As Tourism Abounds in Japan, So Do Unlicensed Taxis

As Tourism Abounds in Japan, So Do Unlicensed Taxis

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Unlicensed taxis in Japan
Picture: Various / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
With tourism booming in Japan, people are finding it tough to get around - and unlicensed taxi services are filling the gap.

With tourism booming again in Japan, many people are looking to grab a piece of the pie – even if that means cutting corners. One business that’s booming in particular? Unlicensed taxis. While authorities are vowing to crack down on the phenomenon, experts admit that’s easier said than done.

Following the money

Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto
Picture: adigosts / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

After several hard years where practically none of us could travel anywhere, tourism to Japan has come roaring back. Latest numbers show tourism to Japan exceeding 2019 levels. And, to the delight of local merchants, they’re spending more than ever.

But where there’s money, there will always be people looking to take advantage of people’s trust. There are reports that some stores are jacking up prices to bilk out-of-towners. Local news media has also reported on smaller-scale scams at Buddhist temples.

Meanwhile, some are using the ruse of “tourism” to skirt customs taxes. The Japanese government announced recently that it’ll change how it operates its duty-free program to crack down on people abusing it to resell goods domestically.

I went to the temple in a taxi with no license

Woman driving a taxi. Don't worry, she's licensed. We think...
Picture: Fast&Slow / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Another illicit business that’s booming: unlicensed taxis.

Taxis are strictly licensed in Japan, to the point that you can only use rideshare programs like Uber to call a licensed driver. Besides showing their license number prominently inside of the cars, taxis generally have special plates – a green plate with white lettering.

Advertisements

By contrast, most regular vehicles in Japan have a white license plate with green lettering. Thus the term 白タク (shirotaku; “white taxi”) has become a handy signifier for people operating regular household vehicles as a taxi service.

The shirotaku business is booming, it seems – and authorities are finding it hard to crack down.

In the past, according to Tokyo Shimbun, illicit taxi drivers would wait at an airport or other popular destination spots and try and convince customers to give them a chance. These days, networks of drivers servicing primarily Chinese tourists sell their services instead on Chinese apps like Taobao and WeChat. That makes it nearly impossible to catch the lawbreakers red-handed.

Meanwhile, Merkmal reports that more Western tourists are using illicit taxis. Some get their business the old-fashioned way – by hailing people down at the airport – while others leverage the Web, social media, and online payment services hosted overseas to remain under the radar. In the past, Booking.com has been a popular way for drivers to find customers without local authorities catching on.

Educating visitors

The growth of unlicensed taxis poses obvious risks to passengers. If someone’s unlicensed, you can’t verify that they’re trustworthy or that they don’t have other ulterior motives. If there’s an accident, you may not be able to collect damages.

Unlicensed drivers also pose a risk to Japan’s reputation as a tourist destination. There’s a fear that, if malicious incidents involving unlicensed drivers increase, visitors could come to see Japan itself as “dangerous”.

Given how difficult it is to crack down on these services, authorities are trying to raise awareness among tourists. In one recent campaign, Narita Airport had staff handing out tissue packets with text that warned of the dangers involved in using unlicensed taxi services.

Will ridesharing help?

Three women in a car. Road trip!
Picture: Komaer / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

One reason many visitors resort to these illicit services is because the number of legal options is small. Ridesharing apps like Uber can only dispatch licensed taxi drivers; regular citizens aren’t allowed to use their own vehicles to drive customers around.

However, that may soon change. On December 20th, at a meeting devoted to digitization efforts, the Digital Reform Committee announced that, starting April 2024, it would allow ridesharing in a limited format. Ridesharing services would be allowed in select areas and at select times when taxi service is insufficient to meet demand.

Taxi service dwindled in Japan during the pandemic and still hasn’t recovered. The industry – like many other industries in Japan – is still understaffed relative to demand. Various municipalities have subsidized the industry to keep it afloat.

Will this be enough to stop the rise in illegal taxi services? Time will tell. In the meantime, be cautious while making your way around a Japanese city or town. Make sure to use only services that are licensed and clearly display their licensing via their plates and displays in the vehicle’s interior.

The age-old rule applies here: if someone’s offering you a deal that seems too good to be true…it probably is.

Getting a reputable taxi in Japan

Need a reputable taxi service from the airport? Unseen Japan recommends Inbound Platform’s luxury Airport Taxi service for a safe ride in style. Book your ride today and get white-glove service from baggage claim to your hotel door. (Affiliate link; Unseen Japan makes a small commission at no extra charge to you if you make a booking.)

Sources

訪日客向け白タク 成田でも問題に 知人の送迎に紛れ… 国外電子決済で摘発難しく 国交省など対策強化. Tokyo Shimbun

成田空港の「白タク」やりたい放題 屈辱的だが、一網打尽にできない複雑事情. Merkmal

ライドシェア4月解禁を正式発表、地域・時間を限定…都市部でも早朝や深夜に利用可能の見込み. Yomiuri Shimbun

Want more UJ? Get our FREE newsletter 

Need a preview? See our archives

Jay Allen

Jay manages the technical writing practice for ercule, an SEO, content strategy and analytics firm. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT).

Japan in Translation

Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly digest of our best work across platforms (Web, Twitter, YouTube). Your support helps us spread the word about the Japan you don’t learn about in anime.

Want a preview? Read our archives

You’ll get one to two emails from us weekly. For more details, see our privacy policy