Kamikaze Taxis?

Sports Illustrated, an American sports magazine owned by Authentic Brands Group, called them in their October 19, 1964, issue “those four-wheeled hearses operated by frustrated Kamikaze pilots” and also known today as Kamikaze taxis.

It is said that the foreigner called them “Kamikaze taxis.”

They did many illegal things including running red lights, overtaking other cars on the roads, disregarding speed limits set by law, and doing whatever was needed to get more customers for the day. It is unknown when the term “Kamikaze taxis” first appeared, but it is reported that the first use of that term was in a Japanese magazine in their March 4th, 1956, issue in which the magazine interviewed a foreigner who was appalled by the speed and recklessness these taxi drivers conduct themselves on the road.

The main problem with their dangerous behavior on the road lies with their low base salary. Taxi drivers, as mentioned, are paid based on commissions, and the more customers they get, the more money they got. This was especially important in the post-war period of Japan as many Japanese needed to survive the harsh reality of an unstable and weak economy caused by the prior war. Worst of all, taxi drivers need to meet quotas set by their companies. If they do not meet them, they would be let go.

“Everyone who goes to Tokyo must, eventually, find himself in a battle of nerves with the famous Tokyo cab drivers. (Bill) Lied had his experience and he isn’t likely to forget it. ‘The Japanese taxi ride isn’t to be forgotten,’ he said. ‘The Tokyo residents call the taxi drivers the Kamikaze Squad (on the wings of God) – and so they are’,” said a Wagner College Wrestling Coach to The Star-Ledger in their November 6, 1964, issue.

This was during the time of the 1964 Olympics held in Japan which attracted many athletes and tourists from all over the world.

The issue got worst in January 1958 when a student from the University of Tokyo was struck by one of the Kamikaze taxis as it was speeding to its next destination. He was the captain of the soccer team for the local university with a potential future, but all of it comes to an end when he was struck by a taxi and killed instantly. A few days later, the father of the deceased boy was interviewed by a local newspaper condemning the acts of the taxi drivers. This brought nationwide attention to the growing problem of Kamikaze taxis. Before that, these taxis were viewed and considered as a nuisance, but now life has been taken due to the illegal actions of these taxi drivers. Outrage was swift as the public protested such recklessness which led many taxi companies and union groups to reform immediately. The quota system was removed entirely and the distance that these drivers could drive was limited to three hundred and fifty kilometers a day and was not allowed to work for the rest of the day. Gradually the distance was reduced as well. Furthermore, road traffic laws were strictly enforced not just in Tokyo but nationwide.

Today, taxi drivers in Japan are known for being polite and knowledgeable, often being on friendly terms with the customers that flagged them. During the mid-Showa era, taxis in Japan started to gain a bad reputation. This was a far cry from its early beginnings in 1912 when the first taxis showed up on the streets of Tokyo. However, from the early 1950s to the 1960s, Japan was faced with a taxi problem. This is because taxi drivers had a certain public relations issue.

During the post-war era, Japan was starting to modernize as it rebuilds itself from the rubble caused by conflict. More cars started to appear as well as taxis which are frequently used because owning a car was simply expensive at that time. However, taxi drivers back then are paid based on commission. For each passenger they manage to ferry to their destination, they get paid. Therefore, to earn more in their already miserably low wages, taxi drivers pushed themselves by cutting corners and driving faster with the intention of wanting to obtain more passengers for the day. This becomes a prevailing problem as they began to drive dangerously on the roads so that they could get their customers where they needed to be.

In the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad,” some taxi drivers tried to change their bad reputation with PR of their own, placing signs in their vehicles in English that reads, “I Am Not a Kamikaze Driver.”

There is a positive aspect to this entire story. An arcade game was released in 1999 by Sega called Crazy Taxi which was extremely popular and led to numerous sequels and spin-offs. However, most older generation Japanese citizens from the 1950s or 1960s would still have those memories fresh in mind when a young, promising boy was struck by a speeding taxi. This is the legacy left behind by Japan’s deadliest taxi drivers of the 1950s.


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