Reference | FYI

Driving Schools

Japan's driving schools, squeezed by demographic change, target foreign residents to stay afloat

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

According to the National Police Agency’s latest statistics, as many as 82.26 million people held driver’s licenses in Japan in 2017. Of those drivers, 18.18 million — or 22.1 percent — were 65 or older.

With well-developed public transport networks in urban areas and a shrinking youth population, can Japan’s driving schools survive? What changes will operators see? What measures might they take to draw in new clientele? And what learning options are available for non-Japanese citizens?

Here are some more details about Japan’s driver education system and its current situation:

How do you get a driver’s license in Japan?

People who wish to acquire their first driver’s license normally enroll in so-called designated driving schools, which have been authorized by the public safety commission in each prefecture.

These schools issue a diploma after successful completion of the course, which results in a road test waiver.

Experienced drivers who for some reason have had their license suspended or disqualified, as well as “paper drivers” — who have obtained a license but do not usually drive — can enroll in unauthorized schools, which provide courses at a much lower cost than designated schools. Attendees at these schools have to take a road test and a written exam at license examination centers designated by each prefecture’s public safety commission.

How much money is required?

The cost of courses at authorized schools tends to be around ¥300,000.

They include a 26-hour theory course, and require 31 hours of practice behind the wheel.

Fees at unauthorized schools can be around ¥100,000 or less, as they don’t require students to log a specific number of supervised driving lessons before taking the official exams. An unauthorized school in Yokohama estimates that a program including about 15 hours on the school’s driving course and 10 hours of road practice would cost around ¥197,000.

Can foreign residents use their driver’s licenses acquired abroad?

Japan accepts international licenses issued under the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which are valid for one year after issuance. Also, people from 26 countries including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, South Korea, Spain, as well as Taiwan and two American states — Maryland and Washington — can convert their valid driver’s licenses without taking knowledge or road tests. Those not on that list have to take those exams at license centers.

How does Japan’s driving school system compare with those in other countries?

Mohan Srirangam Nadamuni Desikan, 57, a banker from India who has been attending Yokohama Driving School in Totsuka Ward, believes the Japanese training system prepares students better to drive safely compared with his home country.

He said instructors would often turn a blind eye to minor traffic violations in India, and that many people still acquire driver’s licenses by bribing examiners.

“If I did that I would be setting a bad example,” he said. The Indian government has tightened license regulations and now puts more effort into promoting road safety, he added. In India, driving tuition costs up to 15,000 rupees — around ¥24,000 — according to Desikan.

In the United States regulations vary by state, but those wishing to take a driver’s license exam generally don’t have to undergo any formal training and fees can be as low as $30. Examinees can practice driving under the supervision of an adult, while some senior high schools offer driving courses after hours. Courses that include practical road training cost several hundred dollars, but the cost varies widely by location, the type of school and the applicant’s age.

Amid Japan’s demographic shift, are driving schools still in high demand?

Demand has been on the decline. Japan’s aging and shrinking population has caused some school operators to close over the years. In particular, the number of designated driving schools has been decreasing over the past decade and dropped from 1,408 in 2008 to 1,330 by the end of 2017.

“We can see that fewer young people want to learn driving, especially in larger cities,” said Susumu Nakamata of the Japan Federation of Authorized Drivers School Associations, a group of 1,271 schools across the country. He pointed to a nationwide downward trend in the number of test-takers and driving school students.

“In more rural areas where transportation infrastructure is not well-developed, people rely more on cars. But the aging population is one of the main factors hurting these (driving school) businesses,” Nakamata said.

Yokohama Driving School, which has been in operation since 1964, may be an exception, as the number of new students has been steadily growing. Last year, the school accepted about 2,000 new students applying for a regular driver’s license.

Hirofumi Iguchi, the school’s board director, explained that most schools in Kanagawa Prefecture were established around 50 years ago when the driving school business was booming. “But the trend is downward in Kanagawa, with schools losing several percent of its student numbers each year,” said Iguchi.

The school’s operator also cited the burden of personnel expenses, which add to driving schools’ struggles to stay afloat.

Masafumi Yamamoto, of an association comprised of unauthorized driving schools nationwide, said, “All (unauthorized) schools have also been struggling with decreasing numbers of customers.” He added that there are about 200 such schools nationwide, including those not in his group.

What steps are schools taking to address the decline in customers?

Yokohama Driving School, for instance, is among schools targeting non-Japanese customers, and it has seen an increase in such applicants. Many new students come from countries such as India, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka, in addition to existing groups of Chinese and Korean students, according to school director Kenichi Ishiwata.

Driver’s license applicants can take written exams in English in all prefectures, and in some areas they can choose from Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese options. As a result, more and more schools nationwide have been introducing English as well as Chinese and Portuguese translations of textbooks.

Koyama Driving School, which has five facilities in Tokyo and Kanagawa, also provides training with guidance from English-speaking instructors.

Yamamoto, of the association of unauthorized driving schools, said such institutions have also been strengthening their efforts to attract non-Japanese who wish to convert their driver’s licenses into Japanese ones.

He said that many operators have been offering courses not only in English but also in other languages — including Portuguese, in areas such as Saitama and Nagoya where many Brazilians live, and in Chinese, mainly in and around Tokyo and Osaka.

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