Comfort Food

Catch a Crown Comfort while you still can.

Tokyo Taxi. Image (c) The Author

In what now seem like very distant times, procuring the services of a taxi in New York would inevitably see one on the vinyl-clad rear seat of either a big yellow Checker, later a Chevrolet Caprice Classic or Ford Crown Victoria, whereas in swinging London an Austin FX4 “black cab” or its similar looking successors.

Nowadays virtually all these once ubiquitous vehicles have been succeeded by more modern, cleaner, more efficient but at the same time also much less characterful replacements. The minor sense of occasion one experienced as a tourist has gone as well since Toyota Prii and such now ply their trade in almost any city you can think of.

The Japanese equivalent of these American and British cabs is the Toyota Crown Comfort (born relatively recently, in 1995), the backbone of the big-city taxi trade in Japan, for the time being at least.

Image: (c) The Author

When the tenth generation of Toyotas Crown was introduced in 1995, an interesting derivative intended specifically for use as a taxi was added bearing the internal model code XS10: its name was Crown Comfort. While the regular Crown would continue to evolve; it is currently in its fifteenth generation; the Crown Comfort remained virtually the same over its entire lifespan which ended in 2017.

The Crown Comfort provided more room for passengers compared to the regular Crown yet at the same time was shorter than a Camry and only as wide as a Corolla; the extra space inside created by raising the roofline substantially, hardly adding any elegance to its appearance but this was deemed irrelevant by its creators.

Mechanically, things were kept simple and proven: a live rear axle and rear wheel drive. Engine choice was between a Diesel or LPG pushrod valve four-cylinder engine with a displacement of two litres, either of which provided the give or take 3000-pound heavy Crown Comfort with adequate performance for its intended role.

Toyota’s Higashi Fuji plant in Shizuoka prefecture produced around six thousand Crown Comforts yearly before switching to production of its successor, the JPN Taxi, in 2017. Production of the JPN Taxi has since been transferred to the Miyagi plant in Ohira, Miyagi prefecture.

Image: The author

The JPN Taxi which is intended to gradually replace the trusty Crown Comfort is a hybrid with an LPG fuelled engine. Contrary to the Crown Comforts which can be seen on the streets painted in various and sometimes lurid hues, the JPN Taxi is only available in a very dark blue named Koiai which is a traditional Japanese shade said to evoke Japanese dignity and hospitality.

Featuring a low, flat floor, high ceiling, large windows, an electrically powered sliding door and excellent visibility for the driver, the JPN Taxi is undoubtedly even better suited to the demands of taxi life and if you squint a bit (okay, a lot), it even looks a little like London’s classic FX4 from some angles so it may work itself into the hearts and minds of the public over time.

Knowing the longevity of Toyotas and the meticulous care the Japanese usually take of their vehicles, the Crown Comfort should remain a familiar staple of street life in Japanese cities for years to come however, together with a much smaller cohort of its similar looking competitor, the Nissan Crew.

Image: The author

As far as the Tokyo taxi scene is concerned, the first taxicab company was established in 1912 and had a fleet of six Ford Model Ts fitted with German-made taximeters. In those days Tokyo had just 300 passenger vehicles registered on its streets; most taxi customers were foreign guests staying at posh hotels or high-end geishas with their escorts. The amount of taxis grew quickly as demand rose: 94 in 1915, 1205 in 1921 and 3473 in 1926. Today there are close to 50,000 taxis in Tokyo.

Getting a cab in Tokyo works mostly the same as it does elsewhere in the world. You approach the first one at a taxi stand or hail one from the sidewalk; they are usually very attentive and one will come to a swift stop alongside you while the rear door is opened and closed automatically for you by the driver.

Somewhat confusingly, the display in kanji at the bottom of the windshield of every taxi lights up green (“賃走中”) when the taxi is occupied or not in service, and in red (“空車”) when it is available. Not all drivers have good English speaking skills but the cars are all fitted with GPS which means that even just a landline telephone number is enough to find your destination.

Image: Karen Chan, Guidable co and The author

Some taxi drivers have passed a special English certification exam- they can be identified by English Certified Driver stickers in and on their car. The fare is 420 yen for the first 1052 metres, followed by an extra 80 yen for every 233 metres; between 10PM and 5AM there is a 20% surcharge in effect, and expressway tolls are not included in the fare. As most anywhere else in Japan tipping is not necessary.

The minimum charge for a subway ride being 170 yen per person, depending on the size of your group and the distance to your destination it is possible that a taxi is the most cost-effective solution but remember that underground there is no risk of traffic jams; the elapsed time of the tax ride also is a component of the fare.

The drivers are almost without exception impeccably dressed in uniforms, often wearing white gloves, and their taxis are spotless inside and out. All taxi company drivers have to take a mandatory Breathalyser test at the beginning and end of each shift, which incidentally is 19 hours long, of which three hours are rest time. Most drivers do about twelve such shifts over the course of one month.

The author

Before they venture onto the streets, drivers inspect their vehicle for any damage, check radiator, oil and windscreen washer levels and file the signed report, upon which they receive a special name tag (the nafuda) with photo that has to be inserted into a special slot in the dashboard of the taxi. The nafuda records a log of the whereabouts of the taxi during its shift, when it had passengers and when the driver has taken a break. Onboard cameras that record up to 72 hours of video with sound have been standard equipment since 2009.

The Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport issues so called master taxi driver certificates for cabbies without any traffic violations and an unblemished record in dealing with customers. Only about one in ten of Tokyo’s taxi drivers qualifies for this award; they can be recognised by a three-star sign on the roof of their cars.

Image: The author

Although Japan is in some respects a closed society to foreigners, in principle anyone can become a taxi driver in Japan and companies are always hiring. Being proficient in Japanese is a given of course, as are a clean driving record and successful completion of a 40-question exam. Fulfil these requirements and you are ready to go; your author has limited himself to the occasional backseat ride in downtown Tokyo in a Crown Comfort, while for domestic cab driver fantasies the little Tomy diecast model purchased in the Mitsukoshi department store, complete with opening rear door will do nicely.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

7 thoughts on “Comfort Food”

  1. Thanks for this insight in the Japanese taxi business and the Toyota Crown Comfort. Japan is one of the countries I still haven’t been to, but really want to. Not sure if I’ll make it in time before the Crown Comforts are all gone.

  2. Thanks for this – these cars are really interesting as examples of long-lived vehicles that challenge the idea that 6 year model cycles are somehow normal. Now we have the idea of small model range firms versus generalists (not a new idea, more a reminder) and the idea of long-life models versus short-life models. Alot of specialists got their fingers burned moving from small to large ranges and trying to keep up with the model cycles of commodity cars.
    The Crown is nicely proportioned and probably incredibly robust and easy to service. They ought to be as famous as London´s black-painted taxis.

  3. Good morning Bruno. Thanks for bringing us the story of the Crown Comfort, a car I regard as a minor masterpiece of quiet, disciplined design:

    I think it manages the constraints under which it was designed extraordinarily well and, even in base specification as shown, looks rather handsome in its utilitarian honesty. I much prefer proper saloons as taxis than the current ‘van with windows’ norm, which are spacious but uncomfortable.

    Incidentally, I think we need to start a campaign for the return of ‘deluxe’ as a trim level, with accompanying boot lid badge!

    1. I don’t know if it’s just the design of the wheels, or the colour, or both, but I see something of the Triumph Acclaim in the lines of that beige example.

      My own memory of Tokyo taxis is almost exclusively that of the twee little antimacassars on the headrests and the plush velour upholstery (this was 15 years ago and I may be imagining the upholstery…).

  4. Last time i was in Tokyo, i had the chance to compare the venerable crown comfort taxis, and the modern crown operated by Uber.
    I much preferred the old Comfort, as it was both more spacious and more comfortable then the modern variant.
    In the newer crown, my knees hit the back of the front seat, and the headroom was a bit low.

    I also really like the clean and simple styling of the crown comfort, and the subdued sound of the inline six variants made the trek through the neon lit night even more pleasant.

    The Cedric is ok too i guess, but doesn’t look as good as the Toyota.

    The JPN taxi just looks wrong to me, and i hope they restyle one day to give it a more dignified front end.

  5. I like the look of the JPN Taxi – the team developing it called themselves ‘Team Rickshaw’, apparently. The development process was typically thorough, with huge surveys of users and numerous observations of how taxis are used. They called the process ‘genchi genbutsu’, which translates as “getting it from the horse’s mouth”.

    It struck me that the JPN Taxi’s wheels looked relatively small, and they are – 15 to 16 inches. And I recognize its rear lights, but I’m not sure where from.

    Below is a short documentary about Japanese taxis, including drivers’ experiences. One customer invited the driver to join him in a bath, which I think is taking hospitality a bit far. Japan does look fascinating – I’m sure it’s a great place to visit.

  6. Thank you all for your kind words;

    Freerk and Charles: if when this whole c-thing is past us you get the opportunity, you should really go
    and visit Japan. A fascinating, inspiring and sometimes confusing (in a good way) destination and not as
    expensive as you might think.

    Richard Herriott: Indeed a pity that there really are no long-model cycle cars left in production these days;
    some of the best loved classics share the trait of a long production life.

    Daniel: I agree with you on the Crown Comfort being charming in its “it does what it says on the tin” honesty.
    Oh- and yes, bring back “DeLuxe”!

    Jeff Lemons: While I have to mentally squint somewhat, I see what you mean with the Triumph Acclaim- but only faintly.
    Your memories of the interiors of a Tokyo taxi are correct though; one of the things that make these taxis so fascinating
    to examine.

    Bjarnetv: I have never driven or been driven in a new Crown, so I’ll take your word for it. The JPN Taxi might indeed
    benefit from a more characterful front end; I think round headlights would go a long way in adding a bit of charm to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: