On Thursday morning I took a half day off school and went to the Japanese Drivers License Center to finally pick up my brand new gold license. The process was a model of efficiency, and as a gold license holder, my process was expedited. I was in and out of the process in a mere 55 minutes.
For those of you who have spent any time in Japan, you might be tempted to consider my gold license no big deal. Why? Because so many "paper drivers" have them. Speaking to Brian Ashcraft of Kotaku yesterday he said he knows many older women (like his mother-in-law) who never drive, so they never get in any trouble, thus they easily "earn" a gold license. That, dear readers, is not me. I have driven almost my entire seven years in Japan. I drive an average of 60KM roundtrip every Monday to Friday, and often on weekends. When you're in a vehicle that much, earning a gold license is hard. Really hard. When I told my supervisor at the Board of Education I took half a school day off to go pick mine up, he sent me a lovely email reading, "Woohoo! Congrats! Welcome to the club." As a fellow commuter, he knows, one wrong move, and your chances at a gold license vanish.
But back to the process. I often call the Drivers License Center the "Japanese DMV" for short, so non-Japanese will know what I'm talking about. However, it's actually not a department of motor vehicles. There's actually a car registration center which is an entirely different building in an entirely different city. This center really only handles licenses and testing. Not vehicle registration, taxes, etc.
The DLC is run by police, mostly, and not civilian clerks. So you'll see a lot of people in plain clothes, but they'll still be wearing badges, and the uniformed police are pretty much everywhere. They're mostly old men, and I hear the DLC is where retir(ed)(ing) policemen go after they're too old for patrol. Other clerks are young to middle aged women in matching black vests and skirts. A few of them are also police officers—you can tell because in addition to a nametag, they are also wearing the badge (usually the thinner silver type).
So I get there at 8:17, but the process won't officially start until 8:30. One of the plain clothed (yet badged) older policemen direct us to form lines of four and to get correct spacing. I feel like I'm back in school. Or at least I feel like I'm still at school. I am usually one of the teachers checking to make sure my own seventh, eighth, or ninth graders are lined up. It's weird to be back on the other side, but this is typical for Japanese crowd control, and it's instilled in Japanese children from a young age (and me, now, too). I've long since turned Japanese.
I immediately follow the directions, and again, like school, group representatives are selected for each line to pass out the official forms and notices (pictured above is Kobaton, the area mascot, as a member of the police force informing me that my new license will have an IC/RFI chip and that placing it next to a bank card or train card will screw it up). It's maybe 8:22?
(Thanks, Bird Cop! — Patrick George)
At 8:30AM on the dot, we are ushered to four identical looking clerks (one in front of each line) who ask us if there is any change to our information as it has been listed or updated on our current license. I inform my clerk that nothing had changed. She drops my license into a slot and (holy crap this was amazing) the current IC/RFI chip is read, the slot spits out the card, and it immediately prints out a sheet with photos of my current license and several fields already filled out. I then am immediately directed to a desk where I sit down and fill out any remaining fields. From there, I am directed to purchase currency stamps (seen at the top of the printed form in the picture above). Once affixed, I am directed to yet another group of lines where I once again asked if everything is correct. I say yes.
A door opens and I am passed onto a group uniformed officers (and I put away my phone; no pictures from this point on, I am warned politely but firmly), one of which checks my vision. He signs off and sends me to yet another line, where within about two minutes I am in front of a female police officer who looks over my paperwork and matches it against my zairyuu card (my Japanese "green" card or residency card) and the previous information in the system. That's when her expression turns confused and she cocks here head. She's found an error (or so she thinks).
Her finger traces something on the screen I can't see. Then she looks at me, then she looks down at the paperwork, her finger tracing over my selection of 女 (F, for Female) on the form, then her finger tracing that same symbol on my zairyuu card. She does this sigh, shrug, apologetic look which says clearly, "This stupid system, what a glitch, right?" and she makes the correction from 男 (M) to 女 (F) in the system. She apologises for the delay (which was MAYBE a minute, if that). She directs me to third floor, and I try to stifle my laughter at the experience.
I meet another police officer at the top of the stairs. He looks over my paperwork again, and directs me to another female police officer who then sits me down and takes my picture. She directs me up to the fourth floor. There I meet two female non-police officers (no badge) who check my paperwork again, and then direct me to go all the way down a long hall to a group of plain clothes old policemen in matching police blue blazers, police emblem buttons, and red ties (and miniature versions of their badges on their lapels. Pretty fraternity-esque, actually, well, you know what they say about the brothers in blue). At this point one breaks off and ushers me into a room with a mere six others. Out of that huge crowd this morning only six are in the expedited process for the gold license. Safe driving hath its privileges.
The blazered, red-tied elderly policeman lectures us on DWI, on the costs associated with being caught, and he spends quite a bit of time one the various jail time associated with each potential DWI level. Don't drink and drive in Japan, kids. Not after one drop. He then shows some videos, quickly goes over what the police department has decided are issues even for gold drivers (roundabouts, parallel parking, proper use of handicapped and elderly tags), and lets us go. He directs us downstairs, where we are greeted by a uniformed policeman who calls us by our numbers, bows, presents us our gold licenses, and thanks us for our due diligence in adhering to Japanese laws.
Here's the result (of course, my full name has been wiped, my birthdate has been zeroed out, my gold license acquisition number has been zeroed out, and my drivers license number has been erased... Oh, and my picture has been covered with Fumi Manjoume, who I typically use as my Kinja avatar):
Images via Kat Callahan/Jalopnik, police badges via Arundou Debito.