When the automobile industry slumps, it takes a bunch of other industries down with it. Take driving schools. Twenty years ago it was a great business to be in since it seemed everyone wanted a driver’s license and, owing to Japan’s cramped road conditions and love affair with red tape, there were lots of opportunities to make a lot of money helping those people obtain driver’s licenses. Unlike in the U.S., where many public schools have driver’s education programs (or, at least, used to) and most youngsters learn how to drive right there on public streets and obtain their permits before they graduate from high school, in Japan the restrictions against learners driving on streets force people to take lessons in for-profit driving schools, which charge dearly by the hour and more or less decide when you are ready to take your road test. It’s a time-consuming endeavor, so most people don’t do it until they are in college or thereafter, and traditionally it was normal for an individual to spend ¥200,000 to ¥300,000 on lessons before actually obtaining a license.
In 1960 there were 125 driving schools throughout Japan. Ten years later this number had increased tenfold and pretty much stayed constant until the 90s. The population of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992, and between 1990 and 2008 104 driving schools went out of business. Competition among those who remained has become fiercer and fiercer. About 1.6 million people obtained driver’s licenses in 1999. Only 1.2 million obtained them in 2008, a drop of 30 percent.