The whole thing started rather unexpectedly, when my colleague Jack jokingly suggested we get bikes and join the local band of bosozoku (biker gang). It had been an old dream of mine to learn to ride a motorcycle, and getting a bike seemed like the perfect way to get away from the craziness of the city.
And so, a week later, I found myself shelling out my hard earned wages for the privilege of riding around in ellipticals for the next month or so. I was enrolled in not only the required 19 hours of on track training but also 27 hours of classroom lectures, all of course in Japanese.
I looked rather out of place in the lectures, which were filled with devious-looking youths and wannabe bosozoku. They were uniformly dressed in tracksuits and often bore obscenely well-maintained hairstyles. We spent most of our time in the lectures watching a series of videos on driving theory. Like in many institutions in Japan, things are only replaced when absolutely necessary, and I enjoyed the glimpse of 90s Japan that the videos offered. Occasionally, the instructor would pick me to answer a question or ask me to make a joke, and I would do my best to respond in my poor Japanese, trying to hide my embarrassment.
Many of the instructors were ex-police and veterans of an elite motorcycle patrolman training program. Lessons started and ended in perfect synchrony, and were preceded in obligatory Japanese style by a taiso (a traditional warm up routine of stretching and bending.)
The track lessons were straight-forward. After we had mastered basic motorcycle handling skills, we were told to repeat a simple circuit until we had memorised it completely. Instructors would only say something if we were about to do something dangerous, but otherwise they were happy to let us discover our own mistakes. I enjoyed this style of learning and I felt myself improving until I was passing all the obstacles without a hitch.
During the final test, one by one, we walked out onto the track. We shouted our names, bowed to the examiner and then to the bike, before mounting it and making sure we did all our initial checks with melodramatic accuracy. We then proceeded to repeat the course exactly as we had memorized it in training, making sure that we followed the course directions precisely. I passed on my second try.
Getting my actual license presented a challenge, however. Due to the scrupulous bureaucratic systems of Japan, I found myself spending the entirety of my only day off hanging around the driving center to sit a theory test. The pass mark was 90%, and after gaining a rather competent 87% on my first attempt, I felt confident that I would soon pass. My next two tests came out at 89% and after my 4th failure (at 89%) I sank into a foul mood. I was convinced that I was answering the questions right and I was furious at the convoluted translations of the questions. I fell into the all too common expat trap of taking everything way too personally; I felt that I had endured so much nonsense over the last two months that I deserved a pass, regardless of the results of the test. I returned home, dejected, tired and ready to give up Japan completely.
Perhaps something clicked in my head as I slept that night, but for some reason, my attitude completely changed. My fury at the system had subsided and I started to spend extra time studying the details of the textbook. I was calm and felt absurdly at peace with everything. I would pass the test when I was ready, and no sooner. After fighting and struggling against the system for weeks I finally accepted my small spot in the strict and meticulous world that is the Japanese bureaucratic system and—strangely enough—on my next attempt, I finally passed.
Japan can often be frustratingly restrictive, bureaucratic and sometimes even unfair. At first, the stringent rules, the mindless repetition and the blind determination may seem inconvenient or just absurd. But these rules follow their own set of logical paths which in many ways offer a different, but no less correct, view of the nature of life than those I had been brought up with.
In my own country we are often taught that getting anywhere in life takes an awful lot of clawing, scratching, and fighting. In Japan, although hard work is equally admired, it is believed that effort is most useful when it is used in harmony with the systems of life and society and not against it.
The whole experience was, although incredibly frustrating, vastly rewarding. Not only had I fought for and won the right to explore the roads of Japan on two wheels—something which I truly love to do—I had also found a rare feeling that I had truly learnt something valuable and wise by fighting.