Drivers’ Education in Japan: Personality Tests and ‘Road Rage?’

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Memo #158

By Joshua Roth – jroth [at] mtholyoke.edu

There is no Japanese equivalent for the term “road rage.” Yet Japanese psychologists and the public are aware of the emotional dimensions of driving. A 2001 article in the Japan Automobile Association’s monthly magazine discusses the propensity of some for angry driving (ka ka unten). Since 1996, Japanese automobile insurance rates have been adjusted to penalize drivers who cause accidents. But such neoliberal forms of governance have not replaced forms of moral suasion and self-reflection that have a long history in Japan.

Recognizing the range of temperaments in the driving population, psychologists working for the National Police Agency incorporated a personality inventory into a driving aptitude test. It is now part of the curriculum in officially certified driving schools.

This inventory, adapted from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, was first developed as a means to evaluate military recruits during World War I. Recent versions have been used in many countries to screen candidates for jobs where other people’s lives are at stake – such as firefighters, police, pilots, and nuclear plant operators. Since its adoption by certified driving schools, more Japanese have taken a brief version of this personality inventory than any other people.

Interestingly, the inventory is not used to screen potential drivers in Japan. You can’t fail it. The point is to encourage self-reflection (hansei), according to psychologists at one testing company. They believe that self-reflection among student drivers will allow them to modify their behaviour or take special precautions. Those who score high on the “sensitivity” scale may be expected to adopt a zen-like attitude of tolerance and not assume that the acts of other drivers are provocations. Those who score low on the “emotional stability” scale are exhorted to focus on driving only. But it is doubtful that the brief explanations following these exams can spur the kind of self-reflection that would make a difference in driving.

Whether or not personality testing is effective in reducing traffic-related accidents, its continued use suggests that the turn towards neoliberal governance that emphasizes financial incentives has not completely displaced older forms of governance that stress moral suasion and self-reflection.

Joshua Roth – Associate Professor of Anthropology at Mount Holyoke College.

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