Japanese taxis are not actually made of chocolate but a few are painted in the colours of Kit Kat, the famous chocolate biscuit made by Nestle.
Kit Kat in Japanese sounds like kitto katsu, which could be translated as “sure to succeed”. Nestlé Japan has teamed up with the Nishitetsu taxi company in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, to provide a lucky cab service called the Juken ni KitKat model, or the “Sure to Succeed in the Exam” model.
The driver offers chocolate snacks to passengers although he cannot answer all exam questions.
Still, it is a fun marketing approach and it reminded me of a promise made by another taxi firm, Hailo, that using their cabs will help passengers spend more time with their family.
Hailo encourages working mothers to use its cabs to quickly travel from work to home or to pick up their children from school. The company says this is part of its corporate social responsibility. It is also a way to expand its customer base.
Japan has a huge number of taxis, most of which are safe, clean and quiet. The driver is usually courteous. The doors open automatically and there is normally a box of clean tissues (or, if you are lucky, a Kit Kat).
Yet I have found many drivers who do not know the routes to famous destinations, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Imperial Hotel.
To my eye, it also looks like a very inefficient business with long lines of empty taxis waiting outside stations or idling in entertainment districts.
This over-capacity means I have never had any difficult hailing a cab in Japan but apparently, many people prefer to use a smart phone to book because they think it is cheaper or more efficient.
So Hailo has developed a smart phone app to connect with the taxi fleet. It launched in London in 2011 and expanded to Osaka two years later. The CEO of the Japanese operation is Ryo Umezawa.
Umezawa san was born in Tokyo but spent ten years in the Philippines where he learned English. He became an entrepreneur at a young age and sometimes people tell him they do not believe he is a CEO and ask him to bring an older colleague.
“Studying abroad and learning English helped me see Japan as a foreign country,” he said and this perspective makes him a useful partner for the British.
“Japan is an island country and in many ways it is closed. So outsiders coming in need to show to the Japanese that they are committed,” he said.
“Japanese people tend to see foreign companies coming into Japan as black ships,” he explained, in reference to the black ships of the US General Perry which sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and which forced Japan to trade with America – a classic example of gunboat diplomacy.
What about the language gap with the managers from his British partner company?
“I do not think it is necessary for everyone in Japan to speak English. After all, you can use the services of a professional translator although I do think relationship building may be harder if there is a language barrier,” he said.
“A lot of foreign companies turn to English-speaking Japanese people to help them. Yet those English-speakers may not keep up with their professional skills. Their skill set is more important than language.”
I met Umezawa san through Export to Japan, part of the British government’s Department of Trade and Industry. Its webcast was hosted by Steve Crane, CEO of Business Link Japan, who helps British companies enter the Japanese market.
Mr Crane said: “I spent the first six months telling Japanese people how they should do things because I thought I could teach them. Then I realised that I really needed to listen more and understand how they do things. When I started to listen more, business became much more successful.”