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Unauthorized Chinese 'taxis' on the rise in Japan, cashless policy difficult to track

A line of vans is seen at Kansai International Airport in Osaka Prefecture on July 27, 2017. Including the first van, many are reportedly Chinese-operated vehicles offering unauthorized taxi services. (Mainichi, image partially modified)

SHANGHAI -- The number of unauthorized Chinese taxis at airports around Japan is growing in response to demand from Chinese tourists, and with their cashless system, they have been leaving police in their tracks.

    The taxi services use the personal vehicles of Chinese nationals in Japan registered through a China-based operator and sell themselves as a service to meet Chinese nationals at the airport and become their guides. Because all business from reservation to payment can be carried out via smartphone, the majority of cases manage to evade authorities.

    The taxi system works through a Chinese smartphone application in which travelers can choose their departure and destination points and time frame of use. The business operator then forwards the information to the drivers in Japan registered through the service. Since the drivers themselves are Chinese, travelers feel a sense of camaraderie and don't have to worry about language barriers.

    According to a man who used the service when traveling to the Kansai region, as soon as his plane landed at Kansai International Airport, he received a message to his smartphone that said, "This is your driver. I will be waiting for you outside." At the designated meeting area, a man in a suit was waiting for him in front of a black van. From the airport to JR Shin-Osaka Station, the fare for a legal Japanese taxi is approximately 18,000 yen, but with the unauthorized Chinese service, it was only 630 yuan, or roughly 10,000 yen.

    Subway advertisements for services to arrange Chinese taxi drivers overseas are seen in Shanghai on July 25, 2017. (Mainichi)

    "I use it because it's convenient," explained a 46-year-old doctor in Shanghai who says he uses the application often. "If there were Japanese drivers in China, wouldn't you use them?" In China, payments made via smartphones are widespread, and an application to book rides in private cars is popular.

    "It's just like the living environment in China has been transferred to Japan," said Koji Kawasaki, senior managing director of the association of taxi drivers at Kansai International Airport. There are several thousand Chinese residents in Japan registered as drivers on the major Chinese-operated application, including 1,800 in Tokyo and 1,200 in Osaka.

    Reported sightings of the unauthorized taxi services began piling up several years ago. While the services receive money for transporting travelers to their destination, there are strong suspicions that they do not have the proper permission from the Japanese government and are in violation of the Road Transportation Act.

    "Taxi drivers are entrusted with the lives of their customers," Kawasaki said, pleading for action by Japanese authorities. "These services don't have insurance, so if there is a traffic accident, they can't properly protect their customers or those in the other car."

    In addition, many of the service operators appear to declare their profits in China, and thus do not pay Japanese taxes on their income. This year, the Kinki District Transport Bureau and other related organizations held two meetings to discuss countermeasures, and the Narita International Airport Corp. disclosed that it is proceeding with sharing information about the taxis with police.

    However, payment and negotiation is all processed via smartphone, and all that is actually carried out in Japan is driving customers. In response to police questioning, the drivers can easily say they are driving a friend, and it is extremely difficult to produce evidence to the contrary.

    The Okinawa Prefectural Police arrested two Chinese nationals in June 2017 on suspicion of violating the Road Transportation Act for driving an unauthorized taxi. It was the first time the drivers of an unauthorized Chinese taxi service had been apprehended. However, according to police, it was an extremely rare case where the evidence was found while investigating the two suspects' bank accounts on unrelated charges.

    "It's difficult to grasp what is actually going on," a representative for in June 2017 the Kinki District Transport Bureau commented.

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