The secret slang of Japanese cabbies

By Casey Baseel

Like many people who moved to Tokyo in their youth, most of the time I’ve spent in Japanese taxis has been directly preceded by heavy drinking. In the country’s urban centers, people primarily get around by train and subway. However, both of them stop running around midnight (for now?), at which time you can see a mass of people stumbling towards the station like Cinderella if she’d spent less time on the dance floor with the prince and more at the ball’s open bar. Once the trains stop, they don’t start again until about five in the morning, and since staying out all night drinking only seems like a good idea until your buzz wears off at around 2:30 a.m., if you missed the last train the only way you’re getting home is by taking a taxi.

Like taking a cab ride anywhere else in the world, the drivers use radios to communicate with the dispatcher and other cars in the fleet. I could never understand what Japanese taxi drivers were saying to each other, but the reason why isn’t because I was liquored up (OK, so it wasn’t only because I was liquored up). It turns out cab drivers in Japan have a whole set of jargon and code words that you won’t find in any textbooks.

  1. ao tan

Late at night, typically from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., it’s standard practice for taxis in Japan to increase the fares they charge by about 20 percent. Taxi drivers, especially in Eastern Japan, use the phrase “ao-tan” to refer to this time period.

  1. koji chu/under construction

If a Japanese cabbie tells another, “There’s construction going on at the intersection three blocks ahead,” it’s a warning to watch out for a speed trap there. The phrase aka shingo or “red light” is used the same way.

For actual roadwork, they’ll instead say hon koji, literally “actual construction,” and for drunk driving checkpoints it’s maru sui koji.

  1. irrashai/welcome

Although they’re normally not given in Japan, this refers to a tip, with the implication that the customer is welcome in the driver’s car anytime.

  1. roku

Used mainly in the Kansai region around Osaka, this also means a tip. Roku is a shortened version of yoroku, the Japanese for extra income.

  1. obake/ghost

Passengers who need a ride somewhere very far away. While it’s a happy discovery for the driver, finding one of them is still as surprising as seeing a ghost. “The last fare of my shift was a real obake,” might cabbie might say to another.

  1. kuten/empty ride

Accidentally running the meter without having a passenger in the car. This usually requires a talk with the dispatcher or manager to straighten things out and keep the driver from having to pay the amount out of his own pocket.

  1. san keta/three digits

A short fare with a price less than 1,000 yen. “All I had today was san ketas” is a common cabbie complaint.

  1. tarifu/tariff

This means either the taxi fare display screen or the fare charged.

  1. Dai Nippon Teikoku/The Great Japanese Empire

This phrase refers to Yamato Motors, Nihon Kotsu, Teito Motors, and Kokusai Motors, the four largest taxi companies. Yon sha, or the four companies, can be used instead.

  1. changara

The oldest or most run-down car in the fleet. As in, “Ah man, I’m stuck in the lousy changara all day.”

  1. dempyo/sales slip

A prepaid taxi voucher, or alternatively, a long-distance fare.

  1. tempura

Having the maximum number of four passengers, but only driving them somewhere less than 1,000 yen away.

The pros and cons of these fares are a point of debate within the taxi industry, with some drivers thinking of them as efficient way to do business, while others do not.

  1. doyonami/the Saturday night waves

Biker gangs, which tend to come out in force on Saturday (doyoubi) nights. “Even though it’s a weekday, the doyonami is out tonight.”

  1. nagare dama/drifting bullet

Cab drivers expect to be able to find passengers who need to go somewhere far when they make a pick up at a taxi stand, but when they end up with a short fare they’ll say, “I hit a nagare dama.”

  1. niju/twenty

A passenger who is a member of the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Comes from 20 being the sum of eight (in Japanese, ya), nine (ku), and three (za.

  1. negi/green onion

A customer complaint. Kyoto’s Kujo district is famous for its green onions, and kujo is also the Japanese word for “complaint.” “I’ve got a pain in the butt negi to deal with,” one cabbie might complain to another.

  1. hime/princess

A female passenger, disliked by some driver because they tend to not be going as far as male passengers.

  1. mizuage/the catch

Originally a fishing term, this refers to a driver’s total fares for a shift. “How was your mizuage today?” they might ask each other before heading home.

  1. meritto/merit A distress signal that something like a traffic accident has happened, and the driver needs help dealing with the problem.

  2. wakame/seaweed

A drunk passenger, staggering about like seaweed drifting in the ocean. “Last weekend I had so many wakame, I couldn’t take it!” See also: author of this article.

So there you have it, 20 phrases that’ll get you talking like a Japanese cabbie and ready to start your career (assuming, of course, you already have a car and a Japanese driver’s license). In the meantime, remember, driving a taxi is hard work. So keep your negi to a minimum and don’t be a nagare dama, so that your driver’s company can finally afford to replace his changara.

Source: Nanapi

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This means either the taxi fare display screen or the fare charged.

Well I never. Who would of thought that they were refering to the taxi fare? Thanks for clearing that up.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

cool article. As a fairly heavy taxi user, I've had my good share of lousy drivers, cheating (or trying to) drivers and plain head cases. Every time is a new adventure :).

3 ( +5 / -2 )

A good article, thank you.

I do feel bad when I take a cab a short distance, especially when the driver's at a rank. I always make sure to apologise. And I always say to keep the change too, if it's small coin. They are always taken-aback and a bit pleased.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

san keta/three digits

A short fare with a price less than 1,000 yen. “All I had today was san ketas” is a common cabbie complaint.

In Tokyo, it's far more common to hear drivers say natto (fermented soybeans), which is another way of pronouncing ¥710, the minimum fare on the meter.

8 ( +8 / -0 )

I remember my taxi driver friend in Hawaii telling me about their radio codes--a "544" was a bathroom break, as in "I have to go shishi" (shishi being a somewhat childish Japanese term for urination). Dunno what Japan's taxi drivers use for this, though...

3 ( +3 / -0 )

nagare dama/drifting bullet

Translation fail. "Stray Bullet".

4 ( +6 / -2 )

Your a generous person Maria, never see any Japanese feel guilty about running a fare less than 1,000 yen. Interesting slang codes, will try to remember some of those and hone in on their conversations.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Are short fares that bad? Surely km for km and minute for minute they pay more?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I've been told to keep the change a number of times, by the cabbie. I have been ripped of in Miami and Vancouver, but never in Japan, where I'm a heavy user. When I've had drivers get lost of make a wrong turn, they invariably apologize and turn off the meter or tell me to keep the change. And I NEVER try to give them change, for fear of insulting them or the dignity of the work they do and the pay they receive for it. Some may not take it badly, or laugh off the quirky behaviour of "Americans". Some do take offense. I prefer to err on the side of caution.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

What's with Cabbies here-you give them a street address and without looking at their GPS they just ask "How do I get there? Is it near such and such?" Makes me wanna say Maybe I should drive! This actually seems to happen more in medium sized towns than big confusing cities too.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I've been told to keep the change a number of times, by the cabbie

If you are the customer why in the world would a driver tell YOU to keep the change, usually it's the other way around.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Are short fares that bad? Surely km for km and minute for minute they pay more?

The taxi drivers I know prefer a bunch of short fares rather than one long one particularly because there is no guarantee that they will find a fare back to the area that they typically work or is near their company.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

It's interesting to know that cab drivers have their own slang. Although in Okinawa, they often just speak in Uchinanguchi which leaves most of their mainland Japan customers scratching their heads.

Like Taj, I've had mostly really good experiences, with drivers turning off the meter when they don't know where an address is and so on. The reason for this, Ninjazilla-san, is because they don't have addresses in Japan. At least not addresses as the rest of the planet knows them. Cities are divided into districts, these districts are divided into blocks and those subdivided into smaller blocks. The "chome" blocks are numbered, a fireman once told me, in the order that the plots of land were sold. So, if anyone looks for 2 chome next to 1 or 3 chome, well, he may get lucky. Usually it's quite random. You mentioned giving them a street address. Well, you see it isn't a street address. Some of the larger streets may have names, but there are no house numbers and the street name doesn't feature in the address.

Head beginning to spin?

Clutching the walls for support?

In Okinawa - even in Naha, the largest city, in many places what city block, section, "chome" it is isn't written anywhere. Ask people who live there and they don't know either.

And many of the taxi drivers have only a basic knowledge of the roads. They can easily be thrown by meandering back streets. If they are, their passengers complain. So, they often ask before you start the journey which route you would like to take - to avoid criticism.

But they are usually amusing and have a few stories to tell.

Except the strong silent types who feel that to reply to a customers question is beneath their dignity.

"Could you take the next right, please, driver?"


"Do you see where that car is turning now?"


"Turn there please."


"Driver, do you understand?"


"Do you understand? Yes? or No?"

WAKARIMASHITA. (shizukoi na yatsu da na! chiki shou!)

3 ( +6 / -3 )

I was most surprised to have a business trip to Hiroshima many years back, and got into a cab and it was a gaijin!! Very surprising, but cool experience!

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Heretoolong I've had thirds Chinese guy a few times recently. He was superbly polite. Knows a few decent back routes as well.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Spellcheck made THIS into THIRDS sorry again

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Here is a dictionary of taxi "industry" terms published in Japanese :

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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