Tokyo is a city governed by speed. Bullet trains slice through its heart while subways dissect its underbelly. But these are faceless methods of transport. The true character of Tokyo’s roads can be found in its taxis, those ferries of the night that trawl through the neon-soaked streets. To some they are simply another method of getting from A to B. To the captains of those black, green, and beige sedans, however, driving is a livelihood—and one that is under threat.
Take higher fares and fuel costs, then throw in stiffer competition, a few scandals, increasingly bold passengers and mandated smoking bans, and it’s clear something’s gotta give. On one recent journey through Tokyo’s twisty streets, a driver in his 50s revealed, “I don’t enjoy a single aspect of my occupation.” Given the recent negative spotlight that’s been cast on his industry, it’s easy to sympathize with the statement.
Even among the notoriously hardworking Japanese, Tokyo cabbies keep up a relentless schedule. It isn’t rare for a driver to start at 9 a.m. and burn on through until 4 o’clock the next morning. Short breaks and plenty of coffee keep them from shutting down completely, which is why it’s no surprise that back alleys are often full of sleeping cabbies, those who have made the decision to give themselves and their workhorses a rest.
With all this hard work, you would expect drivers to take home a decent wad of cash. Yet the Tokyo Taxi Association says the average wage is around 4.5 million yen. The economic dip in the ’90s hit drivers hard, and as the city’s public transportation system has grown ever more efficient, fewer people are making use of its taxis.
A 7% fare hike in December of last year, the first in over a decade, has done even more damage. Rather than helping drivers make ends meet, it has dissuaded Tokyoites from splurging on chauffeured transportation. The Japan Economy News website reported a 2.8% decrease in drivers’ daily earnings over the first month the fares were raised, and the Daily Yomiuri notes that the trend has continued with six consecutive months of declining revenues.
As if long hours and declining business weren’t enough, recent revelations that Tokyo cabbies offered kickbacks to federal employees for their patronage has damaged the reputation of the entire industry. In June, nearly 450 officials were rebuked for accepting gifts and other favors from drivers. In some cases, the pols were simply allowed to smoke during their ride, but in many others they were given coupons for beer and, in some cases, even cash. As long as officials continued using the same cab company, the presents would keep on coming. BBC News reported that as much as $20,000 worth of goodies were accepted by one politician over a five-year period.
But even this scandal, which dominated national headlines for weeks, seems like kid’s stuff compared to revelations in a new book. Takushi Uramonogatari (“Taxis: The Real Story”), by 44-year-old Chiba cabbie Masayoshi Ise, gives an insider’s view of what goes on in the backseat — and the front seat — of Tokyo taxis. More and more customers, it seems, are using cabs for illicit activities, with Ise offering firsthand accounts of his vehicle as a getaway car or a metered love hotel.
Interviews with Tokyo cabbies back up these claims. “I get a lot of people having sex in my cab,” said one driver we spoke to who requested anonymity, but who added: “We aren’t scared, and if people are bad we kick them out.”
A Tokyo garage owner in his 50s, who gave his name as Kanemoto, says many of his drivers complain of passengers offering bribes for his drivers’ cooperation in carrying out all manner of illegal activities. But it’s not just the passengers that are causing the difficulties — Kanemoto says he experiences so many problems with drivers operating under the influence of alcohol that he’s been forced to install DUI blocks in the ignition system of his cabs.
Who wants to be a cabbie?
In the face of such difficulties, who, then, would become a Tokyo cabbie? Actually, pretty much anyone who wants to. Companies are always hiring, and the process is remarkably straightforward: applicants just need a clean driving record and a passing score on a 40-question exam that tests their knowledge of the city’s layout. Once a driver has cleared that hurdle, he or she joins one of the city’s myriad companies, picks up his keys, and starts the never-ending road trip that is his job. In light of the 2-4 years of unpaid work a London cab driver has to go through before he can get his license, it’s understandable why Tokyo cabbies rely so heavily on their GPS systems.
After drivers hit the road, companies grade their performance via a system that assigns a letter grade from C (the bottom) to AA (tops). For so-called “white” cabs, which are independent and privately owned, the ranking involves stars instead of letters. The significant difference between the two is that the stars are only issued once and never taken away — even after traffic violations, accidents or customer complaints.
The system is a boon for highly rated drivers but increases the pressure on everyone else. This intense competition has ramped up since the taxi industry was deregulated in 2002. Once the government removed barriers to entering the market, a deluge of new companies flooded including those, like Hello Tokyo Taxi and Tokyo MK, boasting lineups of specialty and luxury vehicles.
But while the government has relaxed some controls, Tokyo’s two main taxi associations have implemented others. In January, 95% of the city’s nearly 60,000 cabs became cigarette-free. Predictably, the ban caused a storm of protest in nicotine-addled Japan. The matter came to a head in April, when dispatchers publicly refused to route calls to 83 drivers who were found to be ignoring the order. Since then, by all accounts, riders can enjoy a surreptitious cigarette in the back by offering tips to their driver, and even cabbies themselves are often known to violate the order. “Its bad for our health, but I still like smoking,” said one driver who requested anonymity while slyly lighting up in his cab.
Thanks to the industry’s recent difficulties, the Construction and Transport Ministry recently announced it may revisit the deregulation issue next year. The move would put a stop to the influx of new taxi companies and, it is hoped, raise wages for everyone else. In the future, we may see fewer taxi drivers queuing up at stations, but those waiting to pick you up may be a whole lot happier.
In a new book, a veteran Tokyo cabbie shares his war stories — and insider tips for passengers
By Masayoshi Ise (Translated by Hiroko Fukazawa)
The cab as love hotel
Most of the time, couples are able to hold it in until they get to their destination. But in reality, love hotels fill up on weekends, so it’s common for couples to “do it” in the taxi. The driver’s blind spot is the seat behind him, so that’s where they start. These couples seem to think that the driver is as nonexistent as air. For some reason, I more frequently see women going down on the man than I see the man and the woman kissing each other. And I’m not sure if women have become stronger in this day and age, but it’s mostly the women who start going down on the man, rather than the man trying to convince the female.
If a couple says “Sorry” as they pay their fare and leave the cab, that’s a dangerous sign because there’s a high possibility that they’ve left a little “souvenir” in the backseat. There is nothing as pathetic as having to clean that up.
“Stop by at the conbini, please”
So one day, a 20-year-old guy asks me to stop at a nearby Lawson when we’re about 5,000 yen into his ride. He leaves his bag in the car and is gone for five minutes, then ten. Just as I start to get suspicious, he comes back and says the ATM was out of order and, apologizing for the wait, hands me an energy drink. I thought, “What a nice guy!” With that, we start up a conversation, and he tells me how his bag is a limited-edition release that cost him over 100,000 yen.
As we get closer to his destination, he asks to stop at another conbini, and he leaves his bag in the car again. I wait for ten minutes, then 15. No sign of him. The meter has gone up to 11,900 yen. Getting worried, I go out and search the conbini. There’s no trace of him — he had run off. Of course, I had to pay the fare myself, but I decided it wasn’t all that bad because I could put the man’s bag up for sale on an internet auction as soon as I got home.
Later, just as I was about to leave the locker room for the day, I saw my co-worker with the same bag.
“Wasn’t that expensive?” I asked. “No way,” he replied. “It’s from the 100 yen shop. Oh, look you have one, too. Isn’t it useful?”
The cats in the bag
One time I was drinking with a 32-year-old veteran taxi driver, and he told me this story:
Most of the time when customers have luggage or suitcases with them, it’s a “lucky shot” — a ride to the airport, which is usually a nice fare. So five years ago, this guy saw a man of about 50 on the side of the street with both a shoulder bag and a large travel bag. Thinking he had found a lucky shot, the driver happily stopped. He offered to put the man’s luggage in the back, but the customer said he’d do it by himself. The destination wasn’t the airport, but Tokyo station, which the driver thought was far enough. When they arrived, the man asked him to wait for a minute, but after 20 minutes he didn’t come back. The driver looked around, but the man had run off — yet his bags were still in the taxi.
So I asked the driver, “You opened the bag, right? What was in it?”
“Dead bodies — five of them,” he answered. “Yup, five severed cat heads.”
I asked if he called the police. “Police? No, what can they do? I dropped them off at the dump on my way home…”
The diaper issue
I was driving a woman on a long 10,000 yen ride, part of which was on a crowded highway. I had to go to the bathroom so bad that I had sweat dripping down my forehead. I knew I couldn’t hold it anymore and something needed to be done.
I checked on the young woman in the back and, confirming that she was asleep (thank goodness!), I took out a plastic bag that I always have at hand for drunk customers and slowly unzipped my pants. Phew. Later during the ride, I opened the door a crack to drop the bag on the street. When I looked in the rearview mirror, the woman was still sleeping — mission accomplished!
Actually, not. As the lady was getting out, she smiled and said, “Life’s pretty difficult for drivers, isn’t it?”
After that I went to buy diapers at the supermarket, where I ran into a co-worker who told me, “Once you start using them, you get hooked. Try it out!” Since that day, though, I have not had occasion to use them.
I don’t want to start relying on diapers.
Tips for taxi riders
Check out the meter. You’ll see three lines which get smaller as time passes. Each line represents 30 meters; when there is only one line left, it means that in 30 meters, 90 yen more will be added to the fare when the cab stops. If you understand this, you won’t be surprised about the sudden fare jump before you reach your destination.
Realize that the fare is partially calculated by time, not just distance. So if the driver pushes the “jissha” (start button) before you’ve finished giving the destination, you have the right to tell the guy off.
On the other hand, the “kosoku” (highway button) must be pushed when riding on highways. Due to traffic and other delays that occur on freeways, this button measures the fee by distance, not time. So if that button is not pushed when you are on the highway, you’re being scammed.
Check out Masayoshi Ise’s blog at http://ise-masayoshi.cocolog-nifty.com/blog
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).