National

Tokyo's taxi drivers brush up their English to cash in on Olympics

by Reito Kaneko

Kyodo

“There are many ways to ask your passengers to fasten their seat belts. The easiest is to say, ‘Seat belt please,’ but you should never add the word ‘take’ as it then means you want that to be stolen,” an English teacher said in Japanese with a subtle smile.

With the 2020 Olympics six months away, a wide array of businesses in Japan are ramping up preparations, just like the athletes.

The taxi industry, which is benefitting from the jump in tourists, is a leading example of sectors that are viewing the quadrennial sporting extravaganza as a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Earlier this month, a Tokyo classroom was packed with taxi drivers taking a practical, serious but above all humorous, English lesson taught by two teachers, an American and a Japanese.

The students, mostly middle-aged men, were told to remember several short but important phrases, such as “Keep the change.”

“Everybody, if I say ‘Keep the change,’ I want you to say out loud ‘Thank you so much’ with feelings of gratitude,” said the Japanese teacher, Chiho Kusaka.

After the students repeated the expression quietly, the American, James Fishel, instantly encouraged them to say it louder. Kusaka then asked how they should respond if the change only amounts to a few yen. Fishel, in providing a hint, simply verbalized, “Thanks.”

The Japanese teacher dropped another tip: “Make sure you don’t use a loud voice when, for example, you receive only ¥10. It would sound sarcastic if you did so.”

At the international terminal at Haneda airport in Tokyo, only drivers who have completed at least a mid-level English course are permitted to pick up passengers.

“This has served as an incentive for taxi drivers to take foreign-language courses,” said Katsumi Yasuda, director for educational affairs at the Tokyo Taxi Center, noting visitors from abroad tend to travel longer distances from the airport compared with other places in the capital.

The restriction was gradually imposed after 2014. Since then, nearly 500 drivers have passed an English certification exam, giving them the privilege of using a special lane that allows them to approach taxi stands with shorter waiting times. An average of 1,500 cabs serve the terminal daily, according to Yasuda.

To take the exam, which is designed to test communication skills, drivers must finish an advanced English course.

The center mainly provides training for people who want to be taxi drivers but now organizes English courses of different levels at least twice a month for those already behind the wheel.

“We have seen a spike in foreign customers and I feel that a lot of chances are out there,” said one student, Minoru Ishibashi, 65. “I’m definitely going to get the certification after finishing the high-level course.

“I would be lying if I said I’m not hoping for an increase in my earnings during the Olympics,” he said.

Ishibashi lived in the United States for six years and said he wants to contribute to maintaining Tokyo’s image that it is “clean” and the people are “kind,” descriptions he has heard often over the years from visitors.

In January 2018, the Japan Federation of Hire-Taxi Associations formulated a set of measures for the Olympics and Paralympics.

“We are making efforts to make sure that foreign visitors can comfortably and safely use Japanese taxis without language or payment problems as if they were in their own countries,” said Takatsugu Kosuge, a managing director of the association.

Under the so-called action plan, the association set a goal of having 9,000 drivers taking the English lessons by April. Over 16,000 have already completed them.

“We don’t want the drivers to avoid foreigners. That’s why we have been carrying out such programs on how best to treat customers,” Kosuge said. “Difficult communication skills are not needed. To start with, it would be enough if they could say ‘Hello,’ ask where to go and say ‘Thank you.'”

The industry has also revamped the equipment side of the business. On Tokyo’s roads, boxy electric taxis made by Toyota Motor Corp. with Olympic logos on each side are now commonplace. The deep indigo cabs have powered rear-opening doors and spacious interiors for wheelchair users and big luggage. A growing number of the cabs, subsidized by the central and Tokyo Metropolitan Governments, are being equipped with multilingual tablet PCs to handle cashless payment options ranging from credit cards to QR code-based apps.

But it remains unclear how much the taxi industry will profit from the preparations.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government estimated in 2017 that the economic ripple effects of the Summer Games scheduled from July 24 to Aug. 9 will be worth about ¥32 trillion ($292 billion) over a span of 17 years.

The taxi industry, with an estimated annual revenue of about ¥1.6 trillion, has not calculated the games’ potential impact.

A transport ministry report last year based on written questionnaires and interviews collected from about 900 visitors leaving from Haneda found that 46.5 percent used taxis during their stay in Japan.

The report and similar surveys, however, found many travelers felt the fares in Japan were high and did not see the need for them in the first place as Tokyo already has good public transportation systems in place.

Also, many roads and expressways will likely be restricted for the games, which could lead to heavy traffic, though the central and metropolitan governments have called on both firms and people to refrain from driving in central Tokyo and commuting during rush hour via any means.

But Tetsuro Hyodo, a transportation policy expert, thinks the likelihood of Tokyo seeing serious road congestion is not so high as the countermeasures planned are expected to work well.

“Based on that assumption, taxi demand is expected to fall slightly as the steps are aimed at discouraging people living in the metropolitan area from going out,” said the Tokyo University of Marine Science professor.

“However, it is almost certain there will be special demand from visitors as Tokyo’s taxis can travel safely and quickly to their destinations,” Hyodo said. “I also believe taxis will be an indispensable means of transport during the Olympics and Paralympics, given that universal design taxis are increasing.”

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