In Tokyo, so many taxis, so few to pay the fares

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.

Tokyo had a record 95,335 taxis on the street in 1997, the last year for which the Tokyo Taxi Association has figures. The Tokyo Taxi Center, which keeps separate statistics, says 7,000 new drivers hit the streets in 1997, and another 9,000 applied for taxi licenses in 1998.

Mr. Itabashi was one of them. A former truck driver, he quit two months ago to drive a taxi because he thought it would provide more job security. "I didn't see much of a future in trucking," he laughs ruefully. "Now things are really tough."

Monthly salaries dropped from about $2,600 in 1996 to $2,100 in 1997 and "this year, it should be far worse," says a spokesman for the Tokyo Taxi Association.

Taxi companies are compounding drivers' problems by putting more cabs on the street in an effort to boost profits.

Amid all this uncertainty, deregulation has eased restrictions for new firms entering the market and allowed them to charge less. Nine new companies moved into Tokyo in 1998 and another 10 have already set up shop in 1999, according to the Tokyo Taxi Association. "On top of the recession, it's like a double punch in the face," says Kizu. "The government seems to believe weak companies should go under and only the strong should survive."

His colleagues are so irritated that the white gloves are off. Four thousand drivers descended on the Ministry of Transport Monday to protest deregulation.

Not everyone is upset though. "We've always said the market had to be deregulated," says Hiroshi Yuki, managing director of MK Taxi, a Kyoto firm that expanded to Tokyo. "Where there is no competition, there is no good service or development."

MK Taxi has already shaken up the competition. "They are fabulous," says housewife Atsuko Mori. "They don't charge extra when you phone to reserve a cab, and when they arrive, the driver stands by the car to wait for you."

Mr. Yuki says the taxi industry angst is an overreaction. And business at MK Taxi is booming. "People say deregulation will cause chaos. What do they mean? People just want better services at cheaper prices. What's chaotic about that?"

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