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Osaka taxi company hires foreign drivers to meet needs of overseas tourists

Polyglot taxi driver Julio Pereira smiles from the driver's seat in Osaka's Nishiyodogawa Ward on Sept. 8, 2017. (Mainichi)

OSAKA -- There are more tourists coming to Japan than ever, and as their numbers grow, so to does the demand for taxi drivers who can speak foreign languages. And one taxi company here is rising to meet that demand, hiring and training drivers including foreign nationals.

    Fukushima Ward, Osaka-based Sakura Taxi Co. began hiring foreign drivers in 2016, one of whom is octolingual Julio Pereira, 44. "I want to help my customers to enjoy themselves," he said.

    Pereira is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He became interested in Japanese culture when he began taking judo at the age of 12, and learned Japanese and German at a Brazilian university. He studied abroad in Okinawa Prefecture for one year before moving to Osaka in 1998. The language lover attended graduate school at Osaka University, where he studied Japanese dialects such as those spoken in Akita and Okinawa prefectures. Currently, he lives with his Japanese wife and two sons in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture.

    Along with his native Portuguese, Pereira is fluent in Japanese, English, Chinese, German and Spanish, and is currently in the middle of studying Korean and French, already able to have simple everyday conversations in the two languages.

    Already having work experience as a university lecturer, interpreter and even an Apple store clerk, he joined Sakura Taxi in September 2016 to make use of his incredible linguistic skills. After receiving the professional driver's license required for his new job, he debuted as the company's very first foreign driver in October 2016. With his friendly personality, Pereira is beloved by his colleagues, who affectionately call him by the nickname "Pere-chan."

    More than a few customers ask him where he's from, but to Pereira, it's just another chance to make conversation. Also able to speak in the Kansai dialect, when a customer mistakenly said "sky tree," like the Tokyo Skytree, instead of "sky building," meaning the Umeda Sky Building, he went right in for the joke, jibing in the distinctive Osaka vernacular, "What are you talking about? That's too far for me to drive!"

    "There is nothing that makes me happier than hearing from customers, 'Thanks, you cheered me up,'" said Pereira.

    Sakura Taxi began hiring foreign nationals after an increase in requests from hotels for taxi drivers fluent in foreign languages. The company now has a total of five non-Japanese drivers, hailing from Egypt, China, South Korea, and of course Pereira's native Brazil.

    According to hiring manager Hisashi Tajima, 53, the firm was initially worried about taking on foreign drivers. However, the company saw an increase in calls of thanks to the company, cheering on the new drivers.

    "Being a taxi driver is all about customer service," said Tajima. "While considering their personalities, I hope to hire more foreign nationals in the future."

    Some 3.75 million foreign tourists visited Osaka in 2014, but that number grew sharply to 7.16 million in 2015, and 9.4 million in 2016. The Osaka Taxi Center, which registers taxi drivers, began a certification system in July 2015 for drivers that speak English, Chinese and Korean. Including Pereira, 101 people have passed an exam to be registered as an "international taxi" driver in a system that handles taxi reservations for international customers in Osaka.

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