Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Tokyo, So Many Taxis, So Few to Pay the Fares

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Tokyo, So Many Taxis, So Few to Pay the Fares

Article excerpt

It's a crisp, sunny day and Yasuo Kizu is midway through his 16- hour shift, a stretch of time he fills by crooning Japanese folk songs and pinching himself to stay awake.

"{Work} is so boring these days," the Tokyo taxi driver explains. "I drive around for hours without picking anyone up."

Just as Wall Street quips that hemlines reflect the stock market's fortunes, Tokyoites say you can gauge economic health by the availability of cabs. The tougher it is to get one, the better things are. These days, taxis here are for the taking. There are so many of them on Tokyo streets that police say they're causing traffic jams. Turquoise, orange, and yellow cabs dart through traffic like schools of tropical fish in search of a meal. "If a guy throws his hand up on the street, five taxis zoom up," gripes cabby Kiyoshi Itabashi. Japan's recession has hit the taxi business hard. Not only are penny-pinching consumers more inclined to catch the last train home, but the competition has gotten fiercer. With joblessness near record levels, more people are driving taxis to earn a living. At the same time, a government push to deregulate the industry has left engines idling all over town. "I've been in the business for eight years, and this is the worst I've ever seen it," muses Mr. Kizu, who supplements his earnings with a part-time construction job. Certainly purse strings are tighter than they've been in a long time. Last year Japan's families spent an average $3,100 a month, almost 2 percent less than they had the year before. Japan hasn't seen a drop like that since the oil crisis of 1974. In these straitened circumstances, cabs are a luxury. Most of them start the meter at about $5.70. Still, for the cost you get a unique taxi experience. As a cab glides to a stop beside you, the rear passenger door swings opens automatically and quietly clicks shut once you've settled onto the lace-covered seats. Drivers wear white gloves and uniforms in dark, formal colors. In large cities like Tokyo, it's not uncommon to hail a cab that has a TV or a slim digital display scrolling the latest news and headlines. The problem now is that there are too many of these rolling living rooms. …

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