Tokyo Taxi Drivers get “Ranked”

The three star symbol of a Master Taxi Driver - 優良タクシードライバー
The three star symbol of a Master Taxi Driver – 優良タクシードライバー

Have you ever noticed Tokyo taxis with these three stars atop? They are a type of certification of the level of the driver inside the taxi – they are designated “Master Taxi Drivers” (優良タクシードライバー). Look out for them next time you grab a cab in Tokyo!

The Kanto Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport has announced a proposal to designate space at taxi ranks for these master drivers. They have chosen Shimbashi station, near the Yurikamome line, as the first location. Some taxi stands already offered passengers the chance to queue for no-smoking cars but since most Tokyo companies no longer allow smoking, the Ministry has been considering other premium services which might draw passengers and reward those drivers who offer them. A master taxi driver is designated by the Tokyo Taxi Centre as someone with no traffic violations and an unblemished record in dealing with customers. Around 10% of the city’s 90,000 drivers qualify for the “three star designation” which can be seen on the roof of the car.

Hmmm. So what does our friend George think of all this I wonder? I asked him. The first thing he asked me was where the information came from. I told him it was from here, and assured him that it was from a reliable source. He then went on to say he was not surprised by the fact that only 10% of Tokyo’s taxi drivers qualify for the 3-star “Master” designation. That is actually quite an amazing statistic, if in fact correct: only 1 in 10 of the taxi’s that come past you are driven by someone deemed professional enough to qualify. The logic of the designation effectively stating that 9 in 10 of those drivers are not worthy, having at some point infringed on traffic laws or having dealt with their customers in a poor manner, so much so that they were reported.

The last eight or nine months have seen a lot of taxi travel for me, in and around Kanto, as well as other areas of Japan. I have found myself in taxis almost every day, and have wished that there was some way that I could reward outstanding drivers who “delighted me”, and somehow demerit those drivers that enraged me. And yes, there are more of the latter than the former, even in Japan – or maybe my “en” (luck) with taxi drivers is just thin. In any case, the new initiative where taxi drivers are ranked and given preference is a move forward. We choose whom we give money too and whom we don’t in any other industry, so why not taxis!

We all know Japan as the land of wonderful (environmentally unfriendly) product packaging, outstanding customer service and absolute politeness – just a generally good feeling when we are standing on the customers’ side of the counter. I am sure it is one of the elements that keeps many people here. Comparing with the average rude clerk back home in my country, I am addicted to being treated with kindness and a nice smile when I am paying someone money. I don’t care if they mean it from their heart or not – I deserve it. That said, I don’t seem to get the same endorphin rush when riding in Japanese taxis, even at shiharai time, when it is time to hand over the cash (despite the recent hike in taxi fares that has swept over us).

Japanese TaxiHowever, just the other day (in Yamagata of all places) I came across the model taxi driver. I just spent the whole ride wishing there was some way I could convert the rest of the arrogant punch-perm sunglass-wearing taxi driver population of Tokyo into this guy. Or at least find out a way to reward him so that he would get more of my money than the punchies.

It was snowing heavily, and I had 2 large cases, and a cardboard box (long story). I flagged a taxi that was driving in the other direction (expecting to be ignored of course) and to my delight, he quickly U-turned and stopped as close as possible. He quite literally flung himself out of the taxi, and helped me settle my bags in the boot, and then opened the door for me (with his real hands, not with the impersonal auto-door standard in Japanese taxis). Now dont get me wrong, I am not from a wonderland where I expect taxi drivers to be chauffeurs, but this was only the beginning of my pleasant surprise.

I got in the car, and watch the guy slipping and sliding on the icy road around to his door as fast as he could. I told him my destination, but his reply was not the standard silent grunt (which Tokyo drivers would so often use when a simple “wakarimashita” is too much trouble for them), but a question. He asked, “there are two pretty fast ways to get where you want, do you have any preference of route?”. Wow! I have hardly ever been asked this question in Tokyo, and never in Osaka. In the big cities, the taxi would leap into action without any dialogue, and I would be 100% at the whim of the driver.

This driver was making an effort to determine the process of our transaction – albeit a simple taxi ride – together. Even though I was exhausted from a long day, and extremely annoyed at the blizzarding snow, this gesture of the driver asking me if I have a preferred route is, in effect, avoiding me having the feeling that I am being taken for a ride. Choice. Customer service is all about choice, and doing what is not only most reasonable, but what is most comfortable for the customer.

After telling the driver my preferred route (yes, I did have one), we set off. The journey to my destination was then filled with some pleasant conversation, and after I received a phone call, some even more pleasant silence. It was a 30 minute ride. There were no steering wheel grip changes (causing jerks), no intermittent and unnecessary taps on the brakes (this really gets to me), and I even was able to doze off to a half sleep by the time I arrived. He was actually a professional driver. In Tokyo, my taxi rides often entail thoughts that I am a better driver than the person behind the wheel. I don’t even have a car, but I can’t help but thinking that the drivers are playing with my head with their constant sudden brake movements, causing mini-whiplash jerks in my neck and back. If anyone deserves the three stars of a Master Taxi Driver atop their vehicle, it was my Yamagata taxi driver hands down.

I hope this new system of giving preference at taxi stands to real professional taxi drivers expands. It should help to raise the bar, and rid the city of the types of drivers that anger me. Specifically, they are:

  • Drivers who despite having a passenger in their car, drive with one hand, often at the bottom of the steering wheel and steer with small jerky thumb movements.
  • Drivers who open the door of the taxi as if to say, “hurry up and pay, and get the hell out of my taxi. Gaijin”.
  • Drivers who’s taxi that smells like a kitsuenshitsu (smoking room).
  • Drivers who think they are driving alone, and toggle with the accelerator and brakes like they are in a dodgem car.
  • Drivers who constantly complain about the deregulation of the industry (which happened back in 2002!) and how it is hurting them in the current times of fukeiki (不景気, recession).
  • Drivers with no manners. Drivers who do not understand their customer’s needs.
  • Divers who are selfish, and just plain punch-perm arseholes. I’m sure you’ve met one or two. If not, you will.

When you are next in Shimbashi looking for a taxi, for sure try out one of the certified master taxi drivers. The special rank where only those taxis can wait will start on the 6th March this year. Even if you are not around Shimbashi, look out for a three star
優良タクシードライバー taxi. Take it over the ones without it.

We realise feelings about taxi drivers differ from person to person, and so we’d love to hear your thoughts on taxi drivers, especially if you are first of the rank to try out the new Shimbashi system! How can we reward good drivers and avoid bad ones?

16 thoughts on “Tokyo Taxi Drivers get “Ranked””

  1. Wow. Blue woke up on the wrong side of the taxi stand today! bada boom.

    My personal gripe is of those jerky drivers who go hell for leather from red light to red light, whipping you back in your seat then slamming the brakes on. A colleague of mine, actually me too, always feels nautious at the end of a journey we regularly share.

    Stick to those big white kojin cabs. Best by far.

  2. I actually love Japanese cabs… most of the time. Occasionally you get that driver that has earned the prestigious brown star surrounded by flanked by pock-marked butt-cheeks, signifying his (her?) true identity as an utter a–hole. Thankfully, I am too drunk to care most times I use a cab.

  3. I’ve never been to Japan, but it sounds like the taxi drivers there are a source of a lot of customer dissatisfaction. I plan to visit the country this May, so perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to take one of these master taxis. I love that title.

    I have, however, taken many a taxi in Korea, and I can say that, while they are by no means a master taxi, they are far from being anything like the things you listed at the end of the post. They are typically polite and never rush (except in arriving at your destination, lol), even though I was a foreigner. And if you want to converse, you’re totally welcome to bring up a topic if they don’t. I once had a driver lecturing me on global politics! I don’t understand enough Korean to catch more than a few words of that kind of stuff!

  4. At the end of a long day if it’s a choice between queing up to try and board a Master cab that there are only 10% of in Tokyo or just getting in any cab so I can make it to my destination regardless of the quality of the drive I think I would choose to just jump in any cab.
    Is there going to be any other differences? Are Master cabs and punch-perm cabs priced differently?

    I’ve had my share of good and bad taxi rides in Japan and all over the world. Though to be fair to the drivers I’ve probably been a drunken prick to drivers on more than one occasion myself.

  5. MK taxis in Kansai are by far the best in terms of service, although you’ll rarely be able to flag one down, basically always have to call and reserve one. They are cheaper, the drivers are younger and more polite and all cars are non-smoking. They have a great shuttle service to the airport as well.

    So if you know in advance that you’ll need a cab, try MK and book the time & place. You won’t be dissatisfied.

  6. In Shanghai they have a small fleet of BMW taxis. They are quite popular since they cost the same as the other taxis. Too bad there aren’t any more.

    I think Japan’s yufuku-so could support a luxury taxi company. Any entrepreneurs out there?

  7. I’d absolutely vouch for MK Taxi. They’re not just in Kansai; they’re in Kanto too ( Sofa is right; you can’t flag them down because they are geared towards reservations only. However I can tell you the politeness and professionalism is have experienced with them has been without parallel. I use taxis a lot to get me from home to Shibuya or Shinagawa to catch the NEX in the wee hours. Since switching to MK, I have never looked back. Two times out of 3, they provided a huge Toyota Estima Hybrid – the one other time was a Toyota Crown, but still not your bog standard model used by all the other firms. The driver always got out, helped me with my bags (although I travel light) and asked me which route I preferred. They didn’t talk unless being talked to, or unless they had something to ask me related to the journey. This is how it always should be. And on top of that, they still apply the old 660 yen base charge and their late-night surcharge (深夜割増) is still at the old rate of 10%.

  8. The first solution that came to mind was money. However, rewarding good cabbies with money just seemed like cheating and un-japanese. But if the ultimate goal is to increase the number of 3 star cab drivers, perhaps the government could give tax breaks or some sort of discount to 3 star drivers. Otherwise, non-star drivers would simply have no incentive to provide better service. Sadly, money still makes the world go round.

  9. Hi,

    Your topic is related to my project.
    Would it be possible tp provide me the information about Tokyo taxi regulation, or let me know how could I find that information?

    Thank you


  10. Hallo all,

    It’s OOT but I’m just wondering how many passanger can be load in taxi in japan?
    Because some country prohibit us to sit in the front row beside the driver, thus make only 3 adults could be get into the vehicle.

    I’m planning to get a holiday in Japan, this is my 3rd visit in the last 3 years, but in my last 2 i never use a cab.

    Thanks in advance

    all the best,

  11. junarto,
    officially you can fit 4 people in a japanese taxi (3 in the back and 1 in the front). but if you don’t speak english and you have a lot of self-confidence there is no reason why you can’t fit in 5 (one more in the front, or depending on your level of friendship, one more in the back.
    i wouldn’t use a taxi to go too far though – they’re not that cheap unless you do have 4-5 people inside!

  12. Thanks hills-zoku for the quick reply, yes i understand it’s quiet expensive to travel using taxi, I usually prefer the subway or bus (kyoto) but in Osaka there are some destination that would be easier (and faster)to be reach if we use taxi. We travel along 7 peoples, that’s why i’m wondering how many people could fit into one taxi, because if only 3 people, means we should hire 3 cabs, what a waste.
    Since it could fit 4 people, this information solve my problem.

    Thanks again and all the best!!!

  13. MK Taxi is definitely the way to go! I’ve had the pleasure several times in Kyoto.

    The most amusing taxi ride I’ve ever had was in Osaka. I don’t think the kansai-ben speaking oyaji driver really expected me (pale, generic-looking Chicagoan of Eastern European/Irish descent) to understand what he was saying, much less to respond in kind.

  14. I was fortunate enough to be in Tokyo in February, and in the main stuck to the Metro, which was relatively cheap (compared to London) and very efficient. As a treat to ourselves, my wife and I decided to try out a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, it was raining, and instead of hurrying along to Tokyo Station and taking the metro, we took a cab. We were staying at the Four Seasons, so perhaps he thought we were idiots with money to burn. By my reckoning he went four or five miles out of his way, and then complained bitterly about not being able to find the restaurant. In the end we got out and walked (I have a very good sense of direction) and found it for ourselves. Next time I’ll stick to trains.

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