Monday, May 11, 2009

Unexpected Differences: Japanese Taxis

Ever since I did my post about doors, I've been looking for another simple object to use as an example of unexpected differences across societies. Then the other day I got thinking about the day I arrived in Tokyo as a Monbusho exchange student, and the craziest taxi ride of my life - and I had it.


Say you're writing a story, and your character has to get from here to there, so you need a way to move him or her. One way is to stick this person in a public paid conveyance of some sort. Give it a non-Earth appearance, an alien driver, pay in the local currency, and you might think you're done.

But the fun has just begun. There's a possibility for difference at every step, even in something so seemingly ordinary.

Let's start with the way you find a taxi. In Japan it's not all that different from large cities in America, where many taxis are on the road. The only thing you have to remember as you approach the curb is that the cars are driving on the left-hand side of the road, not the right, and that will influence which direction the taxi will be able to take you. So you stand at the side of the road, and raise your hand. (Of course, there's also the calling-ahead option, which was what we had when we arrived in Tokyo; the government had sponsored our scholarship for us, so they called us the taxis.) For story purposes, I could imagine possible alien variations on the curbside stance - do you hold up two fingers or five? Does it matter, or should you really be waving your tail instead?

Anyway. For now, assume you're on a street with a sidewalk, standing at the curb. Do you yell "Taxi" at this point? The Japanese word for "taxi" is "takushii" which sounds almost the same, but yelling in the middle of the street is generally frowned upon, and let's face it, the taxi driver probably won't hear you.

Next comes the first major sticking point of taxis in Japan - or, it was, when I lived there. If you're a foreigner, the taxi may choose to ignore you completely. In your story world, think about what kinds of qualities might be used to justify excluding your character from service. Pure foreignness? Possibly. Or maybe a particular feature that the hosts find alarming. Or maybe when this transportation is sponsored by individuals with diplomatic clout, there's no overt objection, which could set your character up for an unfortunate surprise later (when he tries to procure his own ride).

Let's say the taxi stops for you. Great. In the US, you reach out and open the back door on the passenger side. If you do this in Japan, you might end up with skinned knuckles or possibly a major bruise. Japanese taxis are equipped with a special mechanism that allows the driver to open and close the door, and this is part of their job. They don't want you moving the door. This for me is interesting because it's a difference in the construction of the vehicle, but also a difference in the way that you are supposed to interact with the vehicle - which functions of the interaction are your job, and which belong to others.

Once you're in, you discover that in most Japanese taxis, the headrests and seats are covered with white doily material. It's a weird but charming touch. Also, the drivers generally wear white gloves. These aren't just signs of charm, though - they're also evidence of Japanese concepts of hygiene.

Next, you ask for your destination. If you're working in a fantasy or science fiction setting, do think through how your people organize their cities. Japanese streets are generally not named unless they are quite large, and blocks are numbered, and houses numbered based on their position on the block - so houses across the street from one another aren't consecutively numbered, but in fact dictated by the separate numbering sequences of the blocks they are on. In the city of Kyoto, streets generally run North-South or East-West, so it's easy to navigate, but the addresses almost sound like walking directions. In Tokyo, things are wacky and a single missed turn can get you lost in seconds, but their addresses are pretty reliably tuned to the block numbering system.

Once you're moving, consider whether you want to worry about road rules or street signs. Road manners are a question as well. In Japan we'd sometimes see people stop their cars in the middle of the road and leave them running while they ran into 7-11 to buy an ice cream or a drink (because there is no parking to be had anywhere). Our general response to this was "whaaaaa?" But it happened often, and often when we were in cars our hosts or taxi drivers had to navigate around stopped vehicles.

I couldn't actually tell you whether it's standard for Japanese people to talk to their taxi drivers. Taxi drivers generally seemed to like talking to me, but that could have been because I was something of an oddity there: a light-haired foreign girl who spoke Japanese fluently. That would be another place where manners might differ in a fantasy or science fictional environment.

When you get where you're going, you have to pay. Money is a great source of potential strife. Taxis in Japan are expensive - usually 1000 yen or so base, just for getting in, and it meters up from there. On my crazy ride from Narita Airport to Setagaya-ku, the meter kept going up so far that the guy I was riding with and I were incredulous, praying that we wouldn't be asked to pay when we finally arrived. Just a tip? Never try to take a taxi from the Narita Airport to anywhere in central Tokyo. It will cost about $300. We were lucky, because it turned out that the price didn't have to come out of our arrival stipends. A standard taxi ride costs more like 1850 yen, and don't ever try to pay with a 10,000 yen bill. The one time I found I didn't have enough smaller change, the guy wouldn't even take what small change I had - he yelled at me to get out, slammed the door and drove off. A free taxi ride, I guess, but I felt awful. And of course, in Japan, you don't tip, but in America, a taxi driver who hasn't been tipped may actually leave his vehicle and pursue you on foot.

Now, I'm not trying to say that when you get your character from one place to another, you have to include every one of these details. No way. Maybe the trip itself is unremarkable in the context of your story; in that case you should put as few words on it as possible. But paying close attention to the physical and social details of transportation can give you ideas for unusual elements to change, or especially pertinent details to include. And even one or two of those can be enough to make your reader think, "Wow, this place really isn't like Earth. It's a whole new world."

And that's what we're trying to do here.


  1. My one and only taxi ride in Tokyo was many, many years ago. I do remember that the taxi driver was friendly and talkative, albeit his English was minimal. Of course, our Japanese was nonexistent, so he had a definite advantage.

    BTW Japan is not the only place where they drive on "the wrong side" of the road. Haven't you ever been to Great Britain?

    These are great anecdotes, thanks for sharing them, and do provide food for thought.

  2. Indeed, I have been to England. They also drive on the left in Australia and some other Asian countries. It's disconcerting at first to have to check the road Right-Left-Right instead of Left-Right-Left as you prepare to cross.

  3. When I was in Yokohama for Nippon 2007, I spent a lot of time in taxis. Thank Heaven I had a map to my hostel from its Website! Even then, the drivers had a hard time finding the place.

    You mentioned how many fingers to raise. Apparently after a night of carousing with business comrades, the savvy Nihonjin will raise two or three fingers to signal taxi drivers as to just how many times the amount of his fare he's willing to pay. The higher the number, the likelier he is to get a taxi first.