Japanese City Introduces ‘Foreigner Friendly’ Taxis: Drivers Speak English and Chinese!

Culture Wars

Except at five star hotels, English is not widely spoken in Japan. In a bid to facilitate communication between foreigners and taxi drivers, a “foreigner friendly” programme has been launched in Kyoto. Will it succeed?


The former imperial capital of Japan, Kyoto has trained drivers in English, Chinese, and other languages.

English is not widely spoken in Japan, which can be seen as either a blessing or a curse.

It is a blessing for foreigners wanting to learn to speak Japanese. They will not be forced to listen to locals intent on practicing their English, the way foreigners wanting to learn Chinese are forced to do in China.

But it can be a bit frustrating for a short-term visitor to the country that simply wants to get from point A to point B.

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If he doesn’t speak Japanese and didn’t have the foresight to have someone write down the destination for him in Japanese it might be difficult.

Needless to say,  it is always helpful to have addresses written down in the local language wherever you travel.  Better yet, have it marked down on a map.

In a bid to make things easier for foreigners not conversant in Japanese, the city of Kyoto has launched a pilot project, which will run from 1 March 2016 until 18 April 2017.

Under the scheme, a fleet of 69 “foreigner friendly” taxis driven by 87 taxi drivers able to speak English, Chinese, and other foreign languages has been deployed by 23 operators of taxicabs in the city.


Kyoto wants to make foreigners feel welcome by offering ‘foreigner friendly’ taxis.

There are two taxi ranks at Kyoto Station, one for Japanese speakers, another for people that don’t speak Japanese.

The “foreigner friendly” taxi drivers have all undergone training in both foreign languages and customer service.

The “foreigner-friendly” taxis cost the same as other taxis. They accept credit cards. And they have enough space to accommodate two large suitcases.

In order not to offend local sensibilities, Japanese nationals traveling in Kyoto with luggage can also take advantage of the service.

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It will be interesting to see how well the foreigner friendly taxi initiative works out.

Apparently some taxi drivers In Kyoto are reluctant to pick up foreigners because they are afraid they will not be able to communicate with them.

Will this service make things better for foreigners in Kyoto, or might it encourage taxi drivers not taking part in the scheme  to give foreigners a wide berth?

I’m also curious as to how much language instruction the taxi drivers have received. Are they actually able to hold a conversation in English and Chinese?



Let’s face it!  It takes a LONG time (and a lot of effort) for most people to become fluent in a foreign language! And many (most?) people wanting to master another tongue never succeed.

So have the taxi drivers really become “proficient” in foreign languages? Or have they just memorized a series of “useful sentences”?

On a recent visit to Japan, I went up to an information booth at a train station. According to the sign in the window, the woman manning the booth could speak both English and Chinese.

For fun, I decided to speak to her in Mandarin rather than my mother tongue.

She understood my question perfectly. And she answered it perfectly.

It made my day.

Japanese Taxi Etiquette

  • Drivers have a mechanism to open and close doors for  passengers, and it is considered bad form to do it yourself. It might even get you a reprimand (it happened to me once).
  • Tipping is NOT expected by taxi drivers in Japan – or anyone else as far as I know.
  • A surcharge if often charged at night. In Kyoto, for example, there is a 20% surcharge between 11 pm and 5 am.
  • Always have your destination written in Japanese, preferably in large characters so that the driver can read it without having to put on his reading glasses. Because addresses in Japan can be confusing – even for locals – you might want to have it clearly marked on a map, as well.

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