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New car hire service makes rides around Tokyo easy for foreign visitors, disabled

J Universal car hire company owner Junji Tsuruta stands by the extended passenger seat of his barrier-free van, at Haneda Airport on Aug. 29, 2016. (Mainichi)

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics on the horizon, one Tokyo entrepreneur has launched a taxi company that will make getting around town easier and more comfortable for foreign visitors and the disabled.

    The J Universal hire car company got its start on the roads of Tokyo earlier this month, with company founder Junji Tsuruta providing an unusual combination of English-language services and rides in a luxury van retrofitted to make getting in and out easy for the physically disabled.

    "With this barrier-free vehicle, I wanted to provide hospitality that gave both physical and emotional comfort to customers," Tsuruta, 37, told the Mainichi Shimbun.

    Since he was little, Tsuruta said, he had a strong interest in the outside world, and began studying English on his own time when he was a primary school student. As an adult, he worked for a Japan Airlines Co. subsidiary as ground staff at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. It was then that a friend working for a car hire company recommended Tsuruta take a job as a driver, "because you can start your own business in the future, it's work where you can follow your dreams."

    Tsuruta took his friend's advice and became a driver for a car hire company in Tokyo. He worked there for 16 years, during which he gave rides to famous names including then New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and music legend Paul McCartney.

    While at Haneda's international terminal last spring, Tsuruta noticed that there were a lot more foreign visitors using wheelchairs than he'd ever imagined. He watched as these visitors made what looked like very difficult and awkward transitions from their wheelchairs to the back seats of regular taxis.

    "They've come all the way to Japan and they have to face that. I wish they could get around with smiles on their faces," Tsuruta thought. And with the strong encouragement of his 38-year-old wife and former flight attendant Rie, he decided to start his own car hire firm to make that wish a reality.

    Tsuruta spent 4.5 million yen retrofitting his lone vehicle, a van with a rear seat that extends and lowers itself over the sidewalk to make it easy for the disabled to get on board. He has also studied Red Cross first-aid techniques and expects to get his basic care professional certificate in October.

    He has also attempted to make rides in his van as comfortable for foreign visitors as getting in, with free Wi-Fi plus English-language pamphlets on popular Kanto area tourist destinations such as the Asakusa and Ueno districts of Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and the Kanagawa Prefecture hot spring resort of Hakone.

    But Tsuruta is dreaming bigger than his current vehicle fleet of one.

    "I want to add the value of hire car services to the profession of 'nursing care,'" he told the Mainichi, adding that he wanted to build a new business model that expanded the scope of that job. As he was studying at the social welfare vocational school for his nursing care qualification, Tsuruta saw many young people had no hopes or dreams for their futures as care workers -- a field with notoriously high turnover rates and low pay.

    "I want those young people to have dreams and goals in nursing care," Tsuruta said. "I'm starting with just one car, but if it's reported in the news then many similar businesses should pop up. My hope is for every person to be able to move freely."

    Fares start at 770 yen, plus 1,000 yen for care services. For more information, call J Universal at 090-5311-3480. (For international callers, dial 81-90-5311-3480.)

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