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Operation of Unlicensed Taxis Rampant at Kansai Intl. Airport; Cabbies Cater to Foreign Travelers

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Cars believed to be unlicensed taxis are lined up at the vehicle loading and unloading area for private passenger vehicles at Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture on Sept. 21. Part of the photo has been obscured.

OSAKA — The operation of unlicensed taxi services has become rampant at Kansai International Airport and tourist areas in Kyoto and Osaka, rising along with the increase in the number of foreign visitors to Japan after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such illegal taxis had not been observed during the pandemic, but they have appeared again with the end of border control measures.

Many of the drivers are believed to be of Chinese origin and mainly target Chinese visitors. When questioned by the police, cabdrivers give evasive answers, saying they are picking up or dropping off friends, making it difficult for the police to deal with the situation.

¥20,000 to Osaka

On Sept. 29, large vans with white license plates were lined up at a pick-up and drop-off area for private passenger vehicles near the arrival gate at Kansai International Airport’s Terminal 1.

It is illegal to operate a taxi business using a private car without permission, license or qualification. They are called “shirotaku,” which literally means “white taxi” and refers to unlicensed taxis with a white license plate. In Japan, white license plates are issued for privately owned vehicles.

“I’m supposed to pick up a group of 10 people coming from Beijing and take them to the Osaka City,” a young Chinese man driving one of the vehicles said without a trace of embarrassment.

The man picks up and drops off airplane passengers at the direction of a travel agency or via a request from a smartphone app.

The one-way taxi fare to Osaka is 1,000 yuan (about ¥20,000), the driver said. After saying he was so busy that he had to refuse reservations, he picked up a group of passengers and drove away.

Over the course of three days of observation, there were always about 30 cars lined up at the pick-up and drop-off area at the airport, and foreign travelers with large suitcases were being picked up.

Some drivers held up a piece of paper with Chinese characters written on it to greet arrivals, while others showed each other their smartphones, perhaps to confirm their identities.

Offering private tours

Unlicensed taxi operations at Kansai International Airport have been an issue since around 2017, when there was an increase in the number of travelers to Japan.

Although such operations had not been observed during the pandemic, their number has been rising significantly again.

The Chinese government imposed restrictions on overseas travel due to the pandemic. When it ended its zero-COVID policy in January, individuals could again travel overseas. On Aug. 10, it also lifted a ban on group tours to Japan, which led to a sharp rise in the number of cars with white license plates operating illegally as taxis.

Many photos of cars with white plates can be seen on a Chinese-language taxi-dispatch app.

In addition, it is believed that more drivers are offering private tours now than before the pandemic because it has become easier to negotiate fares and routes with car passengers through the Chinese social media WeChat and other means.

A man from Taiwan who has visited Japan many times as a tourist said that such taxis are convenient because the driver can give him directions in Chinese.

Preparing excuses

The operation of an illegal taxi is a violation of the Road Transportation Law, which includes the prohibition of unlicensed operation and transportation by private vehicles for hire.

Unlike taxi drivers who hold a second-class license, the skills of illegal taxi drivers are unproven. Their working hours and health are also unlikely to be properly monitored.

However, it is not easy for the police to take action against them, as it is believed that in most cases, customers make cashless payments before leaving their own countries.

“If we cannot confirm the actual exchange of cash, they will get away with it,” an Osaka prefectural police investigator said.

Many of the drivers and passengers approached at Kansai International Airport and in Kyoto repeatedly said they were waiting for friends. Authorities believe they prepare such excuses to avoid police detection.

“Although there is no law to crack down on the use of unlicensed taxis, there is concern about what to do if they get into an accident or what problems they might face if they are uninsured,” said Prof. Sotetsu Sen of Kyushu Sangyo University. “It is necessary to make these problems known in multiple languages and strongly urge people not to use unlicensed taxis.”