Updated November 27, 2023
Is Uber a Thing in Japan? The state of Ride-sharing [Nov 2023]
If we’re talking public transport, getting around Japan is a piece of cake.
But, there are times when public transport just doesn’t cut it. This is why cabs exist in the first place — and there are plenty of cabs to be found in Japan. However, you might be surprised to hear that ride-sharing services like Uber aren't very popular in Japan.
Don't get me wrong. Uber exists in Japan — it's been around for over five years. But it's still not the first choice for many, and some locals aren't even aware it's an option. This is why a lot of newcomers wonder if the service is even available in Japan.
So I want to explain the position of Uber in Japan. How useful is it? How is it perceived by the public? And what could the future look like for Uber (and ride sharing services like it) in Japan?
In this post, I’ll go deep on the legality of ride-sharing apps, and help you decide if and when it can make sense to use Uber in Japan.
Let’s dive in.
Is Uber Available in Japan?
Yes, Uber has been available in Japan since 2018.
However, unlike in the U.S., you’ll find that Uber here is mostly used for airport transfers and other occasional longer-distance trips. Overall, Uber cars are usually harder to come by in Japan and they’re pricier compared to regular cabs.
Perhaps the biggest reason for this is that regular Uber cars don’t really exist in Japan. Here, your only options are Uber Black, Uber Black Van, and Uber Taxi.
So, unless you want the pricier option, you can use the Uber app to call a regular taxi in Japan. However, the app adds an additional surcharge to the standard cab fare, which still makes it a pricier option than a normal cab.
Another reason why Uber isn’t as popular in Japan is the country’s efficient public transit – if you’ve ever experienced Japan’s glorious public transport systems in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, you won’t even think about getting a cab or an Uber most of the time anyway.
If an occasion that requires a cab ride does come up, most people reach for a taxi app instead, which is far more popular, as I’ll explain in a bit. But before I do that, let’s see the legal reasons why Uber hasn’t been able to reach popularity in Japan.
Ride-Sharing Apps in Japan: A Little Bit of Background
Uber’s entry into the Japanese market in 2018 may sound a bit late compared to the rest of the world, but there’s a good reason why the company wasn’t able to operate in Japan until then.
Historically, the regulations regarding cab drivers and operating a cab in general have always been stringent in Japan, which is why the standards for cabs are much higher in Japan compared to many countries.
To be a cab driver or operate a taxi in Japan, you need a special license and special permits. Not to mention the fact that your car needs to comply with certain rules and meet standards that are relatively high.
So, the strict Japanese laws have made it impossible for a business model like Uber to really exist in Japan, as it meant that people couldn’t easily go through the vetting process they’d need to pass to become “cab drivers.”.
This is why Uber in Japan has been more like a luxury car service with its Uber Black and Uber Black Van options.
What’s more, the company wasn’t even able to operate in the capital, Tokyo City, until 2020. It was only through an agreement between well-established taxi companies that the ride-sharing service was able to expand into Tokyo, and this was in the form of “Uber Taxi.”
Upcoming Policy Changes: The Future of Uber in Japan
Currently, in addition to an Uber Black or Van, customers are also able to call regular taxis on the Uber app as well.
While the service is still not as full-fledged as it is in European countries or the United States, future changes in policy suggest that this won’t be the case for much longer.
According to a report from Nikkei Asia, the Digital Transformation Minister of Japan has stated that ride-sharing services may be allowed at certain hours of the day when cabs are harder to come by.
This provides a glimmer of hope for the future of Uber in Japan, but the government still doesn’t seem to be relaxing the requirements for becoming a cab driver in Japan, which even includes passing a special test.
So, while the government is hinting at the possibility of letting Uber into Japan for real this time, it’s still unclear how this will be achieved and whether the requirements for transporting passengers will be more relaxed or not.
Does Uber Work in Japan?
You now know that Uber exists in Japan, albeit in the form of a glorified taxi-hailing app. However, whether Uber really works in Japan or not is a whole other discussion.
Even though this isn’t the case in Japan, in many countries, taxis are by far the worst form of transportation in terms of safety as well as practicality. For one, riding taxis may not be safe in countries where there’s a lack of regulation on cab drivers or in countries where being a cab driver doesn’t require a license or a registration. Besides, taking a cab in a foreign country can also be worrisome because you don’t know whether you’ll be overcharged or taken through a more complex route.
Even if neither case is true, some people still refrain from taking cabs simply because online payment through an app is more convenient. However, these concerns don’t really translate to Japanese cabs.
Unlike in other countries, regular taxis are safe in Japan — so there’s almost no need for an alternative. So, in its current state, Uber doesn’t really work in Japan. Even if it could operate in Japan without any caveats, it still wouldn’t work as well as a taxi operation does, let alone be able to replace taxis as it has in some countries.
Japanese Cabs vs Uber
In Japan, cab drivers work very diligently, and you only pay for the ride as there are no additional fees whatsoever. Even the concept of online payments is quite common among Japanese taxis nowadays. And on top of all that, the country is quite safe, both for locals and foreigners.
So, what does this mean for Uber in Japan?
In many countries, Uber fills a gap where taxis fall short, whether that's a matter of safety, convenience, or payment options. But as I said, this isn’t really the case in Japan. The fact that cabs are already a decent enough option in Japan still plays a big role in the popularity of ride-sharing apps in Japan today.
In general, Japanese taxis are nicer, and you can use apps to call a cab or pay for your ride online easily. Might I add, taxis are available even in the Japanese countryside, or inaka, unlike Uber.
You’ll also find that cab drivers are all dressed formally in Japan and that they’re much more respectful and helpful than you may be accustomed to.
Still, if what the government officials are saying is true, Uber and similar ride-sharing apps will undoubtedly become more popular in Japan, especially among foreigners looking for a touch of familiarity in a not-so-familiar land.
Go, DiDi, and NeaMe: Better Alternatives?
Just like you can call taxis on the Uber app, you can also use other apps to call or book regular taxis in Japan.
In fact, Go, a taxi-hailing app, is far more popular than Uber as it’s the most used taxi app in Japan. You can use the app almost anywhere in Japan as its use is quite widespread, and you can always pay by credit card.
However, as Japan may not always be the most accommodating place for English speakers, one downside of Go is that it’s only available in Japanese. If, however, you really need to communicate in English and you live in Tokyo, Hokkaido, Kansai, or Kyushu, you can also give DiDi a try.
DiDi is a Chinese app that has been operational in Japan since 2018, and you can use it in English and in Spanish to call or book a cab.
Alternatively, while it’s not a cab-hailing app, another company called NearMe has also launched a transportation service, and has services similar to Uber Pool in addition to a private airport/hotel transportation service.
NearMe’s SmartShuttle Airport service allows customers to get a door-to-door shuttle service from their homes or hotels to the airport, and as it’s a shared ride, the fares are much lower than what you’d pay for a cab.
NearMe also has a similar service for golf courses called SmartShuttle Golf that allows passengers to take shared rides to golf courses from their doorsteps. NearMe Town, another shared ride service, which passengers can use to commute to work daily or take their children to school, is also available for rides in the city center.
What’s more, the company offers a private service as well, called NearMe Limo, a fixed-priced airport transfer service, which is already available in all major cities in the country.
Ride-Sharing Apps in Japan’s Metropolis: Can You Uber in Tokyo?
While taking a cab is very much a thing in cities like Tokyo, you’ll find that Uber isn’t as commonly used. Uber and similar ride-sharing apps in Japan are still mostly used for calling a cab when you’re in a pinch or for longer distances, such as airport trips.
As I said, taxis are pretty decent in Japan, and you get a pretty good service overall. The chances of you getting scammed or endangered are pretty thin too.
The price point of Uber in Japan, however, may feel like you’re being scammed if you’ve ever taken a normal cab here. Other apps I introduced, like Go, provide a great cab-hailing service, so there’s just no need to pay for the extra charge by Uber unless you absolutely can’t find a cab otherwise.
Finally, another point that makes Ubering less viable in the city is the fact that you won’t be able to find one most of the time. While taxi cabs are abundant, and you can find one pretty much anywhere in Japan, this isn’t the case for Uber cars, as they’re pretty scarce compared to taxis.
Conclusion: Should You Use Uber in Japan?
As you may have realized by now, making a strong case in favor of Uber in Japan isn’t really possible, at least not yet.
If what the government is saying is true, we might see more Uber cars on the streets of Japan in the near future, at least during the hours when taxis are scarce. However, as of now, using Uber isn’t that viable unless all of the other apps don’t work for some reason.
Still, foreigners who are looking for something familiar may be inclined to use Uber even in Japan, and who can blame them? If you already have an account set up with all the payment information already registered, it can be more convenient to do so.
However, if you’re getting settled in Japan or are planning to move, I suggest downloading the other apps as well to save up on cab fares and have more options available. In the meantime, hopefully, Uber will eventually become fully operational in Japan.
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