Robert Fulford's column about Tokyo taxi drivers

(Globe and Mail, November 26, 1997)

If you hail a taxi on the streets of Tokyo, the first surprise is the back door: it's controlled from the driver's seat, and swings open magically before you can reach the handle. Other surprises follow. Lace doilies cover the seats. The driver wears a tie and a white shirt, and perhaps white gloves. Remarkably, doilies, shirt, and gloves always--in my experience, at least--seem to have just arrived from the laundry.

How that's accomplished is part of the mystique of the Tokyo cab driver, one of the unique figures of Japanese culture. In a status-conscious society, he's clearly aware that his status is not low. He presents himself to his customers with extreme gravitas, in the manner of a corporate financial officer. After all, he performs intensely demanding work.

Tokyo people keep anxiety at bay by erecting elaborate structures of space and time. The city runs on maps and timetables, time being regulated with astonishing precision. Ten years ago, on my first trip to Japan, I discovered that when the schedule says the Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train will arrive at 11:34 a.m., it never--barring castrophe--arrives at either 11:33 or 11:35. Once, when a friend of mine made that journey, floods caused a 20-minute delay; the conductor, mortified, walked slowly through the train, apologizing individually to each passenger. But I didn't know, till recently, that the same precision rules underground Tokyo. Subway stations have signs that tell you how long it takes to go from this station to any other on the same line. And (take it from one who ran a test) if the sign says the train will cover the six stations from Kasumigaseki to Shinjuku in 13 minutes, then that's how long it will take--not 12, and not 14.

But that's just underground Tokyo. On the surface, no such principles apply. Everyone must live with the historic chaos of the Tokyo street plan. Tokyo had two opportunities to reorganize its streets, after the vast destruction of the 1923 earthquake and after the 1945 firestorms created by American bombing. On both occasions, it retained the old system. So today, though it has few ancient buildings, the ghost of old Tokyo lives on in the street plan. The city's true character lies not in its vistas but in its layout: you grasp it by walking rather than looking.

Land developers must fit their buildings onto paths carved out by long-ago rice growers and sake brewers. It's like the tangle of Toronto's Rosedale, multiplied 10,000 times. Many streets have no names. Many buildings are numbered in the order in which they were built, so that No. 64 may stand next to No. 13.

This is the world in which the taxi driver reigns. In a cityscape designed by the mad or the eccentric or the merely absent-minded, he's a lonely rationalist.

Stepping into a taxi, a foreigner usually has a map, drawn by the host for the evening, labelled in Japanese as well as English. (Mapmaking is a Tokyo art form.) The driver, receiving it, switches on his light and begins examining it. He turns it upside down, looks at it sideways, turns it over to see whether there's information on the reverse. He compares it with his map book. I doubt that Martin Heidegger, studying Plato, ever looked more serious than this man preparing to journey across Tokyo.

The study time may be the most exciting part of the ride, as you wait breathlessly for the driver to decide where this place is and how to get there. Finally he issues a quiet and tentative "Hmmmuh," nods, and you are on your way.

One recent night we set out to hear a lecture at the Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien. The cab driver, following a meticulously prepared map, drove us to a grey building whose front displayed no word of identity, in English, Japanese, or German, and no number either. By a process of elimination, he had decided this must be the building. Yet even he wasn't positive, and he wasn't about to be responsible for leaving two poor foreigners marooned in the middle of Tokyo. So he leapt from his car, found the floor directory in the lobby, and came back, triumphant, to say the institute was on the second floor.

Half a dozen years ago, a cab driver of the utmost solemnity took my wife and me deep into the Tokyo suburbs, toward a house whose map we had given him. For the longest period, he couldn't find it. He had to stop several times to consult policemen. Finally he found it. We thanked him and he drove off. But that was not the last we saw of him. We had left two umbrellas, small and cheap, on the floor of his car, and half an hour later, having driven many miles before finding them, he was back at our host's house to return them. Of course, he accepted no tip. Tokyo cab drivers never do. They are professionals. You would no more tip a cab driver in Tokyo than tip a brain surgeon in Canada. And in Tokyo, no one seems to find any of this remarkable.

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