Today, the taxi driver in Tokyo, and Japan for that matter, is polite, knowledgeable, chatty and silent as you wish, and above all else, safe. As visitors realize their first time in Tokyo, you pay for this.
But in 1964, apparently, taxi drivers had a public relations issue. Sports Illustrated described taxis in Japan in their October 19, 1964 issue as “those four-wheeled hearses operated by frustrated Kamikaze pilots”.
Remember, the Tokyo Summer Games were held only 23 years after Pearl Harbor, so I wonder how much emotional baggage was packed inside that moniker. This is typical of the patronizing tone of the American journalist at the time. “(Taxi drivers) do not speak much English, and very little Japanese for that matter. All of them were hired 30 minutes ago and have no idea how to find the Imperial Palace. But they can all find the Olympic Village. In fact, they take every pale-faced passenger there, whether he wants to go or not.” (October 2, 1964).
“Everyone who goes to Tokyo must, sooner or later, 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’,” as the Wagner College Wrestling Coach explained to The Star-Ledger (November 6, 1964).
Not all was bad. Taxis were cheap, some 30 or 40 yen per trip, so at 360 yen to the dollar, that’s 8 to 11 cents a ride. And there were, of course, conscientious taxi drivers. As is cited in the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad”, some taxi drivers tried to reverse the bad PR with PR of their own, placing signs in their vehicles in English that read, “I Am Not a Kamikaze Driver.”
As for me, a Japanese American who was just a kid in the 1960s, a kamikaze was something that got you totally wasted at frat parties.