Oddly Enough

Driving schools rev up with BMWs, manicures

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese driving schools are offering more than instruction behind the wheel, with Hawaiian massage and lessons in BMWs among the services available to compete for a dwindling number of potential students.

Vehicles are driven on a road in Tokyo August 3, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer

Like a broad spectrum of Japanese companies, driving schools are grappling with the country’s shrinking population and a tightfisted economic climate that have triggered fierce price competition.

“It’s harder to get new customers compared with before,” said Aki Takahashi, head of Tokyo’s Musashi Sakai Driving School, noting that the number of people getting driver’s licenses in the metropolis has plunged by more than half in the past two decades while the number of schools hasn’t changed much.

“We think price competition can’t go any further so we’re enhancing our service line-up,” she told Reuters.

Students at Musashi Sakai, where over 5,000 graduate yearly, can choose from extra services including manicures, Hawaiian “lomilomi” with aromatherapy as well as other types of massage to relieve driving fatigue -- a female-friendly menu that’s in line with the school’s business strategy.

“An environment that women feel comfortable entering is one where anyone can feel comfortable,” Takahashi said. “Women are our main target.”

Most customers are high school and university students looking to get their license near the minimum driving age of 18, but in a bid to target homemakers, Musashi Sakai also offers free child care while parents are taking lessons.

Not to be outdone, rival Koyama Driving School’s service range includes the use of BMWs for highway-driving lessons and Harley-Davidson motorcycles for bike classes.

It holds instruction in English for non-Japanese speakers and in sign language for the hearing impaired, and also provides handicap-access cars.

One Koyama branch is also holding a school festival later this month featuring performances by university cheerleaders and offering test-drives in Mitsubishi Motors Corp’s i-MiEV electric car.

Japan’s population declined last year for the second straight year and is set to shrink by a third in 50 years if current trends continue.

Editing by Miral Fahmy