Since the "Lehman Shock" of 2008, operators of taxi fleets have been forced to contend with labor shortages, price increases and, in some areas, an oversupply of vehicles. A decade and a half after deregulatory measures were put in place in 2002, they've been campaigning for the government to reimpose controls on the market.
But Shukan Jitsuwa (June 9) reports the Abe government now appears increasingly favorably disposed toward adoption of ride sharing systems, along the lines of Uber, that would enable drivers to transport their passengers in privately owned vehicles.
Anticipating changes in the marketplace, Nihon Kotsu Co Ltd, a major taxi firm, in April filed an application to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) for permission to reduce the initial charge for passengers in the 23 wards of Tokyo and two bordering western suburbs, the cities of Musashino and Mitaka, from the current 730 yen for the first two kilometers to 410 yen for the first kilometer.
While passengers on short rides will save money, Nihon Kotsu's new rate structure -- which will go into effect from next April if approved by the ministry -- will actually represent a fare increase of several percent.
"I'm against it," said one Tokyo cabby. "While we might expect more business from families with small children and seniors, the number of long fares, especially on the weekends following payday, are likely to decline. With fewer passengers taking long rides, there's a likelihood that turnover will drop."
"While the number of foreigners has been increasing, communications can be a problem," the driver continues. "Our company began arranging for English studies, but nearly all the drivers are getting along in age, and frankly, many of them just aren't up to learning a foreign language."
As opposed to an average age of around 47 for bus and truck drivers, the average for taxi drivers is 58, and it's clear that few younger people are taking up the profession. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare statistics for 2014, only 43% of taxi drivers were age 39 or lower.
"Even when we do recruiting, there are no young applicants, and the ones we do hire in rare cases quit their jobs soon," a source at a taxi firm is quoted as saying.
Despite long working hours, driver wages tend to be low -- under 4 million yen per year.
Business has also been hurt by more companies abandoning the practice of providing employees with taxi tickets, which enable staff members at ad agencies or in the media (for example) who work late, or who entertain clients, to travel by car.
"In the entertainment areas like Shinjuku or Ginza, most of the customers who still use tickets keep their trips short, with fares under 5,000 yen," one driver tells Shukan Jitsuwa. "I seldom get any long-distance fares exceeding 10,000 yen any more."
The trend toward ride sharing and use of services such as Uber is ongoing worldwide. A business reporter points out that earlier this month, U.S. company Apple Computer invested $1 billion in Didi Chuxing, a company that currently holds over 80% of the market for ride-hailing in China.
Concerned over the incursions on their livelihood, over 2,500 demonstrators, representing eight labor unions related to the taxi industry, marched in a demonstration in Hibiya, Chiyoda Ward, last March 8. The speakers invoked slogans like, "Japan's taxis, which provide safety and peace of mind, won't tolerate this kind of intimidation."
Entrepreneur and news commentator Takafumi Horie, however, was critical of drivers who are unfamiliar with the roads and can't figure out how to use car navigation systems. The new sharing system, he said, promises better efficiency all around.
But those in favor of traditional taxis warned of possible risks, such as dangers to female passengers, "who might find themselves abducted by perverts," as one person put it. They also raised the examples of riding in vehicles whose operators were not subject to the same type of safety requirements as are licensed professionals.
Shukan Jitsuwa accepts that wider adoption of information technology might very well force small and medium-size taxi firms out of the market. But in any case, is it not a good thing, it asks rhetorically, to let users have a choice?© Japan Today