In Japan, you usually obtain a driver’s license by taking lessons at a private driving school which exempts you from a practical driving test at a police facility. After finishing the course, you take an official government written test at a police station. However, what if foreigners need to get a driver’s license? While some police stations offer an English version of the test, candidates still have to study Japanese laws and traffic regulations.
Filling this niche in English in Tokyo is Koyama Driving School which has been offering diversified services since it was established in 1957. Since 1999, Koyama has helped many foreigners, providing officially approved driving lessons in English. As the first of its kind in Japan, Koyama expanded the service in English at all of its schools in Tokyo from April.
Heading up Koyama Driving School is CEO Jinichi Koyama. Born in Tokyo, he studied mechanical engineering at Koyama Gakuen School which his father runs, and obtained a mechanical engineering qualification. He has been involved in the management of the school since 1975.
Japan Today reporter Taro Fujimoto visits Koyama at the Futakotamagawa driving school in Tokyo to hear more about the business and the school’s service for foreigners.
What kind of services does Koyama offer?
We operate four driving schools in Tokyo. In addition to the school business, our group companies dispatch professional drivers to organizations and companies as well as publish textbooks for driving schools.
What is the driving school market like now?
The market is very competitive and becoming smaller because fewer young people are buying cars and the birthrate is declining. Some driving schools offer their lessons at bargain prices. It’s a cutthroat competition.
Who are your students at Koyama?
Most of our students are aged between 18 and 25. In the past, people tended to get a driver’s license just after they graduated from high school. But recently, college students are more likely to come because they need a license for full-time work after graduating from college.
However, since a driver’s license is used as an official identification in Japan, there will still be a significant demand for driving schools, I think.
Has the tightened traffic law had any effect?
Not really. But what will have an effect is the relaxation of the law on issuing drivers’ licenses for those who have hearing problems. We have already started lessons for them with instruction in sign language.
How did you come up with the idea of lessons in English for foreigners?
Over the years, we have had a lot of requests from foreign residents in Japan for driving lessons in English. The government’s official written test is conducted in English in many prefectures. After spending 4-5 years for preparation, we started the service in 1999.
Local public safety councils, which supervise driving license administration, didn’t permit lessons with interpreters for foreign students because they said it would be unfair for certain people to have such personal assistance. The councils requested fair driving lessons for everyone. So we decided to start offering lessons in English. As long as students take the same lessons as Japanese, it is fair.
What kind of foreigners take the lessons?
Most of our students are from India and the Philippines. Some international companies, like Nissan, BMW and Coca Cola Japan, request us to give driving training to their expats because they need to learn Japanese driving rules and laws for safety purposes.
We have about 400 foreign students a year. More than 2,000 foreigners, including Charles Jenkins in Sado and Alberto Fujimori (ex-Peru president), took lessons from us.
The Japanese government urges foreigners who stay in Japan for more than three months to obtain a Japanese license. Those who have an international license, which expires within a year, tend to take our lessons for bigger motorcycles, for example, because their international license doesn’t cover those motorbikes.
How do you hire English-speaking driving instructors?
As long as they have an official qualification as driving instructors, we are willing to hire anybody regardless of nationality. But since the qualification test is conducted in Japanese, our instructors are Japanese who speak English. We hire bilingual people but we also give English lessons to our existing staff.
How do you advertise the service?
We don’t do it so much. What is interesting is that local police tell foreigners about us because they often receive inquiries on driving lessons for foreigners in Japan. Word-of-mouth through foreign embassies, the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) and our English-language website are very effective publicity means.
How much do English lessons cost?
Lessons for the English service are 380,000 to 390,000 yen, which is actually more expensive than conventional Japanese ones by 70,000 to 80,000 yen. This is because it costs more to produce English textbooks, for example. Some foreign applicants complain about the cost, but they finally say it is worth it.
What about lessons in other languages?
We of course have considered lessons in Chinese and Korean. But the majority of local public safety councils don’t conduct official driving license exams in these languages. So we have to wait and see what they do in the future.
What are your future plans?
I think we can export our knowledge and experience in the driving lesson business abroad. This is because Japan is practically the only country in the world that has systematic transport education for the public. That would be good for developing countries. Officials from the Zambian government, for example, visited us to learn how to develop safe transport system in their country.
The private sector wants us to contribute to traffic safety, but the government, which conducts the official written exams, has controlled the quality of drivers to some extent in Japan. Traffic accident prevention is a social issue. Before accidents happen, I think we should invest in driving lessons.
What's a typical day for you?
I get up at 8 a.m. and walk to our head office in Shibuya by 9. I leave the office around 5 p.m. Since I run a bar in Minami-Aoyama, I often spend time there until 10 p.m. The bar, of course, doesn't serve alcohol to those who come by car.
What's your management style?
I always work in the head office. Since we have several meetings within the company, I try to attend them because I like to hear the voices of our employees which improve our services.
How do you spend weekends?
I might go shopping with my wife or see a movie.
For further information on Koyama, visit: http://www.koyama.co.jp/english.htm© Japan Today