National

After almost a year behind the wheel, Tokyo's foreign cab drivers reflect on navigating a new way of life

by Andrew McKirdy

Staff Writer

Growing up in Canada, Alex Lipson never imagined he would one day become a taxi driver — especially not on the other side of the world in Tokyo.

“I didn’t have some childhood dream to be a taxi driver,” said the 34-year-old, who joined cab firm Hinomaru Kotsu Co. late last August. “People have negative opinions and not-so-negative opinions about the taxi industry, but it seemed really interesting as a way for me to have a new experience in Japan.”

Hinomaru, which operates in Tokyo and Kanagawa Prefecture, began actively recruiting non-Japanese drivers last spring. The company already employed a handful of drivers from overseas and had been impressed with their performance. It was also keen to capitalize on the record number of tourists that have been flocking to Japan.

Like many sectors in the country, the taxi industry is feeling the effects of the labor crunch caused by aging demographics, with many drivers retiring or on the verge of retirement. According to a 2017 report by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average age of a cab driver is 59.

Hinomaru, judging that a more diverse workforce would help recruitment and offer overseas visitors better service, created an English-language website and launched a publicity campaign on television and in various media to attract foreign workers.

By the end of February, 31 of the company’s roughly 1,500 drivers were born overseas, comprising 15 nationalities. The company hopes to have 100 foreign-born drivers on its payroll by July 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics begin.

“Foreign drivers work very hard when they first start,” said Kazumi Otsu, global recruitment section chief in Hinomaru’s personnel affairs department. “That doesn’t depend on their nationality, but they are very positive about doing their job. When the Japanese drivers see that, it acts as an incentive to spur them on.”

Taxi driver Alex Lipson of Hinomaru Kotsu Co. starts his shift. 
Taxi driver Alex Lipson of Hinomaru Kotsu Co. starts his shift. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

In order to meet Hinomaru’s employment criteria, prospective drivers must fulfill three requirements: be able to work with no legal restrictions, have obtained at least N3 on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test and have held a valid driver’s license for at least three years (not necessarily in Japan).

New hires are put through training that typically lasts three or four months. The first step is to study for the Tokyo Association of Driving Geography Examination, which all taxi drivers must pass before they are allowed to work in the city. Preparation for the test involves learning the names and locations of around 80 Tokyo roads, as well as intersections and major landmarks.

Aspiring drivers must then obtain their Type-2 driver’s license, a requirement for anyone intending to transport passengers. Practical training and testing are done at a driving school, while a written test is taken at a police station.

Once new hires have obtained these qualifications, they return to Hinomaru for behind-the-wheel training. This takes the form of simulations with instructors playing the part of customers, as well as classes on safe driving, dealing with receipts, credit card payments and various regulations.

Lessons in driver etiquette and customer relations also feature on the curriculum.

“I don’t want to call it a script because we don’t do it too robotically or anything, but there is a manual that Hinomaru uses, dealing with certain situations that might come up,” said Lipson, who first came to Japan in 2006 and was working as an assistant language teacher in Shizuoka Prefecture when he read an article about Hinomaru that piqued his interest.

“First of all, (we learn) basic etiquette,” he said. “But then dealing with certain tricky situations. For example, if someone who has been drinking falls asleep, what do you do if they won’t wake up? First of all, don’t touch them, no matter what. Go to the police station or the nearest kōban (police box) to tell the police what’s going on and ask for help.”

Once the training is complete, drivers are ready to begin work. Foreign drivers are generally not assigned to any particular jobs dealing with overseas visitors and are instead treated the same as their Japanese colleagues.

Francis Karl Gurtlinger, a taxi driver for Hinomaru Kotsu Co. 
Francis Karl Gurtlinger, a taxi driver for Hinomaru Kotsu Co. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Francis Karl Gurtlinger, an American who joined Hinomaru last April and has lived in Japan for almost 13 years, estimates that “99 percent” of his customers are Japanese.

“The customers are a bit surprised sometimes,” he said. “And they ask a lot of questions, which is good for me. I enjoy having conversations with them.

“I’ve never had any problems with anyone just because I’m a foreigner. I expected it once or twice but I haven’t had that yet. What happens is, because I’m a foreigner, they assume that I don’t know the directions so they tell you the way to go. That to me is very comforting, in a way.”

That is not to say that problems with customers do not occur.

“I’ve had a few problems, but not very often,” Gurtlinger said. “I’ve had about three or four drunk customers in the evenings. Sometimes you have one or two customers that are a bit pushy. Let’s say you’re on a road and the traffic light changes to yellow, they’ll say ‘go, go, go,’ even if it’s about to change to red. You have to tell them that you can’t go because you don’t want to get a ticket. That type of customer is a bit of a pain.”

Otsu, the personnel affairs department chief, stressed that any problems that have arisen with foreign drivers in the line of duty so far have been the type that could happen to anyone, irrespective of nationality.

But he also acknowledged that creating a more diverse workforce has brought its own particular challenges.

“Most of our customers are Japanese, and training drivers to a level where they are able to serve them takes time,” he said. “People from different countries also have different ways of thinking. Some can be very self-assertive. Not all the staff here were keen on the foreign workers at first, but that has dissipated over time and there is much more understanding now.”

Taxi driver Alex Lipson takes a Breathalyzer test before starting his shift. 
Taxi driver Alex Lipson takes a Breathalyzer test before starting his shift. | SATOKO KAWASAKI

Drivers typically work 11 days in a month, with each working day comprising a basic 19-hour shift, during which at least three hours of break must be taken by law. Drivers arrive at the depot before 7:30 a.m. to get changed, take a Breathalyzer test and health check, inspect their vehicles and then begin work at 8 a.m. Day- and night-shift schedules, where drivers work 11-hour shifts 22 times a month, are also available.

Once the training period is over and they begin work, drivers are guaranteed a monthly salary of ¥300,000 for the first six months or ¥250,000 for the first year, as long as they fulfill certain requirements that include providing a guarantor to vouch for them. After the salaried period is over, they are paid on commission, receiving anywhere between 52 percent and 62 percent of what they take in.

The drivers themselves have mixed feelings about the system.

“The shift can be a pain because you are up almost all day,” Gurtlinger said. “It’s not very good health-wise, but the customers you meet and the places you go are very interesting.

“If you don’t have a guarantor, like me, you only get paid commission. It’s in your own interest to work as hard as you can. It’s not very good.”

Both Lipson and Gurtlinger say they were attracted to Hinomaru because they were interested in working in the tourism sector. At some point, Gurtlinger plans to return to Ishikawa Prefecture, where he previously lived, to set up his own sightseeing taxi business.

Neither driver is sure how long they intend to stay with the company, but both are happy to continue on a journey that they never imagined they would embark on.

“I’m not sure what the future holds, but I want to keep doing it for at least a few more years,” Lipson said. “I’m really interested in improving my skills while doing this job. I never imagined I would be doing this before last year, but I’m really glad I took this opportunity.”