Unlicensed Taxi Services Rampant Around Narita Airport As Foreign Visitors Return to Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A sign warning against unlicensed taxi services is seen at Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture.

NARITA, Chiba — Numerous unlicensed taxis at and around Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture are targeting international visitors, whose numbers have been quickly rebounding since the government lifted COVID-related entry restrictions into Japan.

The road transportation law prohibits drivers of private cars without a taxi license from carrying others as a paid service. Doing so is called shirotaku in Japanese, or “driving with white license plates.”

Many shirotaku drivers are believed to be Chinese-speaking people, and reservations and payments are said to often be made online. It is reportedly difficult for the police to crack down on such drivers if they claim to just be giving friends a ride.

On a weekday last month, two Chinese-speaking men got out of the back of a car with a white license plate at a passenger terminal. A male driver unloaded suitcases from the trunk and handed them to the men.

The driver told The Yomiuri Shimbun that he was from Hong Kong and that the two other men were his friends. He claimed to have taken them to sightseeing spots, including Tokyo’s Ginza district and Mt. Fuji.

“I don’t have a taxi license, but I’ve also taken foreign students to and from the airport. Money? I haven’t received any money,” the man said. He showed no sense of guilt.

Watching the area around the terminal, I saw what appeared to be other shirotaku drivers.

On another day, a Chinese-speaking man greeted a Black woman with a backpack in the arrival lobby. They showed each other their smartphone screens and gave a thumbs-up. The man then led the woman to a white van with a white license plate and got into the driver’s seat.

The prevalence of unlicensed taxi services has been supported by taxi dispatch apps that can be used in Chinese and other languages. The apps attract customers by saying things like “taxi prices in Japan are 20 times higher [than in China], and the subway system is complicated” or “it’s hard to communicate in English in Japan, but this app solves the problem.”

The apps allow users to make reservations, meet up with drivers at the airport, and pay for the ride online.

A 70-year-old Japanese taxi driver who has worked in the Narita area for more than 30 years said there was a noticeable increase in the number of unlicensed taxi drivers after the pandemic subsided.

“Now it’s like a lawless zone. Customers have gone to the unlicensed taxi drivers,” he said.

The Chiba prefectural police are increasingly vigilant regarding unlicensed taxi services. In January, the police arrested a 63-year-old Taiwan man living in Tokyo on suspicion of violating the law prohibiting carrying others in private vehicles as a paid service.

However, it is not easy to prove illegal activities when payments are made online. “It’s harder to crack down on drivers when there’s no direct exchange of cash between them and their customers, and drivers insist the customers are their friends,” an investigator said.