Last week I had a fight with a taxi driver.
In general, I’m kind of a laid-back guy. I get on well with most people, and very rarely feel the urge to throttle someone from behind until their eyes bulge out of their skull and their face turns blue. Rarely, that is, unless I step into the back seat of a Tokyo taxi.
Taxis in London may be horrendously expensive and driven by motor-mouth, but at least they know the roads, thanks to a strict and mandatory licensing test called The Knowledge. And while your average British minicab driver may not know the route so well, at least they can figure out how to use a GPS—plus they’re cheap.
Tokyo taxi drivers are the worst of both worlds: expensive and crap. The first question your average driver will ask after you tell them your destination is, “Right, and how do we get there, then?” Surely the obvious answer is, “In a taxi”? They certainly can’t expect us to know Tokyo’s streets better than them—can they?
The trouble is, the vast majority of cabbies have no grasp whatsoever of the city, thanks largely to the fact that so many come in from neighboring towns, lured by the lucrative Tokyo fares. And while their cars are usually equipped with a GPS, they almost never input your destination, even if you ask them to, instead using it as a glorified moving map. And then they get horribly, horribly lost—with the meter steadily running—and blame you for not navigating properly.
I don’t really consider Japan to be the customer-oriented culture people say it is, but you’d never find such poor service in a restaurant, convenience or other store. I’ve had drivers wind down the window to ask passersby for directions, or leave the cab completely to ask a shopkeeper. I once had a taxi driver stop literally one corner away from my home (a corner I didn’t recognize), pore intensely over a map for nearly ten minutes—with the meter ticking and the GPS idle—and then try to charge me full whack when we finally got there.
Speaking of which, let’s get back to the encounter I mentioned earlier. So, I had to be somewhere between Shibuya and Ebisu stations (but closer to Ebisu) by noon to interview a band. It would have taken me just as long to transfer at Shibuya, take the Yamanote line one stop to Ebisu and walk, as it would to hop in a taxi from Shibuya station. And since I had to scribble some notes en route, I settled on the taxi option. Much less hassle, right?
Wrong. Like most Tokyo cabbies, this moron started driving before even properly looking at my map (in this case, prepared on my iPhone); he then fired up his GPS—a miracle!—and proceeded to enter the wrong address. “I’m pretty sure the map on my phone is more accurate,” I said in polite Japanese. “It’s OK, I know where we’re going,” came the reply.
After about 15 minutes, the GPS on my phone revealed we were traveling in the exact opposite direction down Meiji Dori. After several requests, he finally looked at my map and turned the car around, getting me to my destination just after noon. He then had the gall to ask for the full fare displayed on the meter.
“Since you got so lost, racked up double the fare and made me late for my appointment, let’s call it half, yes?” I said as calmly as I could, passing over my cash and making for the open door. He slammed it shut with the driver’s seat mechanism and locked it. “You gave me the wrong address! I’m taking you to the police station!” he yelled.
With my goal in sight, my blood boiling and no time to spare, the last thing I needed was to be kidnapped by a lunatic taxi driver. So I lifted the latch, forced the door open and headed, shaking with the sort of fury I seldom muster, for my rendezvous; the screaming driver chased me down the street, into the building, and kicked the outer frame of the elevator doors hard as they closed with me inside. Most undignified, I’m sure you’ll agree.
What, you don’t? You think I acted in bad faith? Well, look here, goody two-shoes: these are the idiots who sleep in their cars with the engine running, pumping exhaust needlessly into the atmosphere. Got a heavy suitcase? Lug it into the trunk yourself, mate, because the taxi driver usually won’t help you. And how convenient for them that they get a higher salary the less familiar they are with the roads.
Sure, there are some honest taxi drivers—and even some competent ones. More the pity for them, then, that the vast majority are such intolerable bastards.
Daniel Robson is a freelance writer based in Tokyo.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today