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Japan's Ultra-Polite Taxi Drivers Are Worried Uber Will Undermine Traditions

Taxi firms in Japan fear that Uber’s rise will erode customer service traditions in Japan.

In Japan, taxi chauffeurs often double up as concierges. Step inside most cabs, and your driver will welcome you in, consult with you on which route to take, and make sure you leave no belongings behind.

Yet some fear that Uber's rise in the country will erode such customs, and leave the country's fleet of polite, licensed cabbies jobless.

"We are afraid of Uber penetrating the market, as at the moment we're protected by the law, but we don't know how that will change in the next few months and years," Mutsuo Nakazawa, a 25-year long employee at Gojyo taxi company in Tokyo, Japan, told me solemnly over the phone. "We honestly don't know how they will be incorporated into the existing taxi infrastructure."

At present, Uber operates mainly in Tokyo. The ride-hailing app's pilot program in Fukuoka on the northern shores of Kyushu island in Japan was deemed illegal in March 2015 by ministry official Hidetaka Sakai, who accused the service of letting drivers without taxi licenses earn money. This law means independent Uber contractors are banned in Japan; to exist within a legal framework in Tokyo, Uber currently partners with private hire taxi companies, marketing itself as a luxury service.

Taxi drivers from Gojyo taxi go through their scripts. Image: Gojyo taxi

Uber might be yet to take the Japanese market by storm, but it's making inroads. In May 2016, Uber collaborated with non-profit Kibaru! Furusato Tangocho and the Kyoto council to pilot a program dedicated to providing senior citizens living in Tango-cho (an area of Kyotongo city in Kyoto prefecture with few public transport options) a means of travelling around. The Uber Japan spokesperson was keen to clarify that the non-profit uses Uber's app to work with 18 of its own drivers—not independent contractors.

Back in Tokyo, Nakazawa fears that Toyota's recent investment in the ride-sharing company might forecast greyer futures for the city's taxi companies, each of which has its own school of thought on ensuring the best customer experience.

"In Japan, we place importance on both transporting the customer to their desired location and their overall experience within our taxis," Nakazawa told me. "We really take the customer's care very seriously—that's where I think there might be a difference between Japan and other countries."

An employee from Gojyo taxi stands beside an iconic black London cab imported to Japan by the company. Image: Gojyo taxi

Gojyo taxi company has a 65-year history and boasts around 165 drivers under its wing. In Japan, most taxi drivers belong to companies and few operate independently. In order to become taxi drivers, they need a special license that must be obtained from the Tokyo Taxi Center—an organization attached to the Japanese Ministry of Transport—and once they join a taxi company, they need to learn the ways of their specific company.

At Gojyo taxi company, Nakazawa teaches new employees a carefully constructed script, which they must follow without fail during their rides. Firstly, the driver will open his automatic taxi door, welcome the passenger into their vehicle, and tell them his or her name. Then, he or she will ask the passenger if they have a preferred route; if there is none, they will suggest one. Once the journey comes to an end, the driver requests payment, then turns around and reminds the passenger not to leave any of their belongings behind, before wishing them a good day. Their driver's licences are placed clearly in sight for the passengers to see, all wear uniform, and some add white gloves for an additional dose of elegance and vintage chauffeur charm.

The script, said Nakazawa, in some sense formed part of what Japan dubs omotenashi (to entertain guests wholeheartedly), a term which points to unique forms of Japanese hospitality and which has also been criticised for being too rigid.

In the name of innovation, Gojyo taxi company also has an anime cab. Image: Gojyo taxi

Nakazawa speculated that Uber had risen more quickly in other markets across the world due to there being less of an emphasis on customer care. He said, for example, that though cabbies in London had to know the city's geography off by heart, there might not be as much focus on developing a concierge-like approach to their customers as there was in Japan.

In recent months, in an attempt to innovate and attract younger recruits, Gojyo taxi company has done everything from decorating one of their cabs in anime to deploying one of London's iconic black cabs on the roads of Tokyo.

"We imported this black mini cab so that we can look innovative. If we don't do different things to other people it's hard to stand out from the crowd," said Nakazawa. "We didn't think of it as a way of making more money, we just wanted more customers to know about our company."

Though Gojyo taxi company strives to differentiate itself from other cab companies, for the moment Nakazawa said that different taxi companies in Japan co-exist rather than compete. They are, however, united against the spectre of Uber.

Cool Japan is a column about the quirky and serious happenings in the Japanese scientific, technological and cultural realms. It covers the unknown, the mainstream, and the otherwise interesting developments in Japan.