When I came to Japan I was told to bring an International Driving License. On my first day at work, my boss asked me if I had brought it. I confirmed that I had. ‘And you are from England so it’s the same side!’ he said cheerfully.
‘It is,’ I said. ‘So no need to worry.’
‘But,’ my boss asked, ‘did you drive automatic transmission or stick?’
‘Manual,’ I said, thinking I was reassuring him that I could indeed drive proper cars. He looked puzzled. ‘Stick,’ I clarified.
‘Really,’ he said as if suddenly disappointed.
‘Well, yes,’ I said. ‘I mean, I’ve driven automatics too, but I sat my test in a manual so I can drive anything.’
‘Really?’ he said again, but this time with surprise. ‘Our car is automatic. Can you drive it?’
I laughed, thinking that’s like asking a cyclist if he can handle a tricycle. ‘Of course,’ I said. They’re like go-karts.’
‘But you drove stick in England.’
‘Well, mainly, but I can drive automatics. They’re just the same but without the gears and clutch to worry about. It’s not hard.’
‘Maybe we should practice,’ he said.
‘But I can drive automatics. Really.’
‘I think maybe it’s difficult,’ he said. ‘Let’s have a lesson tomorrow.’
And so it was that I had my first and only driving lesson in Japan, under the unusual instruction of my boss.
He was a small man, my boss, with a grey horseshoe of hair crowning a wide, shiny bald head. He wore large spectacles and had eyebrows situated so high on his forehead that he looked as though he were in a permanent state of surprise.
‘It’s alright,’ I said, when he picked me up at my apartment ‘I can already drive. There’s really no need to worry.’
My boss laughed and then told me that this was Japan.
The original plan had been for me to drive from my apartment to a branch school in the neighbouring town, with my boss as a passenger but his worry that I might not be able to master the complexities of an automatic was so great that he decided to reverse the roles. Instead, I would be allowed to drive back at the end of the day. First, he would need to show me how it’s done.
There were two cars available for teachers. We squeezed into a small black car and my boss instructed me that, ‘First, we must put on our seatbelts.’ He added that this was very important. Then he showed me how to move the gearstick from neutral to drive, twice, before almost crashing into the wall directly in front of us. He wasn’t joking about the seatbelts! When he had had recovered his composure, he showed me how to put the car into reverse, twice, and managed to get us out of the car park without further incident.
He came to a corner and demonstrated how to use the indicator, but because he was busy telling me, ‘Please look when turning,’ he didn’t notice the car travelling at speed directly towards us as we pulled out into a busy main road. The car swerved and let out a lengthy honk on its horn as it passed us on two wheels.
‘Some people are very dangerous drivers,’ said my boss.
At the traffic light we stopped. The light was green.
‘Please stop at the signal,’ my boss explained.
‘But it’s green,’ I said.
My boss laughed and put his foot back on the accelerator. I began to fear that I might never actually get the opportunity to drive back that evening, as we might not make it to the school in the first place. My boss stopping at that green light was doubly odd because experience has since taught me that most drivers in Japan don’t even stop when a light turns to red. A light turning red doesn’t seem to mean ‘Stop’ so much as ‘Hurry up! The car three behind you should probably stop.’ It is such a regular aspect of driving in Japan that whenever I do stop at a light that has just changed I almost expect to be ploughed into by the car behind.
We did make it to the branch school. In this valuable lesson my boss helpfully pointed out such difficult things to recognise as petrol stations and trucks, all whilst cruising slowly along in the fast lane, oblivious to the stares and shaking fists of drivers passing us on the inside.
And so with pallid face and confused bowels I got out of the car and attempted to teach my first English lesson of the day. I had developed the morning hands of an alcoholic.