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Mat Kearney

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Feb 22 | All About Tokyo Taxis – Part 1

In which I discover a minor taxi racket in Akasaka, ogle taxis from the top of Tokyo station, go taxi hunting, and end up calling myself an otakushii. You can get descriptions to all these photos by reading the alt text (hover) or by looking through this imgur album.

New York City has, for all intents and purposes, just two kinds of taxi cabs: yellow (medallion) and green, both managed by the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Transport for London licenses taxicabs, all of which are black. In Tokyo — population 13 million — no fewer than 10 large companies operate taxis across town, and they’re each a bit different. Uber is trying to make inroads here, but it’ll be a while before the taxis of Tokyo become replaced — if ever.

Four major companies operate as part an organized entity (Tokyo Yonsha) established in 1963, all with either lemon yellow and red stripe or black vehicles and globes for lights. These are:

  • Daiwa, established 1945, 2,458 vehicles
  • Nihon Kotsu – started 1945. Flowery “N” distinguishes it; now has 4,073 taxis.
  • Teito, established 1938, 920 cars, of which taxis are 490
  • Kokusai Jidosha (km) – started 1945; 3,360 taxis, 17 subsidiaries

If you rearrange the first characters of each (和自動車交通, 本交通, 都自動車, 際自動車) you get 大日本帝国, or Empire of Japan. There’s strong historic underpinnings to the usage of the name, however.

Kokusai-motors - one of the four large Tokyo Yonsha companies. All of the four have globes as lights and lemon-yellow or black vehicles. Nihon Kotsu - another of the top 4. There are more than 4,000 taxis in this group, making it one of the largest in Tokyo. Daiwa - Another of the Tokyo Yonsha. Teito - Another one of the four major companies.

There are at least 5 smaller associations:

  • Green Cab group – established 1952, with a peppermint color body, and some 60 subsidiaries. 1,307 vehicles. First nationwide to install wireless radios in all of its vehicles back in 1958.
  • Tokyo Musen group – established 1961, with some 60 subsidiaries; green with orange stripes 4,415 vehicles.
  • Checker Cab taxi group – started 1964, has 4,400 vehicles, owned by Toyota, has some 60 subsidiaries – orange body with checkered white stripe.
  • Kojin (privately owned) – white body with yellow lights; first approved for operation 1959. The fact that the lights look like a snail gave rise to the term “でんでん虫” (snail). There are also lanterns. See below. Privately owned taxis in Tokyo number some 15,564
  • Hinomaru group – yellow with red stripes; established 1960, 607 cars.

These indicate that the vehicle is privately owned and operated, and that the driver is part of the Nikkoren group. These indicate that the vehicle is privately owned and operated and that the driver is part of the Zenkoren group. This peppermint blue cab ('green cab') is easy to spot around town. They have a dedicated stand at the Tokyo Medical University, where only these vehicles can stop. One of the largest associations of taxi groups, tied together by the fact that they shared radio dispatches once upon a time. Checker cab is owned mostly by Toyota Toyopet. Yellow with red stripes. I have not been able to find any information about this taxi. It had This was a new company to me, running around Akasaka (where it gets crowded and drunk salary-men make their ways swiftly into taxis at around 10:30~11:00pm). It turns out this is a taxi company from the next prefecture over, around a 30-minute drive (without traffic), far east of town. A relative newcomer to the scene, it started in 2004 and has since grown rapidly, now operating about 100 taxis in town. Their website plays back El Condor Pasa (http://www.condor-taxi.co.jp). They're a bit unique; they used to be part of Tokyo Musen but left, and now operate on their own, with their own fares and discount structure.

Here are some bite-sized interesting facts:

  • Yes, all taxi doors in Tokyo are automatic and are operated by the driver. A 100-person company called Toshintec has installed nearly 90% of automatic doors for the taxis and vehicles in Japan. It’s said that the initial motivation for these was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as a way to impress visitors to the Olympic events (source)
  • Fender mirrors were required by Japanese law until the prevalence of door mirrors from imported vehicles pushed an amendment into effect allowing these in 1983. Today, most vehicles with fender mirrors in Japan are taxis. (source).
  • でんでん虫 (snail) is used to refer to taxis that are privately owned, because of their rooftop lights (source).
  • Women drivers were allowed to do overnight shifts starting in 1999. As of last year, 1.3% of drivers are female (source).
  • There are almost always black painted (and often better vehicle) variants of each company’s color scheme, known as “high grade” cars. These offer a slightly more luxurious feel while maintaining the standard fare. (source)
  • Tokyo Toyopet, a sales subsidiary of Toyota, owns stock in the Checker cab group company. The company does operate Nissan vehicles too, however (source).
  • In the Tokyo Musen group there are two distinctions one can get as a taxi driver: service leader and tower leader. The former is based on nominations for reliable and superior service; one can spot service leaders by their neck ties, which have red stripes going through the gray fabric. The latter is based on lack of accidents, experience, and passing additional tests. Being a tower leader offers additional privileges, like access to better vehicles, priority queues, and access to better areas of town, like Kasumigaseki, Aoyama, Hibiya (source).
  • There are basically 3 vehicles most often used as taxis: the made-for-taxi Toyota Comfort, the longer-wheelbase Crown Comfort, and the Nissan Cedric. The first two were released in 1995 and both have fender mirrors. All Cedrics after 2009 have door mirrors, and Nissan ceased production of the vehicle in September of 2014.
  • There’s a question on Yahoo Chiebukuro (kinda like Yahoo Answers) asking whether or not people in the rest of the world have to open taxi doors by themselves.
  • Some 50,494 taxis (20% of taxis in Japan) are operating in Tokyo, while there were 13,429 medallions in NYC (December 2015). The average annual salary of a Tokyo taxi driver is $38,000.

This particular group prides itself on being eco-friendly. It uses the Nissan NV-200, Toyota LPG Comfort with idling stop, and apparently also donates part of its profits to Costa Rica's Corcovado national park for preservation of its rainforest. A small outfit based out of Idabashi. White top and blue bottom vehicles. The 729 is another way of reading 'Shichifuku' (7 Fortunes) -- Nana (7) + Fu (2) + Ku (9). Shichifuku/Nanafuku is most often associated with 7 gods of happiness common to Japanese lore. With a name like this it's almost impossible for me to find out more about this company, sadly. This is one is one of my favorites; it has a frog in the front and Yume (夢) written in the back. Not much is available online about them. Their liveries are all beige. With its headquarters in Nishi Ikebukuro one of its distinctions is owning most of its office property and vehicles, as opposed to leasing.

In Japanese there’s a term called otaku which generally equates to obsession or deep fascination with a specific topic (generally things like anime or manga). As part of my quest to find out everything and anything about Tokyo’s taxis, I ended up buying these diecast models from a company called Targa, which 6 years ago released minatures of taxis. It turns out it’s not the only company to stock these sorts of model vehicles: Gulliver and Tomica have them as well, though Tomica’s are always out of stock.

Part 2 will cover the taxi racket in Akasaka.

Sources and additional references

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