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Japan has largely been spared the kind of strict 新型コロナウイルス (shingata koronauirusu, novel coronavirus) quarantines that have been mandated around the world, but that hasn’t made people here any less wary about going out.

In fact, a general cautiousness when it comes to taking Tokyo’s crowded buses and trains has led some to consider getting their 運転免許証 (unten menkyoshō, driver’s license). For non-Japanese who are not ready to hop on a plane for their travel fix, a license will come in handy for a good old-fashioned road trip.

A lack of Japanese-language proficiency isn’t such a big deal if you already had your license in your home country. You can either obtain a 国際免許 (kokusai menkyo, International Driving Permit) while in your home country if you’re only planning to stay in Japan for a short period, or you can go through the process of 外国免許切替 (gaikoku menkyo kirikae, the transfer of foreign license to a Japanese license) if you are planning to stay longer and have a residential permit. You will need to take a test on 交通規則の知識 (kōtsū kisoku no chishiki, knowledge of traffic rules) at an 運転免許センター (unten menkyo sentā, driver’s license center) depending on your home country, but that test is offered in English.

If you want to learn how to drive a car in Japan from scratch, that’s when you’ll need to know the language. According to the websites of the major 指定自動車学校 (shitei jidōsha gakkō, designated driver’s license schools), 外国籍の方の場合は、日本語が理解できること (gaikokuseki no kata no baai wa, Nihongo ga rikai dekiru koto, if you are a foreign national, the ability to understand Japanese) is required to enroll in a course.

Once you get into a driving school, you will need to attend 26 hours of 学科教習 (gakka kyōshū, lectures on traffic knowledge) and 31 hours of 技能教習 (ginō kyōshū, practical skill training). That’s a lot of Japanese. Having attended some lectures at the 指定自動車学校 myself, I found that, in addition to knowing driving vocabulary, you’ll need to understand the difference between what you “can do,” “must do” and “must not do” when it comes to the road.

For example, in the instruction 黄色の灯火の点滅信号は、徐行して進むことができる (kiiro no tōka no tenmetsu shingō wa, jokō shite susumu koto ga dekiru, it is possible to proceed slowly when the yellow light is blinking), the ことができる (koto ga dekiru) structure attached to the verb 進む (susumu, proceed) indicates that it is possible to do something. It’s a structure that is also used when describing when someone is able to do something, as in スミスさんは日本語を話すことができる (Sumisu-san wa Nihongo o hanasu koto ga dekiru, Ms. Smith is able to speak Japanese).

Of course, 交通規則 (kōtsū kisoku, traffic rules) aren’t about suggestions, they’re about orders. So, a more common verb ending you’ll hear at driving school is ~なければならない (~nakerebanaranai), which translates as “must,” as in 安全な車間距離をとらなければならない (anzenna shakan kyori o toranakereba naranai, you must keep a safe vehicular gap [the distance between your car and the car in front of you]) or 踏切を通過する時は、止まる、見る、聞くの3条件を守らなければならない (fumikiri o tsūka suru toki wa, tomaru, miru, kiku no san-jōken o mamoranakereba naranai, you must follow three rules including stop, watch and listen, when you pass a railroad crossing).

Worded similarly to ~なければならない is ~てはいけない (~te wa ikenai), which indicates something you “must not” do. For instance, 例え少しでも、酒を飲んで車を運転してはいけない (tatoe sukoshi demo, sake o nonde kuruma o unten shite wa ikenai, you must not drive after drinking alcohol even if the amount is a little). The structure is often used for official regulations, such as ここに車を止めてはいけません (koko ni kuruma o tomete wa ikemasen, you must not park your car here) or この部屋に入ってはいけません (kono heya ni haitte wa ikemasen, do not enter this room).

There are often exceptions to the rules, and in Japanese they’re pointed out with 除かれる (nozokareru, to be removed). For instance, you are supposed to use a child seat when a child under age 6 rides in your car, however, 病気などやむを得ない理由がある場合は除かれる (byōki nado yamu o enai riyū ga aru baai wa nozokareru), so in this case a child seat is not needed if they have a special condition, such as an illness.

Of course, this article is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the language used at driving schools. Having said that, if you can study enough vocabulary to understand what is going on in the classroom, then you won’t just be getting an education behind the wheel, but a crash course in Japanese as well.

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