Japan on the watch for unlicensed taxis around Narita airport amid foreign tourism spike

japan on the watch for unlicensed taxis around narita airport amid foreign tourism spike

A sign calling for passengers to be on their guard against unlicensed taxis is seen at Narita International Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, on Nov. 6, 2023. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

NARITA, Chiba — Japanese authorities have become increasingly concerned with unlicensed taxis giving paid lifts to customers in their private vehicles as more people come and go from Narita International Airport east of Tokyo.

The transport ministry’s Kanto District Transport Bureau and Narita International Airport Police Station are boosting their vigilance against the rising number of illegal taxis operating around the airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture. The ministry’s Chiba Transport Branch Office will soon launch a liaison council with police, taxi associations and Narita International Airport Corp. to exchange information in a bid to better understand the situation.

In front of one of the airport’s terminals, a minivan with the white license plate of a private vehicle dropped off four Taiwanese tourists before it drove off on Nov. 6. When this reporter asked the travelers if they had taken a taxi, they said yes. One of them told me that they had paid a fare of 14,000 yen (approx. $94) with a credit card in advance after booking the ride from their Tokyo hotel online.

Another customer, a man arriving from Thailand, told the Mainichi Shimbun, “I booked a taxi and paid the fare in advance,” before he got into a minivan with a white license plate. When this reporter asked the driver if they were operating without permission, they said of the customer, “He’s a family friend.” Similar questions posed to several other drivers here in English and Chinese all returned responses in the vein of, “The customer is an acquaintance” — leaving their status ambiguous.

In Japan, unlicensed taxis taking fares are banned under the Road Transportation Act. Offenders face up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 3 million yen (approx. $20,100), or both. In July 2018, a then 63-year-old man was arrested on suspicion of violating the Road Transportation Act for giving a lift to Chinese tourists without permission using a ride-hailing app. In January this year, a then 63-year-old Taiwanese man was arrested on suspicion of contravening the same law for taking 29,800 yen (approx. $200) to give a passenger a ride to Tokyo.

Once reported by police, suspects’ vehicles are subject to administrative penalties including a 60-day suspension. The Kanto District Transport Bureau — whose jurisdiction straddles Tokyo and seven other prefectures — issued these penalties in 13 cases in fiscal 2018, 17 in FY 2019, four in FY 2020 and nine in FY 2021. The figure for FY 2022 was zero due to the coronavirus pandemic, but as Narita airport passenger numbers have increased recently, authorities fear that so will the number of unlicensed taxis.

It is, however, reportedly difficult to detect unlicensed taxis because just giving a lift to passengers does not constitute an act of transportation. It is only after a monetary transaction has been confirmed after a passenger gets out at their destination and it has been proven that they were not friends or relatives, a case can be formed.

Mitsuteru Yanase, head of the Chiba Transport Branch Office, warned that on top of safety fears there could be cases where customers taking unlicensed taxis are not compensated in the event they are injured in traffic accidents.

“Some travelers are unaware that unlicensed taxis are banned in Japan. To encourage them to use buses and taxis with green license plates, which are safe, secure and well-managed, it is necessary to take solid measures to prevent the use of unlicensed taxis,” he commented.

(Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)

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