Japanese Taxis and Elementary Incidents by Anthony Head

Japanese Taxis and Elementary Incidents

Anthony Head

We were stuck in traffic on the Bayswater Road when my cabby struck up conversation. On learning that I live in Tokyo he inquired what the taxis are like in Japan. I gave some lazily equivocal reply that underscored London’s status as taxi heaven. But it was one of those questions that tempt the response, “How much time do you have?” And it sent my mind fumbling back across the years in recollection.

During my early days in Japan there were few things I enjoyed more than a taxi ride. An alien in an alien land, I had relished the sense of adventure in being ferried at night through unknown city streets, their neon lights ablaze, or by day through mosaics of urban paddy fields toward some distant temple. To plunge into warmth from the biting winter winds or find air-conditioned sanctuary from the blistering summer heat was a kind of bliss that bordered on the transcendent.

Many years and several thousand journeys later, I often find familiarity has bred something akin to its usual offspring. Like many foreigners, I have run the gamut of Japanese taxi experience, from the banal to the bizarre, the vivifying to the terrifying, and in a land where even in recent years an annual traffic death toll of 10,000 was par for the course, still to be alive is itself no mean achievement. Especially have I had my fill of late-night taxi rides home from the office—the speeding and tailgating on the narrow, elevated expressways that snake through central Tokyo out into the suburbs, my pleas with the drivers to slow down or keep their distance, or the hours spent inching forward past lanes blocked off because of a collision, often involving a taxi. It was the trauma of March 2011 that persuaded me not to travel on an elevated expressway again, the last place, apart from a deep subway train, I would want to be trapped when the next big earthquake strikes. (Still in my mind is the revelation that when the Hanshin Expressway toppled over during the huge Kobe quake in 1995, plastic bottles, sweet wrappers, paper bags and whatnot were among the discovered items that workers had idly thrown into the concrete mix for the support columns.)

My first ride in a Japanese taxi set the pattern for many another, ending up where I didn’t want to go. A novice English teacher fresh off the plane, I had hailed a cab after my first sortie into the nighttime wonderland of Tokyo. The Dai-Ichi Hotel was my destination, the driver duly delivered me, and it was only then I discovered there was one in Ginza as well as Shimbashi. But two things I took for granted then came to impress me later: the driver knew the way, and he had stopped to pick me up. Japan is a country where the cities have few street names and many taxi journeys are completed on foot, from the drop-off point of a railway station or landmark building. “The Knowledge” of the London cabby has no equivalent here, and it was often the case that without a detailed road map a driver would get lost. I had drivers stop to ask the way of other drivers, or get out to inquire for directions at police stations. Some I managed to put out of their misery through sudden recognition of my surroundings or simple lucky guesses; others I sometimes, when all hope was gone, abandoned mid-journey to chance my luck with another.

The advent of satellite navigators has largely consigned such experiences to the past (though their curiously double function as television sets does little to settle the nerves when the driver has half an eye on some Yomiuri Giants’ slugfest). Yet, even now, cabbies who know the destination—or can easily find it on the screen—often ask which route the customer wishes to take. In the days before Sat Navs, a noncommittal response would often induce confusion or discomfort. One extreme manifestation was a young driver so nervous that his hands were shaking on the wheel as I climbed into the back seat. Straightaway, he turned to me and pleaded for directions, and the terror in his eyes would have been no less had I been the Emperor himself: it was his first day on the job, he didn’t know Tokyo at all, he didn’t know if he would last the day…

I was able to guide him street by street and he began to talk about himself. He had come from Fukui Prefecture, fleeing the provincial life where only fishing and the nuclear power plants offered any hope of work. But would he ever know the city? He had seen it on television but didn’t think it would be like this. I tried to encourage him with tales of less legitimate ignorance, if failing to resist some portentous brag about the London cabby’s knowledge, and when, our destination reached, I waved away the balance, I had to reassure him that this, too, was all in order. There might be no tipping in Japan, but I’d never met a taxi driver who wasn’t pleased to keep the change.

But most of all, in seeking to allay his paranoia with a revelation of my own, I had thanked him for stopping to pick me up at all. There are few sights more deflating to the spirit, or provoking to the humors, of the foreign resident in Japan than the rear end of a taxi that, having slowed to all but a standstill, suddenly speeds away at the whim of the demon behind the wheel. The late Alan Booth, in one of his columns for an English-language daily, once suggested a curative for these bouts of high blood pressure in the form of a sprint in pursuit of the offending vehicle and the hefty application to its rear end of a sturdy walking boot—advice which drew dissenting response on the Letters page from more than one straight-faced reader.

I have often heard this tendency ascribed, by Japanese friends and strangers alike, to a simple lack of English on the driver’s part—not a willful discrimination, but a harmlessly more human one, a last-minute loss of nerve to avoid exposure as a failed linguist. Nonetheless, only in Japan have I had to hide behind a hedge in order to catch a cab.

An English colleague and I had been drinking on a wet Friday night, like half the population of Tokyo it seemed, and the taxis were circling, taking their pick of the custom caught on the glistening streets. Possibly my attire didn’t help, though jeans and leather jacket are not usually an impediment. Perhaps I needed a haircut or a shave. My colleague intimated as much after several slowing taxis had shown us their rear ends, immaculately groomed as he was in stockbroker’s suit and Burberry. So, the ploy was hatched: I would disappear behind a nearby hedge and my colleague, with briefcase raised to shield his lowered head, would lure the prey with the promise of a corporate expense account. Sure enough, within a minute I had got the call, hurdled the hedge, and projected myself into the back of the car before the astonished driver could reach for the lever to shut the door.

From that moment onward, I found a briefcase the most valuable accessory for the foreign taxi hunter. Whether to shield the face from direct view, or simply to suggest respectability, the possession of a briefcase invariably brings results, and, on many nights, I would venture out onto the town with an empty case in hand.

But now with omotenashi being the new buzzword in Japan, I doubt that the thousands flocking to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics will have cause to resort to such tactics while enjoying the “wholehearted hospitality” on offer. First-timers should beware, though, of the Japanese taxi’s most distinctive feature. Remote-controlled doors have undoubted advantages for customers making a headlong entrance from a hedge, but peril awaits those who take their eyes off them for a moment, as I once did on a warm spring evening in Kyoto, not long after my arrival.

I had been to a concert with four young ladies from the company I worked for, all of whom had inspired in me fantasies of lust reciprocated. We were having no luck in finding a cab, and I had moved up the road by myself. Shortly, an approaching taxi slowed and, to my astonishment, pulled up beside me. As I called back in triumph to my companions, the door swung open and, with the unleashed force of its own momentum, caught me where my airy cotton trousers offered scant protection. The sensei crumpled, aware in his writhing only of a few scattered cherry blossoms on the pavement fading out of focus as the water welled into his eyes. His recollection of that evening ends there, with the voices of four figures standing over him, chattering, consoling, giggling, and he was never to succeed in inspiring amorous inclinations in any of the objects of his desire.

But once such barriers to admittance have been overcome, it’s inside the taxi that aspects of the true Japanese sub-culture reveal themselves. And for the driver anxious to break the ice with his solitary foreign customer, what better subject for discussion indeed than amorous inclinations? One, with the punch perm suggestive of his underworld connections, initiated this topic not by speech but by holding up a gold-encrusted hand and waggling his little finger. When he saw my comprehending smile, his inquiring glance in the rear-view mirror softened and dialogue commenced. How was it going with Japanese women? Was I scoring? More importantly, was I scoring enough? And while we were on the topic, what was my favorite position? What? Foreigners liked that too? Hehhhhh! And what about Soapland? Well, I should go. I knew the massage parlors in Thailand, of course, but the Japanese ones were better…

Thus, we passed a pleasant twenty minutes, in which Japanese women became Japanese woman, the commodity on display in the daily sports papers and late-night television shows and ubiquitous mailbox leaflets. Perhaps it was from this very taxi that I pulled from one of the pouches on the seatback—mostly filled with flyers for mobile phones or golf club memberships—a brochure advertising Office Ladies, or “Love Call from Charming OLs” as the cover has it. Inside, a leggy woman in leather and silk perches on the edge of a billiards table, her skirt riding up as she lines up her cue beneath the English slogan: “I will take your phone message.” Another, in a see-through skirt, bends down to open a limousine door, her underwear outlined beneath the motto: “I would like be your secretary.”

Standard discourse, though, tends to a different pattern: the customer’s Japanese is excellent (this after “Shinjuku Station, please”)—is the customer American? So, where is the customer from? How long has the customer been in Japan? Can the customer eat Japanese food? There follows a series not so much of inquiries as assertions seeking confirmation. What the equivalent for passengers from Italy or Australia or Sweden might be, I can only guess, and guess well enough. But I could never compute the times I’ve been told that mine is the land of the “English gentleman,” that London is foggy, that my countrymen always carry umbrellas, and that I drink tea not coffee. And whether I indulge with jovial assent, or evoke the football hooligan, or observe that the city of Sherlock Holmes is a century past, or note that annual rainfall in Japan is greater than in Britain, is often determined by nothing more definable than the driver’s tone of voice. Once, I had a driver who, on learning my nationality, replied reassuringly, “England, I know”—and proceeded to punctuate the rest of the journey with exclamatory interrogatives: “Aaah, Victoria!” “Yes.” “Aaah, Churchill!” “Yes.” “Aaah, Thatcher!” “Yes.” It seemed an age until I could clamber out, but finally the door slammed shut and the taxi sped away, the syllables “Bobby Charlton!” hanging in the midnight air.

But it’s naturally the departures from the pattern that stick in the mind, like the driver who talked nostalgically of Norwich, choking with emotion as he struggled to express the intangible importance this old cathedral city had assumed in his private mythology. A three-month homestay in the only place on the planet he had ever been outside Japan had become the very symbol of carefree life, and in his dreams of future happiness all roads led back to East Anglia. Or the driver who wanted me to sing. This was long before the karaoke boom took off overseas and in the days when foreigners were scarce, even in the suburbs of monstrous Osaka where I was living at the time. But he had his mini tape deck all set up and laughed aside my attempts to demur. Mercifully, the tape became entangled in its spool, sparing me the pains of “Yesterday,” but he passed me the microphone anyway, its cord getting wrapped around the gear stick, and said I must sing something else. No music. Just sing. It was a scorching day. Outside, the sun beat down on scattered figures in the fields, bent double under wide-brimmed hats, and as we bumped along the ditch-lined roads, the crickets and cicadas rasping in the grasses, a bullet train thundered by in the distance, and in hopeless imitation of my beloved Mel Tormé, I sang “Blue Moon” to my audience of one.

As taxis are the only form of public transport that enable passengers routinely to engage with their drivers, perhaps it’s not surprising that even ten minutes in their company can leave such indelible impressions. A moment’s recollection and I can call up a gallery of characters to the forefront of my mind, knowing nothing of them other than a word or gesture or expression. There was the driver with the dyed curly hair, silent throughout a slow journey on a humid afternoon, who suddenly walked off in the middle of a traffic jam, returning a few minutes later with two cans of cold coffee from a vending machine and wordlessly tossing one to me in the back seat. There was the big, bald driver who talked incessantly of heaven knows what, encouraged by the grunts and gurgles I employ when I need to veil my ignorance to keep the conversation flowing, and who, turning at last to hand me my change, literally shrieked, his eyes all but bursting from their sockets, at the sight of a foreign face, so perfect had been my Japanese. There was the wiry, bird-like driver who, one freezing winter’s night when the snow lay thick over Tokyo, ferried me home at ten miles an hour through roads packed high with ice and dotted with abandoned cars, and who laughed whenever the taxi slithered out of control a strange and high-pitched cackle which blended the exuberance of childish delight with that of maniacal intent.

And there was the driver I wanted to throttle. He watched impassively from behind the wheel, his face veiled in smoke, while I struggled in the rain to remove a motorbike and its drunken rider collapsed in the middle of a narrow side street. We had stopped a few meters short of the heap and he had muttered to himself in irritation, before leaning back and lighting a cigarette. The black leather figure wrapped around the bike was a hefty young woman, ungrazed but half asleep, as heavy as several sacks of potatoes. Somehow, I managed to drag her to the roadside and get her to her feet, holding her face up to the rain. She came to and seemed to recognize her surroundings. She claimed to live nearby and I made her promise to walk the rest of the way, for all the good that may have done. I returned to the taxi, drenched and exhausted. “Drunk, I suppose,” was the driver’s only comment. He had kept the meter running and, by the time I reached home, the fare was twice the usual sum. I was too tired to remonstrate or to thank him for his help. But since this is Japan, where “case by case” is the nation’s favorite adage, there was also not long afterwards the clean-cut driver with the manicured fingernails, insistently pressing a refund on me since the roadwork on the shortest route had forced us into a detour.

And it’s not unusual to find these extremes in closer combination. Only recently, after waiting an aeon in the early hours of a Saturday morning, I spotted a taxi trapped by traffic lights at a nearby crossing. I raised my hand to the driver as I approached, and felt, at once, as his face didn’t flicker, that familiar blend of helpless resignation and impotent rage. I stood by the door and waited for it to open. I tapped on the window. I lowered my head to the driver’s level. I called out politely. But nothing altered his expressionless features or the fixed direction of his stare. I had stumbled across a master of mokusatsu, the time-honored Japanese method of killing one’s enemy with silence. I doubt that even a briefcase would have given me a semblance of identity.

The lights changed and he shot off at speed, breaking heavily thirty meters down the road to pick up a young Japanese couple. For a moment, I contemplated the Booth solution, but knew my shoes weren’t up to it. Scarcely had I bawled some choice invective into the night air than another taxi pulled up and the door swung open. The driver chatted politely all the way home, a model of affability, while the sound of birdsong and the gentle trickle of a mountain stream filtered through from two small speakers behind the rear seat. A sticker on the door beside me, thoughtfully translated into English, read: “Fasten seat belt. Prepare for accident.” I would have, had the belt-clip not been lost in the crevice of the seat. Strangely reassured, I forbore to mention the Clean Air Acts as the driver held forth on foggy London and Sherlock Holmes.

About the Author

Anthony Head is a writer and editor based in Tokyo. His articles have appeared in numerous journals, including Edinburgh ReviewThe London MagazineHistory TodayFar Eastern Economic ReviewThe Global Dispatches and The Times Literary Supplement (TLS). He is the editor of three volumes of the letters and diaries of John Cowper Powys, and two collections of essays by Llewelyn Powys. He is currently working on a collection of his own Japan-related essays and articles.