License to Drive: My journey from Japanese paper driver to the Michigan roads

My name is Kanako Morishita, and I will be working as a Japan Outreach Initiative (JOI) Coordinator for JCMU until 2019. Over the past 4 months, I have encountered several new and surprising things during my time in Michigan. It wasn’t so much the obvious differences, but the small ones in our day-to-day customs and actions that really surprised me.

One such shocking revelation? Driving! Below, I would like to share with you the differences in road customs I’ve observed between the U.S. and Japan.

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Let the driving commence! (photo by Michael Spiller)

How to get a driver’s license in Japan

In Japan, becoming a licensed driver is like a marathon for both you and your wallet.

It’s very difficult and costly to obtain your license. The whole process from start to finish will set you back approximately $2,500-$3,500, and it takes around 2-3 months to finish your driving school courses. Though driving school is not mandatory in Japan, I can’t imagine passing your driving test without it.

Thus, many college students earn the money for driving school through part time jobs, then will complete their driving courses during school breaks. Even if they don’t end up using it after entering the job market, there may not be another chance for them to do it.

My memory of driving boot camp

In my case, I went to a driving school during my college’s spring break. Spring break is much shorter than summer break, so some schools offer what is called “driving boot camp” for students. The intensive program condenses the typical driving school content into just 2 weeks, and runs daily from morning till night. Because of this, students will generally be provided housing and meals as a part of their costs. I remember living in a single room with three meals every day myself.

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Me listening intently to my driving teacher’s instructions

The main purpose of the program is to evaluate your driving skills and road knowledge through two tests. So in order to get my license, I had to pass both before the 2 week boot camp concluded. If you failed either, you either have to quit or spend an extra week at camp before retaking the test. It put a lot of pressure on me to make sure that I was doing everything I could to pass the first time through. Fortunately, I completed the program successfully, and went on to get my license soon thereafter.

Although it was very intensive, it was also a lot of fun. I met a few new friends there, some of whom I am still very close with even now!

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We celebrated one of my friends’ birthdays during the boot camp

I got a driver’s license in Japan! However…

Many young people go on to be what’s referred as a “paper driver” (ペーパードライバー, peepaa doraibaa). This means that they don’t ever drive despite having a license.

That was me for the past 10 years… Due to the convenient public transit system in Tokyo, I found it easier to go to work by train rather than figure out road routes and parking. As a result of my lack of regular driving experience, I dreaded the thought of returning behind the wheel once more.

Obtaining a Michigan driver’s license

Immediately, I was nervous about the prospects of driving in the States. It had been nearly 10 years since I actually drove anywhere, after all. Scraping off the rust and learning how to maneuver a foreign country’s road laws seemed like it might prove too difficult for me.

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U.S. driver training vehicle

However, after finishing my driving lessons, all I had to do was pass my driving test to become officially licensed in the U.S. No expensive costs, no months of driving school – it was nothing like the training I had to complete in Japan. Many times, I thought I was missing a step in the process. It was all so strange to me, but it meant that I got my license far quicker than originally anticipated. Woohoo!

Since then, I’ve had a lot of fun driving my car daily. It’s as if a whole new world opened up to me the second I got my license. I could now explore Michigan to my heart’s content, allowing me to discover new sites that I never would have before.

Different rules of intoxication

Japan continues to have a strong drinking environment that encourages workers to become intoxicated together as a sort-of team building exercise. It’s not just for big seasonal events, either: while drinking is common during spring 花見 (hanami, cherry blossom viewing parties) and 忘年会 (bounenkai, end-of-year celebrations), everyday casual drinking after work is common as well. It’s so prevalent that there’s even a word for it: ノミュニケーション (nomyunikeeshon, communication while drinking). It’s actually a portmanteau of the Japanese word 飲む (nomu, to drink) and the English word communication, and is often written in English as “nomunication.” Good nomunication is often seen as important in maintaining good business relations with your colleagues in Japan.

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Hanami (photo by Japanexperna)

Despite the prevalence of drinking in Japan, rules prohibiting intoxicated driving are strictly enforced. In fact, if you have even a single drop of alcohol in you, you’re not allowed to drink until it’s out of your system. If you’re going to drink at all, then be prepared to walk or take public transit home!

So, when I found out that Michigan drivers are generally allowed to drive after having a single drink, I was very surprised. It was something that I thought of as an almost immovable rule. In my head, I always previously thought that if you drank at all (no matter how little), you were not going to be driving anywhere anytime soon. Here though, people will have a beer with their lunch and then drive back to work. It really made my head spin at bit!

Driving in the U.S. is a big investment

Although I used to be a paper driver, I was able to get a car and driver’s license in the States relatively easily! It took less than $100 to get an official Michigan license, too – way cheaper than Japan. However, this isn’t to say maintaining a car is cheaper here. The opposite might be true even since car insurance is far more expensive here. As such, while driving is important to me, it remains a large financial investment.

住めば都 (Sumeba miyako)

This is a famous old saying in Japan that approximately means “wherever you live, you come to love it.” After spending a few months of my life in Michigan, it’s an idea that I can definitely relate to.

I am slowly getting used to driving in Michigan, and am still absolutely loving my time here. If you told me a few years ago that this would be the path my life took, I probably would not have believed you! Now though, I treasure every little step and unique challenge I face abroad. Though I would be fine if winter passes over us this year and I don’t have to learn how to drive in the snow…

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My first car!

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