Catch a Crown Comfort while you still can.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.