Novelist Yang Seok-il, who drove a taxicab in Tokyo for 10 years, had to listen to all sorts of stories from the fares he picked up, according to his book "Takushii Doraiba Nisshi" (A taxi driver's journal) from Chikumashobo Ltd.
"A taxi driver is seen as a perfect conversation partner by people who want to talk without having to watch what they say," he observes.
But some fares can be more than a handful. Compulsive chatterboxes are tiresome enough, but the most trying are maudlin drunks. When stuck with those types late at night, Yang recalls, he had to remind himself that making appropriate responses was part of the service being paid for.
There are 250,000 taxicabs running around Japan, carrying people in all imaginable moods and conditions.
This summer is said to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japan's first taxi company. Called Takushii Jidosha (Taxi Car), it was founded in Tokyo by a group of Diet members of the Rikken Seiyukai (Friends of Consitutional Government) party. The company started with a fleet of six Model-T Fords picking up fares in the Ginza and Ueno districts.
The base fare of 60 sen for the first mile would be equivalent to several thousand yen today. But that steep price notwithstanding, this new, practical mode of transportation proved a huge success. After 10 years in operation, the company's fleet exceeded 500 cars, driven by liveried cabbies who were smartly dressed in a jacket with stand-up collars and jodhpurs. Their salaries were sky-high, and their job was one of the most sought-after of the era.
A century later, taxicabs still form a major element of public transportation today. However, deregulation has resulted in excessive competition, and the average annual income of taxi drivers is below 3 million yen ($38,000). Overwork is blamed for many of the accidents involving taxicabs. And, with younger people shunning long working hours behind the wheel, the average age of drivers has crept up to 57.
Demand for taxis as a mode of public transportation is higher than ever in our rapidly aging society. But until drivers can stop worrying about their financial security, we cannot really expect consistently good service from friendly, courteous and skilled drivers who really know their way around.
The taxi companies that will survive must be those that put their drivers' welfare ahead of the bottom line.
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 29
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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
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