By Jack Tarrant
TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo's taxi industry is undergoing some radical changes as Japan, already dealing with unprecedented levels of tourism, gears up to host two major sporting events in the next 26 months.
More than 28 million tourists visited Japan in 2017 and the government has set a goal of 40 million foreign visitors by 2020, loading more and more pressure on Tokyo's already stressed transport system.
Toyota, the world's largest car manufacturer, believes it has at least part of the answer to this problem.
Anyone who has hailed a cab in the Japanese capital is likely to have enjoyed a ride in one of the company's iconic Comfort sedans, which make up over 70 percent of Tokyo’s taxi fleet.
The car, which famously features an automatic opening door, has been in production for 22 years but in October last year Toyota launched a new model, the 'JPN Taxi'.
Adoption of the 'JPN Taxi', which has a liquid petroleum gas hybrid engine aimed at lowering carbon emissions, has been gradual but Toyota say 10 percent of all Tokyo's taxi drivers have made the switch.
By the start of the Olympic Games in July 2020, the aim is for the new model to make up over a third of the fleet as Tokyo looks to make itself more accessible for those with disabilities as well as the country's ageing population.
Japan has the world's highest proportion of elderly people with 27 percent of the population over the age of 65 and Toyota's new car reflects this changing demographic.
"The very reason why we selected the universal design concept is because Japan is a super-aging society, at a level we do not see in other countries in the world," chief engineer Hiroshi Kayukawa told Reuters at Toyota’s head office in Aichi Prefecture.
"We are seeing the cities becoming more and more barrier-free, but we also think public transportation should do more in this direction. That was the whole idea around this concept."
The back seats of the 'JPN Taxi' can be moved and a ramp, neatly tucked away under the seat, can be installed in seconds to accommodate customers in wheelchairs. There are also yellow markings and a light on the floor to aid the visually impaired.
"After the Olympics in Tokyo were decided, we looked into our concept and thought there would be a lot of convenience for tourists as well," added Kayukawa.
"There is also the potential that this taxi becomes an icon of Japan for foreigners visiting Japan."
To that end, much thought was given to the choice of colour for the exterior before Toyota selected Koiai, a deep indigo once derived from plant dyes.
"It is sometimes known as 'Japan Blue'," said Kayukawa, who hopes the new model will become associated with Tokyo much as the black taxi is with London and the yellow cab with New York.
"It just so happens to be the colour of the Olympic logo for Tokyo 2020 so we find that a happy coincidence and we hope that deep indigo becomes the image colour of Japan."
The make-up of the army of drivers who patrol the streets of Tokyo is also changing.
Hinomaru, one of the largest taxi firms in the city, have recently hired 22 foreign drivers in time for next year's Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games.
With the average age of taxi drivers in Tokyo at almost 60 and a shortage of suitable drivers, Hinomaru started recruiting its foreign drivers last year.
Austrian Wolfgang Loeger, who has lived in Japan for over 30 years and until recently was a chef and ski instructor in the countryside, is one.
After moving to Tokyo last year and in need of a new job, Loeger found his calling behind the wheel.
"I saw the job advertisement so I thought 'lets give it a try' because I like driving and I like to meet people," Loeger told Reuters as he navigated through the city.
"You meet every time new people in the taxi so I thought it was a nice job."
Loeger, who is married to a local and speaks Japanese fluently, said he causes a stir when customers get into the taxi and see a foreigner in the driving seat.
"Of course most of the time they (customers) say it is the first time they say they have had a foreign driver," laughed Loeger.
"It is a good way to start conversations so usually they ask me where I am from, how long I have driven and these kinds of things."
Hinomaru hopes that by having drivers like Loeger, who can speak a variety of languages, visitors will feel more at home in one of the developed world's most homogenous societies.
With a fleet of spacious, modern cars, driven by characters such as Loeger, visitors to Japan for the Olympics can expect a comfortable ride on the streets of Tokyo in 2020.
(Reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing Nick Mulvenney)