With the Olympics — and an anticipated influx of even more foreign tourists — a little more than a year away, local companies are finding more ways to get in on the act of showcasing Japanese know-how and enhancing the overall experience of visitors.

Take taxis for example. While the industry is world-renowned for its white-gloved drivers and automated doors, there is still room for improvement.

In Japan, vacant vehicles display in red LEDs the Sino-Japanese characters of kusha (literally, “empty car”) to indicate that they are available for hire. Naturally, the signage is lost on many tourists visiting from abroad.

Foreign visitors aren’t the only ones stymied by taxi displays. Due to the rapid aging of Japan’s population, more elderly people — and especially those who have had to give up their driver’s licenses — are utilizing taxis, and they too have complained how frustrating it can be to determine whether or not an oncoming vehicle is vacant, “reserved” or “off shift.”

“Instead of customers having to squint at a moving LED display that might be even harder to see because of the low angle of the sun in wintertime, we thought we’d light up the whole car, so to speak,” explained taxi company owner Teruo Isshiki.

From this month, Isshiki’s Kamereon Jidosha K.K. will commence service of what it claims to be the world’s first taxis that change the entire vehicle’s body color to indicate the vehicle’s status.

The pale pink color, which Isshiki said was designed to closely approximate the hue of the Somei-Yoshino (Prunus yedoensis) — Japan’s most beloved species of sakura (cherry blossoms) — can be switched on or off at the driver’s prerogative. Isshiki, however, can’t imagine why a driver of a vacant car would want to switch off.

“If you look at one of our cars coming down the street, say, at dusk on a rainy day, it sticks out like a flamingo among a bunch of crows. You can’t miss it!” he said.

Isshiki credited his brother-in-law, Akira Momota, for the new invention.

In an interview at the company’s office in the city of Mitaka in western Tokyo, Momota told The Japan Times he obtained a utility patent several years ago for a process that expedites the color changes in so-called thermochromic color-changing paint pigment.

“Thermochromic pigment, which was first developed in the 1970s, is chemically structured to change color in response to temperature changes,” he explained. “As the temperature goes up, the pigment becomes colorless, revealing the base coat or graphics underneath.

“I don’t want to reveal any trade secrets at this point, but my process involves retaining heat from the engine’s exhaust to maintain the temperature of the undercoat layer of the car’s paint in a quiescent mode.

“For example, think of a printer that comes on right away when you type the command on the computer to print. The color changes quickly because the quiescent mode maintains a state of constant readiness,” he said.

Momota’s new quick-change process — for which a trademark name of Pika-ichi (Japanese for “something that stands out above the rest”) is under application — enables the car to change color within approximately 90 seconds, irrespective of the ambient temperature.

In addition to the shade of sakura, Momota said they’re considering using “crested Ibis white” to signify the “off shift” status and “imperial purple” for “reserved,” though the technology might not yet be up to the task of multicolor options.

He confessed that due to temperature conflicts, early experiments frequently resulted in the cars taking on a muddy, unattractive brown hue.

But pink? That they can do.

“After many late nights and too much caffeine, we nailed it,” he said, loudly slapping his palms together with a wide grin.

And watching a taxi turn from lime green to cherry-blossom pink, as did this reporter, is truly an amazing spectacle to behold … and one guaranteed to bring a smile to the viewer’s face.

Isshiki chose Kamereon, which is Japanese for “chameleon,” as the company name, and a cartoon mascot will appear in company promotional materials and emblazoned on the doors of the vehicles in Kameleon’s current fleet of 20 cars, which include a mix of Toyota Prius and Nissan Sylphys.

Last November, the Tokyo Association of Taxi and Limousine Carriers, after lively debate, agreed to support Kamereon’s request for the color-change system to the transport ministry, which issued provisional approval for the color-changing taxis at the start of this year. The pilot program will be limited to the Tokyo metropolitan area.

“It was the ministry’s view that an experiment involving only 20 cars wouldn’t have a major impact on business conditions. Furthermore, they felt that the taxi industry can only secure a stable future through adoption of new technologies as they become available,” said Isshiki.

“Until self-driving cabs — or flying vehicles — become the standard, there’s not a lot of new things to adopt right now. At least this will get more people talking about us.”

When queried about Kamereon’s new cars, a spokesperson for the Tokyo branch of All Japan Automobile Transport Workers’ Unions was nonplussed, saying it would adopt a wait-and-see attitude to see if this really is “a horse of a different color.”

Editor’s note: This story was published on April 1 and tricked many readers. Happy April Fools’ Day!

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