Monday, November 24, 2008

"Friendly Advice & an Empty Field"

On Friday, I went to an (early for the season) end-of-the-year party in Akasaka. The food and drink were good, irritations few and far between, and basically a great time was had by all (except one guy who had too much to drink, and had slipped into the "Uuu... can I hang on... uuuuu" zone). I was hoping to convince him to go home, but he was more interested in staying with the group for more fun. A perfectly understandable and good motivation, but generally a mistake under those circumstances. (I'll have to ask about what happened after I went home!).

I actually had the good sense to leave the "Let's keep going all night - all weekend - forevermore!" die-hards before reaching a "I should have left earlier..." point of regret, and sensibly left for home in time to catch my last trains. However, as I sat down on the last of the set of four trains I needed to take that evening, I relaxed, thinking I had completed the journey (big mistake!). I fell asleep and woke up a couple of stations past where I wanted to get off. Getting off, I walked across the platform, intending to take a train back in the other direction, but a station employee told me there were no more trains headed in that direction. (Tokyo shuts its entire train system down each and every night - except on December 31st - for... maintenance I suppose.)

No trains to get home on... time to wear my shoes down! I was rather irritated with myself and the situation as I began my long walk (on top of everything, I had to pay extra for that part of the train journey I hadn't wanted to take), but then (after walking for about 90 minutes) I began to enjoy the clear, cool (cold, but not too cold) night air. After getting instructions from a friendly man keeping guard over a crossing as workmen did some work on the nearby railway (the railways are kept in very good condition here, by the way), my mood improved still more and then I found myself positively and throughly enjoying walking through a field away from houses and lights - with the stars above visible as they rarely are in over-lit and often smoggy Tokyo (the air tends to be clearer in the winter).

I suppose you might be wondering about the idea of walking through fields in Tokyo! I live away from the center of Tokyo, so there are some, but not many. I considered myself fortunate for the experience of walking through an open field. I get very tired of always walking about on asphalt or concrete, in canyons of buildings, and of in being in sealed-box buildings. It's very rare to experience a wide-open sky in this city.... (That said, I certainly don't want to live outside! I just want a little more fresh air than I usually get!)

Why not a taxi? Basically, I'm allergic to taxi drivers! I've been cheated in the US, Hong Kong, Australia, and in Japan. About seven out of ten rides have been unpleasant. The usual problem has been drivers taking a round-about route, but I've also been overcharged, with the driver saying there was an extra luggage charge (in both Hong Kong and Australia, when I didn't have that much luggage anyway). A couple of times in Japan the driver blatantly ignored my direct requests and made sure that he ran the meter up. A couple of examples would be in order:

One time I said (using the local language, mind you) "Stop here please" and the driver - the dirty rotten scoundrel - kept driving past where I wanted to get off saying "I can get you closer". As soon as the meter jumped up, then he stopped, I (very unhappily) paid the extra fee and then had to walk back to where the driver had refused to stop!

Another time, I was running late for a friend's wedding and I took a taxi from the station to make up time. Not only did the driver pretend to not know the streets at all, but when I (looking at my map) was giving him directions, as we neared the destination, I said (using the local language of course) "Turn left here", and the dirty bugger turned right! Turning left would have gotten me to the wedding just in time, but by turning right, the scoundrel driver was able to take a long detour that made me late. Naturally my story about why I was late was not believed. "The taxi drivers here are wonderful and honest - they would never do such a thing." Yeah, sure, right....

But the clearest example I had was a weekly trip I took out to a factory in Tatebayashi, which is in Gunma Prefecture, just over the border with Saitama; a one hour trip out of Tokyo by Ryomo Express train on the Tobu-Isesaki Line (I had thought it was spelled/pronounced "Isezaki", but there are more Google hits for "Isesaki", so I guess that's the correct way). Over a period of about six months, I went out there once a week, and took a taxi from the station to the same factory each time. Tatebayashi is a smallish city (by Japan's standards anyway), with a population of about 80,000. In Tokyo, there's always the possibility that a driver really doesn't know the streets in a particular area well, since the city is so vast (less of an excuse now with electronic navigation), but in a city of 80,000, that's not very likely. It's highly probably that the taxi drivers there know the city like the back of their hands (better maybe, who studies the back of their own hands anyway?).

So what happened? Well, in a spirit of anthropology (and since my company was paying the taxi fare), I just sat back and observed what the drivers did each week when I gave them the name of the well-known factory I was going to. The first time out, I sat back and watched the scenery go by outside as I took in Tatebayashi for the first time. Arriving at the factory, I thought it was a little expensive, but I just figured that the factory was far away from the station. On subsequent trips, I began to wonder why the price was never the same, but just put it down to traffic conditions. Then - about the sixth or seventh trip out - I suddenly found myself with an honest taxi driver who - zip!-zip!-zip! - took me directly to the factory in the shortest distance and time. The fare was about 30-40 percent cheaper and I arrived quite a bit sooner than usual.

From that point forward, I watched the drivers more closely, and - more often than not I'm afraid - they were not taking the most direct, least crowded, or fastest route to the factory. (I could have battled them each and every time, but I wanted to see what they would do.) One time was funny, because this driver had taken me on one of the detours, but it was a slightly less lengthy detour than usual, and the meter was just on the verge of jumping up when we stopped in front of the factory. I could sense his disappointment as he looked at the meter that was just about to give him some (dishonestly earned) extra income, but didn't. He reluctantly hit the stop button on the meter and I gleefully thought "Serves you right, you dishonest bugger you! You wasted time and fuel, and all to very little avail!" (Thinking back on this, I realize that he was likely confident the meter had already changed, as he didn't look at it until we were sitting there in front of the factory, and then what's he going to do? I guess he could have said "Look, I took a special detour to cheat you out of some extra money, but the meter hasn't climbed much beyond the honest price yet, so let's do a few loops in the parking lot here until it jumps into the next range. You don't mind if I steal some more of your money, do you?"

The lingering question is whether this despicable behavior and lack of morals of many taxi drivers is equally dispersed among their unfortunate passengers... but that's a stupid question. Of course it isn't! If you're going to cheat someone, you pick people who are cheat-able! Doing that to a savvy local of Tatebayashi could generate some serious trouble for them. After all, it is illegal to steal people's money dishonestly.

On the flip side of this issue of course, are the people who cheat taxi drivers. Jumping out without paying, throwing up in the back seat, saying unpleasant things, doing unpleasant things, etc. I don't envy the job taxi drivers have, along with the different kinds of nonsense they have to put up with, but that's still not an excuse to victimize innocent people. Getting "revenge" on innocent people is not getting revenge at all, but rather perpetuating the crime. (It's a fearsome thing the way things can snowball.)

A question the reader may have, is how could that happen with me going out there so often? The answer is that if the weekly business I had out there had been more frequent, or went on longer than six months (there may only be 80,000 people in Tatebayashi, but the city still has a large number of taxis, so I kept getting different drivers each time), the drivers would have begun recognizing me and then behaving more honestly. They would have to, otherwise I would have begun getting angry and combative, not to mention that the company paying the taxi fare for me would have begun to get angry and started making complaining phone calls to the taxi company (and if the problem persisted), to the police, the newspapers, etc. The taxi drivers probably (incorrectly) took me for a one-time visitor from overseas (people would come from overseas to visit that factory from time-to-time), and thought it was a safe crime to commit.

So there you have it. Sorry for my long rant against dishonest taxi drivers, but now that I've explained in some detail why I'm allergic to them, if I need to explain again in the future, I can just dig up this text again and won't have to spend time explaining it.

This is another advantage to having an extensive train system, by the way: you can completely shun taxis (save riding somewhere past the nightly shutdown point). In fact, I don't think I've been in a taxi for a few years now. The last time was when one of my train lines caused me to miss the last connection due to some problem with the trains, so they gave out taxi vouchers to the people who had missed their connections. They first determined which stations people were going to, and then grouped them together, giving them a voucher to that specific station. You can bet the taxi drivers didn't even consider trying to rip off the railroads, who know very well what it should cost and are more than willing to fight about it (from a position of power no less).

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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