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In Japan, Uber dons white gloves to battle an elegant rival

Tim Hornyak | July 2, 2015
Get in a taxi in Tokyo, and you'll get a ride with a little old-world charm.

Get in a taxi in Tokyo, and you'll get a ride with a little old-world charm.

The liveried cabs are shiny, spotless and odor-free. The seats are covered in white lace. The drivers wear suits, sometimes sporting white gloves and even bow ties.

They concentrate on driving instead of chatting on mobile phones. While some newbie drivers don't know Tokyo like the back of their hand, GPS ensures they won't get lost, and they'll get you to your destination as quickly as possible. And while they can be expensive compared to taxis in major U.S. cities, they don't take tips.

But despite there being about 50,000 cabs on the roads of the capital, more than three times the number in New York's Manhattan, a cab can sometimes be very difficult to get, especially at times of peak demand. That creates an opportunity for ride-hailing apps in Tokyo and other Japanese cities.

Yet as Uber tries to extend its dominance to another new market, it's finding the local competition hard to beat.

One reason Uber flourished so quickly in the U.S. is that, at least in some cities, taxi services were abysmal. Many fleets still have cars that are shabby and run down, and drivers are as likely to be talking on a cell phone as paying attention to passengers. Combined with the convenience of hailing a cab instantly with an app, Uber was a breath of fresh air.

Japan is a different story, and in some ways reflects the challenges Uber faces as it tries to expand in other new countries. Along with well documented regulatory problems, it's competing against local services that are often highly regarded, if not quite as efficient.

"Taxi drivers in London are famous for passing tests, but I can say that Japanese taxi drivers take real pride in their work," said a former taxi driver in Tokyo who now sits behind the wheel of an Uber sedan. "On the level of service, Japanese taxis are one of the best in the world."

Longtime cab users in Japan would seem to agree. Kamal Vijayvargiya, a businessman who has been dividing his time between Japan and India since the 1980s, said he trusts taxis here implicitly and has never been taken for a ride, so to speak, or refused when requesting a destination.

"If you lose something in a taxi in Japan, there's a 99 percent chance it will come back -- even if you're drunk," Vijayvargiya said.

As in other countries, like India and China, Uber is working to adapt its service to compete in the local market. It began full-scale operations in Tokyo last year, and its luxury Uber Black service features drivers with white gloves and Toyota Crown Royal hybrids and other luxury cars. It's partnered here with local car hire companies, in a departure from its model back home.

 

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