I recently had the opportunity to take taxis in both Japan and Britain. It had been a while since I had taken a taxi anywhere but fading memories and numerous complaints about cabbies in both countries had instilled in me certain prejudices. In Britain, you might be driven by a casual racist who has yet to grasp the difference between an immigrant, an illegal immigrant and an asylum seeker, and in Japan, apparently, you had a good chance of being expensively driven around a city by a cigarette-reeking man who had no idea where anything actually was. Were they really like this, I wondered?
I took a taxi in Japan from my house to the local bus station in order to get a night bus to Narita Airport. It was raining heavily and our house has a garden which means a car can’t park right up close to the door. The cab arrived, and just as I was about to make a dash for it with my luggage, the driver got out of the car with an umbrella and signaled for me to wait. He came up our driveway, took my suitcase and walked back to the car to put it in the trunk. Then he returned for my wife’s suitcase and did the same. Then he returned for us. He actually came back so that he could walk us to his cab under the protection of his umbrella. Just before we set off, he did ask for clarification as to the best way to get to our destination but he then drove us there with polite non-intrusive conversation, took our bags out of the trunk and wished us a safe trip. We paid him the fare. He did not expect a tip. It was a pain-free experience.
In the UK, we required another taxi after our plane had landed. The driver sat in the warmth of his cab and did little more than grunt when we told him our destination and struggled to get our bags into the car. It wasn’t raining, but I’d hazard a guess that he didn’t have an umbrella handy to keep his passengers dry. He did little to engage us in conversation, so whether he was up-in-arms about immigrants or not, I don’t know, but I do know that he enjoyed swearing aloud at other drivers. But at least he seemed to know where he was going.
I paid our fare when we arrived and tipped him as is the custom. He barely acknowledged receiving the money. I got out of the taxi and, being accustomed to Japanese taxis and their automatic opening and closing doors, forgot to close the door. ‘Oi close the door you daft git!’ the driver shouted. There may have been little malice in his tone, but that was after a generous tip. Who knows what he might have called me had I not bothered with the gratuity.
Neither taxi was particularly cheap, but I have to say the Japanese version was more pleasant. I’m not sure why taxi drivers get tips in Britain – it clearly doesn’t improve the service, and surely it can’t simply be to congratulate the driver on getting us to our destination without crashing. He’s supposed to be quite good at driving. And anyway I don’t tip train drivers, bus drivers or pilots for taking me places even though I really do feel immense gratitude to the man in charge of a plane that carries me safely through the air.
I like the Japanese way – no tipping and no evident decline in service standards. In Britain I felt my tip to the taxi driver merely helped me get a lesser insult and I was tipping serving staff in restaurants for not being openly hostile. I am aware of the arguments in favor of tipping and there may be merit in some, but if we can get polite customer service without a gratuity in Japan is it too much to expect at least a token gesture towards improved service in countries where tipping is expected? Is extra payment really required just to thank a driver for letting me listen to his impressive command of expletives or a server for not spitting in my food?