Monday, July 28, 2008

What Norimitsu Onishi Missed on the “Pub Taxis”

This is a little too inside-baseballsy for my confort. I prefer to work with open source information. Also, it skirts the edges of my previous incarnation, and I’ve tried my damndest to keep this blog free of my personal life. However, if even seasoned Japan hands can succumb to the endless pounding on the national bureaucracy and fall into the thrall of the conventional wisdom and popular tropes generated by the media, mainstream and otherwise, then I can only guess what the rest of the world out there is thinking—or not—about the pub-taxi caper. And I think I’ve done enough deducing to make this something more than just a trust me, I know screed. But you decide.

The Japanese media and I have already already told you that it was the NCOs and grunts who partook of the pleasures of the “pub taxis”. Am I then suggesting that, compared to the mandarin elite of the Japanese bureaucracy, the NCOs and grunts are somehow less ethical and thus more susceptible to seduction by enterprising taxi owner-drivers? Nothing of the sort. Let me explain.

The kind of taxi driver who works the institutional client beat on his late-nightshift will not cruise the streets, looking for the stray drunk. Instead, he parks his car at wireless hotspots along with dozens of his competitors, hoping to be the first to respond to the dispatcher when a call comes in his territory. (If you’ve been wondering what that long line of taxis was doing on a peculiar bend on that exit ramp, well, now you know.)

Now calls from institutional clients tend to be lumpy, to come in waves. Take, for example, the bureaucracy—a bureaucrat rarely works alone on budgets, legislation, or tending to parliamentary affairs. Imagine the intra- and inter-ministerial ramifications of a Ministry of Finance deputy director working on the budget deciding to call it a day, er, night. This, together with the fact that he can only work so many hours on consecutive days before his body breaks down—and in competition with other taxi drivers answer to that same dispatcher—means that, over the long run, he can work only a few clients, say two, three, four at most, before he has to call it a night.* Woe betide the taxi driver who is stuck on his last ride of the day with a 2000 yen client (as well the poor 2000 yen client who has to suffer through the simmering rage of his sullen driver). This means that there is a huge incentive for taxi drivers to try to cheat the dispatch system by setting up a network of a limited number of taxi drivers and very long-distance clients.

This is where the NCOs and grunts come in. The non-elite obviously draw smaller salaries, and tend to marry into less wealthy families. This means that when they manage to save enough money to buy a house, they have to live further away from the office than the elite officials. (I’ve heard of two-hour (one-way!) commutes.) This must have been a particularly serious problem during the bubble years. But the plight of these men was a boon to the enterprising owner-drivers who dreamed up the scheme. The ultra-long-distance commuters were discreetly recruited, and the fun began.

Alas, good things don’t last forever. Anomalies are detected, the authorities alerted. Game over.

Incidentally, it is not surprising that it was single-car owner-drivers who set this up. Turnover means that corporate taxi drivers have a hard time building the kind of mutual trust necessary to create and maintain such a scheme. Moreover, a corporate business structure would have made the circumvention easier to detect.

* A corporate taxi driver has even less control over his working hours, which would complicate things for him, even if he could take part in such a scheme. But this is a somewhat subsidiary point


MTC said...

You are too kind to Onishi and his editors here. As you note, the misleading hook in the article was the cliché "elite bureaucrats." Had he dropped the "elite" crutch, focused on the insane deregulation of the taxi industry and asked questions about the possible insidious side effects of forcing national bureaucrats to stay on at their posts until all hours...then he would have had a story.

Jun Okumura said...

You are absolutely right, MTC, Mr. Onishi “missed” those stories as well. This post actually began life as part of my response to Durf’s comment on my previous post, so its title may have been somewhat misleading. However, the taxi industry story would take a lot of investigating (unless you’re willing to settle for something like: have your research assistants collect the relevant Japanese news reports, go interview a few taxi drivers until you get a couple of useable quotes, then mash it all together). The insane-hours story would make a good human interest story as well, but it lacks the poignancy, the wistfulness that is the hallmark of a Norimitsu Onishi story. No, it belongs to the Wacky Facky Tales genre. Besides, this one also requires plenty of original investigation and overall legwork. You also need to know a how the bureaucracy works, how the Diet-bureaucracy relationship works. All that would be asking for too much.