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Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002

A woman's life behind the wheel


Staff writer

Taxi driver Yoko Yamaoka finished working at 5 this morning. Tomorrow she will get up at 5 in the morning and start the day's shift at 8. She usually works on a rotation of three days on and two days off.

News photo
Yoko Yamaoka at the wheel of her taxi, doing the demanding job she says she enjoys because, among other things, she gets the same pay as her male colleagues.

Yamaoka is one of 18 female drivers at Teito Motor Transportation Co., who together represent a tiny fraction of the 1,243 drivers with the Tokyo-based taxi company.

While she looks rested (she had taken a midday nap), Yamaoka, a 47-year-old mother of one, says she feels a bit tired. It isn't because of her job's irregular schedule, though. She blames the bad economy and the fact that she only got a few fares the night before.

"If I get customers, I usually don't feel fatigued even after the long night," she explains. "I feel much more tired when I haven't seen much business."

It's a complaint of all drivers, of course. It was the prospect of a higher salary that attracted Yamaoka to this profession. She had grown tired of receiving less pay in clerical jobs simply because of her gender. She likes the fact that male and female drivers earn the same.

But equal salaries don't ensure equality of treatment out on the streets. While women taxi drivers aren't as rare as they used to be, they are still something of a novelty, and the reactions of some of Yamaoka's customers remind her that people are still unaccustomed to seeing a woman in the driver's seat.

Now a seven-year veteran of the profession, Yamaoka recalls a woman who was recently waiting near a Tokyo department store.

"The lady hailed my cab, but when she discovered that I was driving, she backed away from the curb, saying, 'Oh, a female driver.' The woman didn't say anything further, and I thought she had probably had an unpleasant experience in the past," Yamaoka says. "But coming from another woman, it was very discouraging."

In general, female customers who hail her taxi late in the evening usually show obvious relief. Men's reactions range from "Hey, it's my lucky day," to downright hostility and comments such as, "Women like you taking men's jobs . . . that's why the unemployment is so high."

On the whole, though, positive responses outweigh the negative ones, she says, noting that many men are pleasant and even encouraging.

In Japan today, there are about 8,400 female cabbies driving company taxis and 116 other female cabbies who own their vehicles and operate independently. The number of women driving taxis has grown fourfold over the past 15 years.

Some taxi companies' sales strategies and services are beginning to reflect the increase of female drivers. For instance, Meiwa Taxi Co., in Kyogo Prefecture, which calls the cars of its female drivers "Angel Cabs," has offered "door-to-door" escort services that cater especially to the elderly, the disabled and pregnant women. The 10 drivers have been encouraged to get the national qualification of "home helper" for the elderly.

Still, however, the number of female cabbies in Japan is around 0.02 percent of the number of male taxi drivers. "We need to have more women drivers in order to gain more trust," Yamaoka says.

This change might not happen overnight. In Yamaoka's case, her family was not initially supportive of her career decision, worrying about the many risks that she might face on the road, from traffic accidents to crime.

Last year, 53 cases of customers robbing their taxi drivers were reported in Tokyo -- the second-highest in the past 10 years, following 69 cases in 1999. In 15 incidents, the victims were injured, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

The vulnerability of taxi drivers was tragically highlighted last weekend, on Aug. 31, when a 50-year-old female taxi driver was stabbed to death in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture. A 45-year-old man was arrested after he called local police and confessed to the killing. He later told police that he wanted to kill a woman.

Yamaoka says she's never felt danger on the job. When she ends up with problem customers, such as drunken salarymen who pass out in the back seat, she goes to a nearby police station or a train station where fellow taxi drivers are waiting for customers, and then asks for help.

If there are other drawbacks to being a female taxi driver, it's the lack of public toilets, but Yamaoka says convenience stores with bathrooms have made the situation better.

As for the perks, Yamaoka says she likes the varied conversations she has with many people. Some even pour out their troubles from at home and work to her.

"Customers seem to feel relaxed around me and start talking," she says. "After talking, they often thank me for listening to their problems. Some even say they hope to see me again, though in many cases, it will be the first and last time that we meet.

"And that is why I put my heart into this job. I may never meet the person again. So at least, in that very short time, I want to offer the customer space and time in which to feel comfortable. Knowing that they're comfortable makes me feel the same."



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