Business / Corporate

Covert cabs: Yokohama taxi company employs 'ninja' drivers to chauffeur customers

by Kantaro Komiya

Contributing Writer

As visitors from overseas flock to Japan, companies in the tourism industry are finding creative ways to tap a classic, stealthy image of the country.

From ninja classes to shows and museums, the public and private sectors are promoting attractions related to the popular covert mercenaries.

Sanwa Koutsu Group, a Yokohama-based taxi provider, joined the trend last week, launching Ninja de Taxi.

Customers using the service are picked up by a taxi driver clad in ninja costume, who will take passengers to their destination while staying in character and making ninja moves, such as quick steps and finger signs. The operator aims to improve its brand image while offering a unique taxi experience. The firm said it has three ninja drivers on staff.

The costumed driver also uses origami-crafted shuriken, a signature ninja weapon, while speaking the archetypical ninja language by adding the phrase “gozaru” to the end of sentences. The drivers claim to speak more than 100 languages “with the help of Google translation.” Users can reserve a ninja taxi online, with a ¥1,000 additional charge added to the regular fare.

Sanwa Koutsu is known for coming up with attention-grabbing services.

Other examples include a bodyguard driver service in which the driver wears a black suit and sunglasses to make him look like a tough security guard. Also available is a tour in which photography geeks drive clients to photogenic locations in the Yokohama area.

Through these services, “we are hoping that more people realize that there is a taxi service operator that is doing something interesting,” said Hiroki Makabe, a Sanwa Koutsu spokesman.

Makabe also said the company is offering a variety of services in an effort to address issues faced by the industry.

One of the primary problems for taxi firms is the aging of drivers. According to a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s survey, the average age of taxi drivers was 59.3 in 2017.

Makabe said launching unique services will help the company build a fresh and entrepreneurial brand image, which could lead to the recruitment of young drivers.

“Our drivers are quite willing to initiate new appealing projects,” Makabe said, noting that the average age of Sanwa Koutsu drivers is 49.

It’s no surprise that Sanwa tapped ninja for its latest creative venture, and the company is just one of many that are now offering ninja-related attractions for tourists.

A simple web search shows a variety of training experiences available to ninja wannabes, while the Japan Tourism Agency has picked ninja as one of 13 themes to attract more foreign visitors.

In line with the agency’s initiative, the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum in Mie Prefecture saw its number of annual overseas visitors jump to 29,000 in 2017, which accounted for 15 percent of overall visitors, from 10,000 and 6.1 percent in 2012.