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July 14, 2010
Koyama Driving School offers comprehensive skills training for non-Japanese speakers
English courses fuel company drive
By CHIHO IUCHI
Founded in 1957, Koyama Driving School, Inc. (KDS) is one of Japan's leading driving schools and a pioneer in providing driver's license courses in English.
"Until we started our courses, it was almost impossible for people without Japanese-language skills to obtain a driver's license in Japan," said KDS President Jinichi Koyama.
|Jinichi Koyama, president of Koyama Driving School, Inc.
For non-Japanese speakers, the only way to get a license was by passing the difficult written exam and driving test without any training in Japan, at a test site run by each prefecture's Public Safety Commission.
Among the few driving schools that accommodate non-Japanese speakers, KDS, which has three schools in Tokyo and one in Kanagawa Prefecture, offers comprehensive and systematic driving courses, comprising lectures on rules of the road in Japan and driving skills training, by 60 English-speaking Japanese instructors.
Those who come to Japan — especially if they have a Japanese spouse — without a driver's license from their home countries need a Japanese license to drive here. According to KDS, their students hail from around 60 countries, including India, the Philippines, the United States, and countries in Europe and Africa.
In Japan, most driver's license holders are graduates of designated driving schools, a diploma from which exempts one from having to take the driving test. However, in all cases, the written exam must be taken, which could be linguistically challenging for non-Japanese speakers. Today, most prefectures provide the written test in English, but "lectures at most schools are exclusively in Japanese," said Koyama.
It took KDS five years to create textbooks before starting the English courses in 1999.
"We outsourced the translation of the Japanese textbooks, but it was not easy to get authorization from the Public Safety Commission, making all the corrections for the technical terms," recounted Megumi Yamamoto, who was among the preparatory members at KDS.
After graduating from a Japanese junior college, Yamamoto studied for one year in the U.S. before joining KDS.
|Lesson: Megumi Yamamoto (right), an experienced instructor at KDS' Futakotamagawa school, and her younger colleague Haruka Fujimoto in the English course classroom
"I like driving and I wanted to work using English," said Yamamoto, an experienced English-language instructor, having taught KDS English courses since they began. "But many of our instructors study English after starting their career at KDS. It's motivation that counts."
Haruka Fujimoto, who joined KDS five years ago, is one such instructor.
"I've never studied abroad," said Fujimoto. "At first, I could say only 'right' or 'left.' There would have been an awkward silence if I hadn't had the courage to talk to the student in the car."
Yamamoto added: "It is stressful for everybody not to be understood. But instructors should not dwell on misunderstandings. As long as you have a willingness to communicate, you will be able to do this job."
Among the 124 instructors at the main KDS Futakotamagawa school in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, 30 speak English.
By observing their senior colleagues and attending English-language courses provided by the company, instructors brush up their teaching skills. "What is difficult for me is to answer questions from students. At the moment, I teach classes on limited subjects," said Fujimoto.
Yamamoto added: "No specific credentials are required to become an English driving instructor, but you have to be able to understand what your students say."
Fujimoto relates the story of how surprised she was when her student went through a red light while attempting to turn right. He explained that it is normal in his country, where drivers keep to the right side of the road, to make a right turn on a red light without stopping. (Maybe he forgot that he was driving on the left in Japan.) She told him that he must always make a full stop at a red light in Japan. "Since then, I always ask my students in the classroom, 'How do things work in your country?' " Fujimoto said.
According to Koyama, the English course was part of the company's differentiation strategy. While the number of students entering driving schools in Tokyo has been declining, from 140,000 in 1998 to 88,000 in 2009, KDS has kept a constant enrollment of 12,000 over the same period.
|At The Reception
Every year, KDS helps around 300 non-Japanese speakers obtain a Japanese driver's license. It may be a limited market, but the English course seems to have had added effects for the company.
In the modern and sophisticated lobby of the Futakotamagawa school, many nationalities meet one another, creating the atmosphere of an international salon. "Some of our instructors' native English teachers are our graduates," Koyama said with a laugh.
"I want to improve my English so that I will be able to conduct classes in all the subjects," Fujimoto said.
Yamamoto, one of the English program's pioneers, also continues to motivate herself. "My next goal is to learn more about the countries where my students come from," she said.
"The English courses keep our staff highly motivated, which is key to KDS maintain its operations as a leading driving school," said Koyama.
For more information, visit www.koyama.co.jp
This monthly feature, appearing on the first or second Mondays of each month (Tuesdays in some areas), aims to provide readers with career advice for the international job market via interviews with professionals in relevant fields.