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Sunday, July 22, 2012

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Black cab: One of the first taxis in Japan, a Model-T Ford in Tokyo, circa 1912. TOKYO TAXI ASSOCIATION (TTA)

A century of Tokyo taxis

From a few Tin Lizzies in 1912 to today's thousands of cabs

Special to The Japan Times

The year 1912 is recorded in Japan both as the 45th year of Meiji Era and the first year of the Taisho Era. After a protracted illness, Emperor Mutsuhito expired, age 61, on the night of July 29 (although the official announcement came the next day). Through the remainder of the summer, the front pages of major newspapers bore black borders until the posthumously renamed Meiji Emperor's public funeral on Sept. 17.

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Fare game: Lines of modern-day taxis wait for customers in Tokyo's posh Ginza shopping district. YOSHIAKI MIURA

The year proved eventful in numerous other ways. In March, the forerunner of the Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB) was founded. In July, construction began on the Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka, a replica of the Eiffel Tower that was to last until it was destroyed in a U.S. bombing raid in 1943. In September, the film studio Nihon Katsudo Shashin (today's famed Nikkatsu) was established.

At precisely 12 noon each day, Tokyoites were informed of the time — as indeed they had been since 1871, and would be for another decade — by a cannon salvo known as the Marunouchi no don (Marunouchi blast), which was fired from atop a hill in the grounds of the Imperial Palace overlooking the new Marunouchi business district.

On a slightly less exalted level, electric vacuum cleaners went on sale for the first time that year, too (priced at ¥60); while Tokyo's first Western-style fashion salon, named Marie-Louise, opened for business. Barbers began wearing white smocks and companies began marketing men's hair pomade. The word taoru, derived from the English "towel," began to be popularized, as did the custom of eating bread smeared with butter and jam.

Meanwhile, on July 10, 1912, the Tokyo Taxicab Company began operations out of a garage at Sukiyabashi, by Yurakucho Station, with a fleet of six Model T Fords used to pick up passengers at Shimbashi and Ueno stations. The cars were fitted with German-built meters that calculated fares according to mileage (not kilometers) — 60 sen for the first half-mile, 10 sen for each additional one-third mile and 10 sen for every five minutes of waiting time. (A sen was 1/100 of a yen.) The posted speed limit for motor vehicles was 16 kph.

In bureaucratese, the official term for a taxi was ippan jōkyaku ryokaku jidōsha (motor vehicle for general passengers and travelers), while meters were referred to as ryōkin keijō-ki (fare-adding devices). It's easy to see why the foreign borrowed terms takushii and metaa were preferred right from the get-go.

Tokyo at this time was a city of almost 3 million people with fewer than 300 passenger cars on its roads — and it's doubtful its jinrikisha (rickshaw) pullers, who remained in business for several more decades, feared any threat to their livelihood.

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Cheap ride: En-taku (1927) covered the central parts of Tokyo for a flat rate of ¥1. TTA

An unsung reporter for The Japan Times covered the taxi story, which appeared on Tuesday, July 16, 1912, and read:

The new feature to be added to this city will be cries of "Taxi!" which will be heard at Shimbashi and Ueno stations during the course of the week. The Tokyo Taxicab Co., which was established last week, aims to place 30 taxicabs, to start with those stations for public service. Tokyo is improving doubtless. ... This time a year ago there were little over 100, and now there are 270 gasoline fliers squeezing through the narrow streets and alleyways of the Metropolis.

Then exactly 100 years ago today, in The Japan Times of July 22, a follow-up report included some revelations about how the new service was being put to use:

The Tokyo Taxicab Co., which started the business last week with six cars — namely: three at Shimbashi, two at Ueno and one at its garage at Sukiyabashi (Ginza) — reports a very good business done during the last week. In fact patronages have come so thick and heavy, that the Company is now chafing why it had not started the business with, say three dozens of cabs.

Now, comes the question who are those full-fledged sports driving the taxi-drivers on a sure-to-break-down schedule? The Company informs that the majority of the patrons are foreign guests at the Imperial, Seiyoken, and Hibiya Hotels. Moreover, the joy-riders are chiefly gentlemen. Ninety percent of the fair passengers who have been introduced to the discomfort of the speed limit have been geisha girls escorted by their softy-sweeties (geisha cant now in vogue).

A driver reports that the other night he had to drive to the "Nightless City" of Yoshiwara seven times, each time packed with sight-seers or sporty "Men about Town." At the present, every car brings to the Company every day 30 to 35 yen.

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Rush hour: Traffic jam in 1952 demonstrates the postwar economic upswing. TTA

Taxis' nocturnal appeal is undiminished to this day in sections of the drivers' community, including to Yuji Tojima, one of Tokyo's 16,787 owner-drivers — who only become eligible to work for themselves after 10 years' unsullied work behind the wheel of a company's cab. Setagaya Ward-based Tojima can set his own work schedule, but he gave several reasons why he prefers to work nights.

"The traffic's lighter and moves faster, for one thing," he says. "There are fewer pedestrians and bicycles out on the streets, and it's less tiring to drive than during the day. And the fares tend to be longer; instead of asking to be taken to a nearby station, a customer will want to be driven all the way home."

But doesn't night work raise the risks of having to deal with the darker aspects of society, such as the yakuza?

"I've heard some gangs in Roppongi (entertainment district) with connections at the nightclubs might collect kickbacks from certain taxi companies in exchange for sending them customers," Tojima says. "But nobody ever tried to shake me down for protection money."

From the original six cars in 1912, Tokyo's taxi population grew to 94 by 1915, 1,205 by 1921 and 3,473 by 1926. Originally, 90 percent of fares had been procured on a private-hire basis or from passengers who boarded at rail stations and hotels. It was only with the economic downturn that followed the end of World War I in 1918 that taxis began the practice of nagashi (cruising for passengers).

In 1927, a system known as En-taku — which charged a flat rate of ¥1 to anywhere in central Tokyo — was introduced.

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Cabbie shack: Tokyo Taxi Company's HQ in Yurakucho, circa 1925. TTA

Fast forward to the end of another world war, and by 1945 Tokyo had only 1,565 taxis still running — powered by charcoal due to gasoline rationing. Then, as the economy began to recover, fleets mostly of foreign makes, including Volkswagen Beetles, became widespread. In 1953 the cars began installing two-way radios.

Around the mid-1950s, domestic models such as the Toyopet Crown and Nissan Bluebird were being widely adopted by taxi fleets. Around that time, too, taxis began to suffer from a serious image problem. In early 1956, the sobriquet "kamikaze taxi" came into vogue in the Japanese media when the newly launched weekly magazine Shukan Shincho on March 4, 1956, ran an article titled, "The Terror of Kamikaze Taxis." Headline notwithstanding, the story mainly criticized operators who saddled their drivers with demanding passenger quotas and paid on a commission basis — so forcing them to compete fiercely for fares.

And there was other damaging publicity to come. In all of 1956, it transpired, Tokyo alone saw 713 taxi-related fatalities — as opposed to 69 in the entire British Isles. However, it took a major tragedy to arouse the public.

In early 1958, the captain of the University of Tokyo soccer club, Hirofumi Igarashi, was fatally struck by a taxi on the street outside the prestigious institution's famed red Akamon gate, and the "kamikaze" sobriquet flared up again.

Faced with heavy pressure from the authorities, taxi firms changed their wage system to take pressure off the drivers. With that, safety statistics quickly improved — although better-lit streets, airbags and seat belts have surely helped in subsequent years.

According to data supplied by Toryokyo, the Tokyo Taxi Association, during 2011 taxis were involved in 3,381 fender-benders, which resulted in eight fatalities — up from four the previous year.

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Burn out: Taxi in 1941 powered by charcoal due to wartime gasoline shortages. TTA

Nowadays, Yamasan Taxi, founded in 1960 and now operating a fleet of 147 vehicles — including a brand new Nissan LEAF EV (electric vehicle) — is one of 359 companies operating in the central parts of the metropolis. At the invitation of its president, Toshihiro Akiyama, who also chairs the Tokyo Taxi Association's PR committee, this writer recently spent a morning observing the daily routine at the headquarters in Minami Sago in downtown Koto Ward — a good location for a taxi company, I learned, since the area's many large apartment blocks provide only limited parking to residents.

Keiko Hosoda, a driver of four year's standing, and one of four female drivers at Yamasan, kindly walked me through the start of her shift.

First, she pulled a plastic mouthpiece from her vest pocket and took a breathalyzer test at a machine in the office — a sobriety check that's repeated at the end of a driver's shift.

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