Association, Inc.

Issue No. 1, 2013

The Japanese taxi experience

by Peter Nunn

They come in many colours and can be seen on just about any city street in Japan.  They’ll have bright lights on the roof and signwriting along the sides, and often the driver inside will be a man wearing a pristine set of white gloves.  Check out the rear door as well as you get in and out, because it seems to open and close all by itself, as if by some kind of magic. 

ToyodaWelcome to the unique world of the Japanese taxi.  Typically, it’s a traditional-look Toyota Crown or Nissan Cedric/Gloria saloon that runs on efficient LPG gas or, in some few cases, on petrol.  As befits the times, latest-generation Toyota Prius hybrids and electric Nissan Leafs have also now joined the taxi fleets in Tokyo, where fares start at ¥710 for the first two kilometres.  From there, it’s ¥90 every 288 metres.  At night, between 10pm and 5am, an extra 20% is added to the fare, so taxis are not the cheapest way to get around by any means.  On the other hand, there is no tipping and no negotiation over the fare as you get in some other countries.  Every journey is metred, and that’s it.

As a courtesy, a taxi driver in Japan may ask you which route you’d like to take.  The way the driver pulls on a lever and manually opens or closes the rear door for you (on the pavement side) is another charming, long-practised taxi custom in Japan.  A curiosity, perhaps, is the light in the front window.  A red light means the taxi is available.  Green means it’s occupied.  The other way around, then, to a traffic light where red means stop and green means go!

Japanese taxi drivers by and large are easygoing and many will readily step out of the car to help you load bags and cases in the boot for no charge.  On the other hand, unlike London, say, where drivers must have ‘the knowledge’ and memorise every street and address in the capital, taxi drivers in Japan don’t always know the way, so you may need to guide them to the destination yourself.  To ease the process, many taxis now have satellite navigation.  At journey’s end, the tradition is to pay by cash but credit cards and electronic money (with mobile wallet use) are now ever more widely accepted.

Another nicety in Japan is the way you can hail a taxi…anywhere.  You don’t have to go to a taxi rank to get a ride.  Hard to believe, perhaps, but as recently as 20 years ago, it wasn’t unusual to find a taxi driver still labouring with a manual gearbox and clunky column shift.  Today, auto transmission is universally the norm.  At a time when major cities like New York are shifting to MPV-based taxis, the taxi in Japan is pretty much as it’s always been.  They fit the roads and lifestyle in Japan just as they’ve done for decades past.  There’s a lot to be said for that.  Statistics show that as of October 2012, a total of 209,566 taxis were in use in Japan.  A convenient taxi ride, therefore, is never that far away.