OSAKA (Kyodo) Taxi drivers here are waging what is perhaps the nation’s most intense battle to attract riders, even going so far as to discount fares at the expense of their earnings.

The intense competition is due to liberalization brought about by the revision of the Road Trucking Vehicle Law two years ago.

Liberalizing the taxi industry opened the way for increases in the number of taxis, but Japan’s prolonged economic slump has failed to put a brake on the continued decline in the number of passengers.

“The money I earn all goes for food and my children’s education,” said a 40-year-old driver who cruises the streets around the northern part of Osaka. He said he earned about 5 million yen in 1996, compared with about 3.2 million yen last year.

The father of three said his wife told him, “Life would be comfortable if (I divorced you) and got child and maternal welfare” benefits.

Osaka taxi drivers give passengers a 50 percent discount on the portion of a fare that exceeds 5,000 yen.

The driver, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he used to concentrate on carrying long-distance passengers. But his income decreased drastically due to the introduction of the fare discount system that, for example, brings him 7,500 yen for a 10,000 yen ride.

Understandably, he now focuses on passengers who want to travel shorter distances.

The driver said there has been no increase in the number of long-distance passengers since the introduction of the discount system.

He said two fellow drivers committed suicide in recent years because their livelihoods had worsened.

“Those drivers who feel the pinch are pressed to get as many passengers as possible and tend to be involved in traffic accidents,” he said.

Osaka Prefectural Police said seven cabbies were involved in accidents resulting in deaths last year, compared with three in 2002.

The revision to the law led to the liberalization of fares and the participation of newcomers in the industry.

“Osaka is an experimental site for deregulation,” said Kanji Morita, chairman of the Osaka union of the National Federation of Automobile Transport Workers Unions (Zenjiko).

Osaka is said to have Japan’s highest number of fare structures, with more than 40. It had also been reported that Osaka had too many taxis, yet the number has increased by about 1,700 since the law was revised.

The number of riders has continued to decline in the face of the extended economic slump.

Management increased the number of taxis to make up for the drop in revenue, a move that only served to further intensify competition.

Fare discounts have been introduced in other areas after the taxi industry was liberalized, including Hokkaido, Kyoto and Tokushima. About 70 percent of owner-driven taxis have adopted the system.

Morita said the system has lowered the income of the taxi industry as a whole. The industry is strangling itself, he said.

“It is indispensable for taxi drivers to earn more than a certain level to sustain qualities (needed) to drive safely and offer service to passengers,” said Seiji Abe, a Kansai University professor specializing in public services theory.

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