The year 1912 is recorded in Japan both as the 45th year of Meiji Era and the first year of the Taisho Era. After a protracted illness, Emperor Mutsuhito expired, age 61, on the night of July 29 (although the official announcement came the next day). Through the remainder of the summer, the front pages of major newspapers bore black borders until the posthumously renamed Meiji Emperor’s public funeral on Sept. 17.

The year proved eventful in numerous other ways. In March, the forerunner of the Japan Tourist Bureau (JTB) was founded. In July, construction began on the Tsutenkaku Tower in Osaka, a replica of the Eiffel Tower that was to last until it was destroyed in a U.S. bombing raid in 1943. In September, the film studio Nihon Katsudo Shashin (today’s famed Nikkatsu) was established.

At precisely 12 noon each day, Tokyoites were informed of the time — as indeed they had been since 1871, and would be for another decade — by a cannon salvo known as the Marunouchi no don (Marunouchi blast), which was fired from atop a hill in the grounds of the Imperial Palace overlooking the new Marunouchi business district.

On a slightly less exalted level, electric vacuum cleaners went on sale for the first time that year, too (priced at ¥60); while Tokyo’s first Western-style fashion salon, named Marie-Louise, opened for business. Barbers began wearing white smocks and companies began marketing men’s hair pomade. The word taoru, derived from the English “towel,” began to be popularized, as did the custom of eating bread smeared with butter and jam.

Meanwhile, on July 10, 1912, the Tokyo Taxicab Company began operations out of a garage at Sukiyabashi, by Yurakucho Station, with a fleet of six Model T Fords used to pick up passengers at Shimbashi and Ueno stations. The cars were fitted with German-built meters that calculated fares according to mileage (not kilometers) — 60 sen for the first half-mile, 10 sen for each additional one-third mile and 10 sen for every five minutes of waiting time. (A sen was 1/100 of a yen.) The posted speed limit for motor vehicles was 16 kph.

In bureaucratese, the official term for a taxi was ippan jōkyaku ryokaku jidōsha (motor vehicle for general passengers and travelers), while meters were referred to as ryōkin keijō-ki (fare-adding devices). It’s easy to see why the foreign borrowed terms takushii and metaa were preferred right from the get-go.

Tokyo at this time was a city of almost 3 million people with fewer than 300 passenger cars on its roads — and it’s doubtful its jinrikisha (rickshaw) pullers, who remained in business for several more decades, feared any threat to their livelihood.

An unsung reporter for The Japan Times covered the taxi story, which appeared on Tuesday, July 16, 1912, and read:

The new feature to be added to this city will be cries of “Taxi!” which will be heard at Shimbashi and Ueno stations during the course of the week. The Tokyo Taxicab Co., which was established last week, aims to place 30 taxicabs, to start with those stations for public service. Tokyo is improving doubtless. … This time a year ago there were little over 100, and now there are 270 gasoline fliers squeezing through the narrow streets and alleyways of the Metropolis.

Then exactly 100 years ago today, in The Japan Times of July 22, a follow-up report included some revelations about how the new service was being put to use:

The Tokyo Taxicab Co., which started the business last week with six cars — namely: three at Shimbashi, two at Ueno and one at its garage at Sukiyabashi (Ginza) — reports a very good business done during the last week. In fact patronages have come so thick and heavy, that the Company is now chafing why it had not started the business with, say three dozens of cabs.

Now, comes the question who are those full-fledged sports driving the taxi-drivers on a sure-to-break-down schedule? The Company informs that the majority of the patrons are foreign guests at the Imperial, Seiyoken, and Hibiya Hotels. Moreover, the joy-riders are chiefly gentlemen. Ninety percent of the fair passengers who have been introduced to the discomfort of the speed limit have been geisha girls escorted by their softy-sweeties (geisha cant now in vogue).

A driver reports that the other night he had to drive to the “Nightless City” of Yoshiwara seven times, each time packed with sight-seers or sporty “Men about Town.” At the present, every car brings to the Company every day 30 to 35 yen.

Taxis’ nocturnal appeal is undiminished to this day in sections of the drivers’ community, including to Yuji Tojima, one of Tokyo’s 16,787 owner-drivers — who only become eligible to work for themselves after 10 years’ unsullied work behind the wheel of a company’s cab. Setagaya Ward-based Tojima can set his own work schedule, but he gave several reasons why he prefers to work nights.

“The traffic’s lighter and moves faster, for one thing,” he says. “There are fewer pedestrians and bicycles out on the streets, and it’s less tiring to drive than during the day. And the fares tend to be longer; instead of asking to be taken to a nearby station, a customer will want to be driven all the way home.”

But doesn’t night work raise the risks of having to deal with the darker aspects of society, such as the yakuza?

“I’ve heard some gangs in Roppongi (entertainment district) with connections at the nightclubs might collect kickbacks from certain taxi companies in exchange for sending them customers,” Tojima says. “But nobody ever tried to shake me down for protection money.”

From the original six cars in 1912, Tokyo’s taxi population grew to 94 by 1915, 1,205 by 1921 and 3,473 by 1926. Originally, 90 percent of fares had been procured on a private-hire basis or from passengers who boarded at rail stations and hotels. It was only with the economic downturn that followed the end of World War I in 1918 that taxis began the practice of nagashi (cruising for passengers).

In 1927, a system known as En-taku — which charged a flat rate of ¥1 to anywhere in central Tokyo — was introduced.

Fast forward to the end of another world war, and by 1945 Tokyo had only 1,565 taxis still running — powered by charcoal due to gasoline rationing. Then, as the economy began to recover, fleets mostly of foreign makes, including Volkswagen Beetles, became widespread. In 1953 the cars began installing two-way radios.

Around the mid-1950s, domestic models such as the Toyopet Crown and Nissan Bluebird were being widely adopted by taxi fleets. Around that time, too, taxis began to suffer from a serious image problem. In early 1956, the sobriquet “kamikaze taxi” came into vogue in the Japanese media when the newly launched weekly magazine Shukan Shincho on March 4, 1956, ran an article titled, “The Terror of Kamikaze Taxis.” Headline notwithstanding, the story mainly criticized operators who saddled their drivers with demanding passenger quotas and paid on a commission basis — so forcing them to compete fiercely for fares.

And there was other damaging publicity to come. In all of 1956, it transpired, Tokyo alone saw 713 taxi-related fatalities — as opposed to 69 in the entire British Isles. However, it took a major tragedy to arouse the public.

In early 1958, the captain of the University of Tokyo soccer club, Hirofumi Igarashi, was fatally struck by a taxi on the street outside the prestigious institution’s famed red Akamon gate, and the “kamikaze” sobriquet flared up again.

Faced with heavy pressure from the authorities, taxi firms changed their wage system to take pressure off the drivers. With that, safety statistics quickly improved — although better-lit streets, airbags and seat belts have surely helped in subsequent years.

According to data supplied by Toryokyo, the Tokyo Taxi Association, during 2011 taxis were involved in 3,381 fender-benders, which resulted in eight fatalities — up from four the previous year.

Nowadays, Yamasan Taxi, founded in 1960 and now operating a fleet of 147 vehicles — including a brand new Nissan LEAF EV (electric vehicle) — is one of 359 companies operating in the central parts of the metropolis. At the invitation of its president, Toshihiro Akiyama, who also chairs the Tokyo Taxi Association’s PR committee, this writer recently spent a morning observing the daily routine at the headquarters in Minami Sago in downtown Koto Ward — a good location for a taxi company, I learned, since the area’s many large apartment blocks provide only limited parking to residents.

Keiko Hosoda, a driver of four year’s standing, and one of four female drivers at Yamasan, kindly walked me through the start of her shift.

First, she pulled a plastic mouthpiece from her vest pocket and took a breathalyzer test at a machine in the office — a sobriety check that’s repeated at the end of a driver’s shift.

Next, Hosoda was handed a clipboard bearing a checklist of things to do before starting off. The form includes a diagram of a car, upon which any existing nicks and scrapes are to be noted.

While wiped spotlessly clean both inside and out, Hosoda’s black Toyota Crown was showing its age. “Its odometer is over 500,000 km,” she smiled. “From August it’ll be retired and I’ll be assigned a new car.”

Raising the hood, Hosoda methodically checked the car’s radiator, engine-oil, battery and windscreen-washer tank levels. Upon handing in the ticked-off clipboard, she was given a plastic bag holding her nafuda (name tag) and photo ID that is slipped into a slot on the dashboard — as well as an IC card that records a complete log of where the car has been during the shift. This can later be viewed on a computer screen, in a graphic display that shows what times passengers were on board, and when the driver was taking a break — making it practically impossible to conceal activities from the management.

Before departing the depot, Yamasan’s drivers use an ATM in the office to break large bills to ensure they have sufficient change. (Drivers are expected to use their own money for the small change they carry.)

Also on the premises are cleaning and maintenance bays, a rest area and rooms with bunk beds where drivers can nap, including a separate one for female drivers.

Then came a surprise.

“Did you know that taxis in Tokyo have onboard cameras in their cars?” Hosoda asked me, pointing to a black rectangular device below and to the left of the interior rearview mirror.

I didn’t. The Takkun crime-prevention information system, I was informed, was introduced from 2009. A data recorder holds 72 hours of images and sound. Several drivers I spoke to acknowledged a growing problem of so-called monster customers — especially as Akiyama points out, “Ninety percent of our business comes from people flagging down cruising cars.” Apparently, their ranting over real or imagined infractions occasionally boils over and requires police intervention — at which point the Takkun may become evidence.

At the urging of local governments, more companies (and owner-drivers) have been gradually adding “eco-taxis” to their fleets, albeit slowly due to the higher prices of hybrid cars and electric vehicles. The use of LPG gas as fuel, I was told, is widespread, but offers few cost benefits over gasoline at current pump prices.

In Tokyo, where subway and bus services stop between about 1 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., taxis own the night. Their earnings from nocturnal business — including a 20 percent fare surcharge after 10 p.m., make a large contribution to overall revenues and driver salaries.

In general, companies maintain a ratio of 2.5 drivers per vehicle. To get a maximum number on the streets during hours of peak demand, drivers are assigned one of six shifts of 19 hours each (16 hours’ driving and three hours’ rest time). The day’s first shift, labeled “A,” runs from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. The last shift, “F,” is from 1 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Despite arguments from the standpoint of traffic safety and driver health, the unions have not made much headway in obtaining shorter working hours.

Since the general pattern is for taxi drivers to work 12 such shifts per month, company managements have long maintained that their drivers’ total hours worked only slightly exceed those of an office worker doing 8½ hours per day for 23 days a month.

But prolonged hours behind the wheel in city traffic can be brutal, and while no statistics are available on driver longevity, the Tokyo coroner’s office once estimated that taxis were involved in roughly one in four cases in which the operator of a vehicle died while driving.

“The ministries and police have repeatedly issued ‘administrative guidance’ to the taxi firms on issues related both to traffic safety and to drivers’ physical health,” says an official of Jiko Soren, a nationwide union of transport drivers. He added that the shocking tour bus accident on April 29, in which seven passengers died and 39 were injured after the driver fell asleep at the wheel, has reminded the public about the risks posed by overworked drivers. “The transport industry would definitely benefit from improved oversight of worker conditions,” he emphasized.

Looking at taxi firms’ business results from the past decade, I could not help but be struck by how the ups and downs of the industry serve as a remarkable barometer of Japan’s economy in general.

After booming during the years of the bubble economy that hit the buffers in the early 1990s, the industry gained a reputation as a shitsugyo-sha no ukezara (a receptacle for the unemployed). Virtually everyone I spoke to agreed that deregulation measures implemented from February 2002 which led to thousands more taxis on Tokyo’s streets — and also permitted flexibility in setting fares that saw the introduction of ¥500 “one-coin” taxis — are an unmitigated disaster.

Then to make matters worse, a spike in international oil prices in 2007, followed by the Lehman Shock the following year, sent the average daily earnings per vehicle plunging from ¥50,742 in 2007 to ¥43,514 in 2011. Consequently, company fleets have been cut by more than 6,000 units (about 16 percent) over the past four years — from a peak of 37,671 in 2008 to 31,314 last year.

Predictably, too, the economic downturn has impacted negatively on driver salaries, which, at an industry-wide average of ¥3.79 million a year (in Tokyo), puts them roughly ¥2.8 million a year worse off than average male wage earners of the same age in other professions.

In addition, a proposed consumption tax hike from today’s 5 percent to 8 percent in 2014 and 10 percent the following year, will almost certainly make a fare increase of at least ¥20 to ¥30 on top of the current industry standard minimum ¥710 fare almost inevitable — driving away yet more custom.

Yet the prolonged downturn does not appear to have resulted in any appreciable decline in the quality of taxi services, which if anything have improved. According to a survey of 15,000 passengers taken in July 2011, 36.2 percent of respondents gave a “good” rating to their experience and 56.6 percent an “acceptable” one — as opposed to only 7.3 percent who were “dissatisfied” with the service.

International travelers have also been consistent in their praise of Tokyo cabs, ranking them third behind London and New York in online surveys published in 2010 and 2011.

“Japanese taxis are like heavenly chariots,” enthuses Montreal-based writer Timothy Hornyak, a veteran contributor to the “Lonely Planet” guidebooks to Japan and Tokyo. “With perfectly polished exteriors, lace-lined interiors, and white-gloved drivers, they’re your own limousine starting at just ¥710.

“Drivers are impeccably polite, and they put cabbies in just about any other country to shame. … They may not all know Tokyo like the back of their hand, but if they don’t know an address they’ll figure it out soon enough with a phone call or using car navigation. It isn’t easy cruising a metropolis like Tokyo all day and all night long, but these guys pull it off with class.”

As for your intrepid reporter, on the many sweltering summer afternoons spent running about with a heavy briefcase or bag full of camera equipment, no spot in the city ever seemed more welcoming than the back seat of an air-conditioned taxi headed toward home.

The Tokyo Taxi Association will mark the centenary of taxis at two locations: on Aug. 3-5 throughout the day at the Nissan Motor showroom at the Ginza 4-chome intersection; and on Aug. 5 at Itocia Plaza, on the east side of JR Yurakucho Station.

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