The Tokyo taxi driver: Suit & tie – white gloves optional

Stephen Wade

TOKYO (AP) – Very few countries deliver better service than Japan: in shops, in restaurants, or in taxis.

It’s called Omotenashi and translates roughly as hospitality – or offering customers unreserved attention. Visitors always comment on it. And it’s no accident.

Take Tokyo taxi driver Norihito Arima, for instance, as he stands alongside 30 or 40 other drivers at a roll call before his 18-hour shift with the taxi company Nihon Kotsu.

He drives in a suit and tie. White gloves are optional. Drivers are not allowed to have tattoos or wear sunglasses, and men must be clean-shaven. The muster wraps up as drivers – 95 per cent are men – bow toward a small Shinto shrine. And for good measure, they undergo a breathalyser before hitting the road.

“It’s something like the army,” Norihito said.

ABOVE & BELOW: Taxis drive on a narrow street in Shimbashi neighbourhood; and Norihito Arima waits for a traffic light to change as he drives along the streets of Tokyo. PHOTOS: AP

ABOVE & BELOW: A Nihon Kotsu taxi passes through the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo on a rainy afternoon; and Norihito Arima studies the map of Tokyo in his taxi

The company also has a booklet for drivers with 77 do’s and don’ts: how and when to speak to passengers, taxi sanitation and opening doors for customers. There’s even one instructing drivers to keep both hands on the wheel.

Taxi service has been a concern at some Olympics: poorly trained drivers, dilapidated cars, and sloppy dress. A decade ago in Beijing, the government published edicts for drivers to stop spitting, clean their taxis, and warned about eating on the job.

Customers also got lessons on waiting in line and not jumping ahead.

This shouldn’t be at problem at next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

“Japanese people have a pride in this service,” Norihito said in an interview with The Associated Press. “In the western notion, an individual is independent. But we Japanese are homogeneous. We think of each other as part of the society, the community. So the honour we get as a group is part of the honour each member gets.”

Japan is not perfect, of course. Commuters often push to get on crowded subway trains or bump into anonymous strangers on the sidewalk without apology. Westerns usually receive great service, but some other non-Japanese complain they do not.

Norihito has an MBA and speaks English fluently. For drivers who don’t, the company has a tablet to assist with language and a hotline for translation emergencies. Drivers can earn about 50,000-60,000 yen – about USD450-550 – in a typical 18-hour shift. Drivers keep half and the company gets the other half.

Norihito acknowledged that when he started driving three years ago – he gave up a “boring office job” as a data analyst – he barely knew his way around Greater Tokyo, an area of about 35 million.

“I couldn’t tell Shibuya from Shinjuku,” he said, despite passing a test that was much less rigorous than, say, London’s famous “The Knowledge” exam for taxi drivers.

“There is no easy job in Japan, but relatively I feel comfortable doing this job,” he said. “I like it because I can do it by myself. Sure, there are problems but I don’t need to get involved in office politics.”