondering if I was in the right room.

They spent a good ten minutes or so on fatality numbers, and the more usual patter about traffic stuff wholly unrelated to traffic violations, a lot of which I just can’t figure out. But in a surprise move, they spent the last 40 minutes or so showing us a TV drama. Not made for the department, but an actual drama. And strangely, it was probably the most effective part of the lecture. It was about a normal, nice guy who felt he had to drive for some reason even though he was drunk, and he runs over two little kids and flees the scene. He gives himself up out of guilt, goes to prison, and his family falls apart. His daughter becomes so depressed that she won’t go to school; the son gets colored hair and rebels, cutting his father out of all the family photos. His wife has to go scrape and bow and receive endless abuse from the victim’s family; after paying damages, she has to work days as a cook and nights as a construction-site wand-waver. But the shame, the stress, the hard work, and the kids going nuts drives her to throw herself in front of a train. Cut to the guy getting the news in prison.

Most of the film, obviously a tragedy, was spent watching various people writhe in agonizing emotional torment. So, in short, loads of fun, the feel-good movie of the summer and all that. Or, more to the point, the kind of morbid melodrama so deeply loved here in Japan (right after the yo-yo-wielding high school girl-police detective cliche). But you did come out of it feeling like, “well I don’t want to go through that!” And as such, probably did loads more to address the supposed theme of the lecture than anything else, especially the part about not riding your bicycle on crowded sidewalks.

One other note: the guy giving the lecture (probably a retired cop) strangely resembled Takakura Ken, and wasn’t a complete bore. He probably would have served as a better actor than many of those in the TV drama.

One interesting change: licenses in Japan are now equipped with IC chips, complete with a PIN number. They sold it as a way to more effectively renew your card next time, protecting against identity theft or something, but you know the real reason: they want to make it easier to give you traffic citations. Instead of the cop having to laboriously write out the ticket, he can just swipe your card, and presto! He’s off to ticket three times as many people as before. It might even mean that motorcycle cops can ticket people on rainy days, as there wouldn’t be much paper to get wet. But I have the feeling that the cops stay indoors during the rain for other reasons.

Which, of course, leads me to my usual gripe: that most tickets handed out in Tokyo have one purpose only–to generate income. Japanese cops leave the most dangerous places unmonitored, instead setting up ticket traps in places where people break traffic laws which are wholly unreasonable, in completely safe and innocuous ways–but where it’s dead easy to catch them in numbers. I have zero respect for these guys; they obviously don’t give a rat’s ass about safety. If they did, they would be acting in completely different ways. As they are now, they’re just pompous, self-righteous fee collectors.

Case in point: When I lived in Inagi, I went “mentei,” which means you got so many tickets that you went on a kind of probation–I had to stop driving for a month (not so bad, as I was in the U.S.–and driving–for three weeks of that). As of now, as I pointed out, I have not gotten a single traffic ticket in 20 months. Why? Not because of safety–I drive as safely now as I did in Inagi, which is pretty safely–but simply because I now live downtown, where the cops don’t ticket people nearly as much. Most of my tickets before were for “speeding” on long, lonely, deserted, straightaway stretches of country road where the safe speed is at least 50 mph, but the posted speed limit is 25 mph. I usually got caught going a “dangerous” 40, naughty me. Since they stay on your record until you go ticketless for a whole year, they added up over time.

Maybe continued city living (if I can keep on evading the even-more-fee-generating motorbike parking ticket squads) will allow me to go ticketless for the next three years, so for once I can get a renewal without the worthless, time-wasting lecture.

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  1. Paul
    July 5th, 2008 at 17:13 | #1

    I’d suggest just smashing the chip in your card. They say that it works quite well on the new US Passports- there’s whole web pages on how to best disable the chip, but basically just flat-out smashing it with a hammer is the most often recommended technique.

    Yeah, odds are it won’t matter unless you get pulled over, but it’ll be amusing to see the cop have to actually write out the ticket, won’t it?

  2. ykw
    July 6th, 2008 at 05:25 | #2

    I think the trend is to make id’s harder to copy, and one way to do that is a chip.

  3. Hachi Gatsu
    July 6th, 2008 at 20:02 | #3

    I noticed that too, how in the country the posted speed limit is painfully slow (compared to my understanding) but everyone ignores it anyway.

  4. Gray
    January 16th, 2009 at 13:32 | #4

    Since when is traffic ticketing being used solely as a source for income was something exclusive to Japan? I know that’s not exactly what you said, but it almost sounds like it.

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