"I've been carrying more people with young students or small children. Since it's only 410 yen for the first 1.052 kilometers, if four passengers ride, it's cheaper than taking the train. Please don't hesitate to ride with me!"
So says a radiantly smiling Kana Ikuta, a female taxi driver in Tokyo described as "Bijin sugiru" (too pretty), as she promotes the new short-distance fares, which were reduced last month from 730 yen to 410 yen in the 23 central wards of Tokyo and two contiguous suburbs.
But Weekly Playboy (Feb 20) has caught wind of another factor that appears to have led to the price restructuring: the creeping approach of ride-sharing services, by which drivers using their own cabs, summoned by smart phone applications, can undercut taxi rates.
"The sharing business has been spreading worldwide," points out Kazuhiro Tamai, professor at Otsuma Women's University. "Japan bans 'shiro-taku' (gypsy cabs, so described as having a white (privately owned), rather than green (commercial) license plate), so just as demand for staying in 'minpaku' (private homes) has increased, we can expect ride-sharing to increase as well."
Last year, over 20 million foreign tourists visited Japan, but the 730 yen starting fare for taxis was considerably higher than charged in cities such as London (equivalent to 400 yen) and New York (about 250 yen). So the taxi companies felt they had to take action, or tourists would eschew taking taxis, which would lose their business to ride sharing.
What's more, Chinese, who made up 6.37 million or nearly one-third of all visitors to Japan last year, may soon be able to summon rides using the services of a China-based company, DiDi Chuxing, which presently dominates the ride sharing market there with an 80% share. Among its investors are internet giants Alibaba and Baidu. In 2016 the MIT Technology Review named DiDi Chuxing one of the World’s 50 Smartest Companies.
A source in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism told the magazine "In the future, if DiDi Chuxing starts operations in Japan, many Chinese tourists may forego taxis for this ride sharing app."
So perhaps, Weekly Playboy speculates, it was in the hope of blunting this potential new threat that Tokyo's taxis restructured their fares. Which, by the way, haven't been working out that well, if Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb 23) is to be believed.
While one driver who cruises the business district told the reporter that short-distance fares of under 1,000 yen have "slightly increased," another driver told him, "The number of passengers I've carried hasn't changed at all. And I haven't carried a single passenger who got off before the meter changed from 410 yen."
Simple math tells us that if the charges are less, the only way drivers can increase revenues is to carry more passengers. And as many drivers work on a commission basis, they are fretting that the new system is going to hit their earnings hard.
Ichiro Kawanabe, chairman of the Tokyo Hire Taxi Association, did concede that "If the overall income from the new system increases, the drivers' incomes will benefit as well."
It's a dog-eat-dog business and out of desperation some smaller companies have been tying up with larger taxi firms, but quite a few others have shut down operations or forced to declare bankruptcy.
"It's not necessarily any safer to come under the umbrella of a big firm," says a source in the industry. "The policies are different, with drivers forced to put up with more rules or quotas. Among other things, some requiring drivers to study English in preparation for the 2020 Olympics.© Japan Today