Four years ago, at age 23, Fukuko Yamada Walker decided it was time to get a driver's license. So she spent $2,500 for a driving course that lasted several months, took the written tests and the road test, posed for a mug shot and dropped her brand-new permit in her purse.
And she hasn't driven since.
"It's kind of like a credit card: You don't have to use it, you just have to have it," said Walker, one of tens of thousands of Japanese "paper drivers" who have licenses that they rarely, if ever, use.
In the nation that produces millions of the world's cars, driving is often an expensive, frustrating, unnecessary nightmare, and vast numbers of licensed drivers here haven't been behind the wheel in years.
Roads are incredibly congested--highway traffic jams on weekends make the Beltway look like a country lane. Many roads in Japan are as narrow as a bike path, and many have sharp, tight turns. Pedestrians are clipped by cars more often here than in almost any other country, largely because of the narrow streets with no sidewalks. Many cars here have retractable side-view mirrors to help squeeze through tight spots.
Parking is devilish. Spaces are hard to come by--many lots stack cars three or four high on automated racks. Drive to a restaurant or shop and parking often adds $5 to the bill every half-hour. And don't even think about parking illegally: Overnight parking violations carry a fine of up to $1,600. And if the police tow your car, add $260 or more.
That's good for the city's cash register, but officials won't say how good. Tokyo police estimate that at any given moment, there are 127,000 illegally parked cars on city streets. But they won't disclose how many parking tickets they write or how much revenue they receive from them. (Officials here routinely withhold such basic information, even about matters involving collection and use of public funds.)
In the United States, a parking ticket is a routine matter. In Japan, illegal parking is seen as an abuse of the unwritten social covenant binding 125 million people together on a relatively small chain of islands. Many Japanese people fully support aggressive ticketing and towing of parking offenders, whom they see as irresponsibly inconveniencing others.
Those who park illegally may return to their cars to find not just a ticket but also a government pamphlet tucked under the windshield wiper, explaining why illegal parking is rude, selfish and bad for everyone.
Payment of parking tickets often must be accompanied by a letter of apology, in which the offender is obliged to acknowledge the gravity of the misdeed and promise never to repeat it. Get three tickets in three years and you lose your license for a month.
Or you can pay a $300 fee, attend a 3 1/2-hour driver safety lecture (complete with bloody accident videos, lectures about drunk driving and traffic safety) and do a half-day of public service. That volunteer work can include manning kindergarten crosswalks, distributing safety leaflets, picking up litter, holding up roadside banners reminding drivers to wear their seat belts, or volunteering at homes for the elderly or disabled.
To register a car in Japan, you must prove that you have a place to park. Police actually come to your house to measure your parking space to make sure your car will fit. Anyone found guilty of having a car with no space to park it faces up to three months in jail.
In addition to paying for a parking spot--which can run from $500 to $800 a month in Tokyo--car owners also must pay for gasoline so expensive that filling the tank of a small Honda costs at least $50. Drive to Mount Fuji for the day (two hours from Tokyo with no traffic; six hours or more on holiday weekends), and round-trip tolls will add up to at least $75.
On top of that, car owners also must pay inspection fees every two years that can easily top $1,000 and sometimes push $2,000, depending on the car's condition. By making used cars progressively more expensive, the system encourages consumers to keep buying new vehicles from Japan's mighty car manufacturers.
And if all that wasn't incentive enough to stay off the road, Japan also has one of the world's most efficient public transportation systems. Anyone can get to practically anyplace in Japan on the amazing web of train tracks--and the rates, starting at $1.25 a ride, are surprisingly cheap in a land where little else is. The Shinjuku station, said to be the world's busiest with about 3 million commuters a day passing through, has 10 entrances feeding into 19 separate train lines. And with 43,000 taxis on the streets of Tokyo, it's always easy to catch a cab.
Twelve years ago, Atsushi Kuse decided he'd had enough. After more than 20 years of ownership hassles, Kuse, 49, sold his car and became a paper driver. He renews his license faithfully every three years, but has no intention of ever driving again.
"Economically and practically it makes no sense to be a driver," Kuse said, who said the $600 a month he spends on taxis is "pennies" compared with the taxes, gas and parking expenses he used to run up.
Still, a driver's license remains a rite of passage in Japan, an emblem of adulthood that most people want tucked away in their wallet, even if they never use it.
"I didn't need to get it, but it's kind of a symbol," said Fukuko Yamada Walker. "You feel something lacking if you don't have it."
CAPTION: On an island with millions of people, a car can be the slowest, costliest transportation.
CAPTION: Devilish parking: In Tokyo drivers try to tuck their cars almost anywhere.
CAPTION: Support of aggressive ticketing is widespread in Japan; Tokyo police mark the location of a towed car.