Tokyo-area driving school offers lessons in English

Koyama Driving School, established in 1957, says it is “the only driving school that provides lessons in English.”

The school has five branches, with four in Tokyo (Futako-Tamagawa, Seijo, Shakujii and Akitsu) and one in Kanagawa Prefecture (Tsunashima).

Students studying at the Futako-Tamagawa branch can take a school minivan from the train station to the entrance of a modern building that could almost be mistaken for an art gallery. Stepping inside, the airy, high-ceilinged interior opens to a lobby that looks like a lounge, with tables of various designs around which students can sit and mingle. At the reception counter stand the English-speaking staff.

Masaru Nozawa, vice principal of the Futako-Tamagawa branch, said: “We put our effort into creating a comfortable environment for all who come to study at our school. We offer lessons not only to the Japanese, but also to foreigners. We also offer lessons for those with physical impairments, such as hearing problems. Also, we are providing chid care support by building a nursery on our grounds so foreign students can make use of it.

“For foreigners, we started giving driving lessons in English in 1999,” Nozawa said. “In fact, the Futako-Tamagawa branch was the first to start this service.”

But preparations to accept foreign students were no easy task.

“The law is very strict and rigid about starting up a service like ours, and it took us about five years,” he said. “We had to prepare all the materials, textbooks, videotapes, tests and so on, in English. Of course, we also needed bilingual staff.”

The school went through all this because, before 1999, foreign residents had no place that could provide them with driving lessons. They were only given the chance to receive and pass the driving and writing tests that were conducted in Japanese at the license offices of the Public Safety Commission.

“If they failed, that was it,” Nozawa said. “So, as the number of foreign residents in Japan increased over the years, we thought it was necessary to provide proper education on driving and road safety in this country.”

In 2010, the latest year for which government figures are available, there were 2,134,151 foreigners living in Japan, of which 418,012 were in Tokyo.

“The need was there,” Nozawa said. “It was, therefore, unfair not to provide a place for foreign residents to receive the required training to obtain a Japanese driver’s license.”

Thanks to the consolidation of its English program, Koyama Driving School has been approved as the only driving school in Japan exempt from the final practical driving test that is conducted at the license offices of the Public Safety Commission.

This means that foreign graduates of Koyama Driving School can avoid the crowded testing centers. Instead, they only have to take the final writing test in English at a license office to obtain a Japanese driver’s license.

“We have been accepting a steady flow of foreign students every year since we started offering driving lessons in English at our school,” said Megumi Yamamoto, the chief of the foreigners’ class. “The students have come from 96 countries around the world, and the total count of foreign graduates from our school has reached almost 4,000 as of the end of 2011. Through my career, I have also come to learn a lot about different cultures of other countries from my students.”

With the exception of the Seijo branch, which has no foreigners’ class instructors, Koyama Driving School has a total of 61 instructors that give lessons in English: Futako-Tamagawa (19), Shakujii (12), Akitsu (15) and Tsunashima (15).

Yamamoto finds her foreign students have a distinctive difference from Japanese students, who tend to be very quiet in the classroom. The foreign students are proactive.

“They walk up to the whiteboard to raise their questions explicitly and discuss until they can obtain a satisfactory answer,” she said.

Student Daniel Lee Hedemann from Denmark said: “I chose to come here because I heard that it was very good. I also go to a high school in this area and found the location convenient. The schedule is flexible, and the teachers go into details to explain. They are also kind and create an encouraging environment. The campus is also clean and nice, and they use very good cars for driving that are well-sanitized.”

Koyama Driving School’s policy is to provide satisfaction to both students and employees.

“Normalization is necessary, where nobody is discriminated,” Nozawa said. “Just because you’re living in a foreign country should never mean that you should live an inconvenient life. Koyama Driving School will help you take one big leap into a comfortable life here in Japan, at least for transportation.”

For more information, visit www.koyama.co.jp or call (03) 5716-5888.