Each night in Tokyo, several thousand men and women suit up, donning ties, white gloves, and even surgical masks to quietly ferry passengers around the city. They drive pristinely kept Toyotas and Nissans, the seats often covered in flowery lace and the doors rigged to open and close automatically, minimizing interactions with customers. They don’t even ask for a tip.
“They are elusive characters,” says Oleg Tolstoy, who spent 11 nights last winter photographing cabbies in Shibuya and Shinjuku for his series Who’s Driving Tokyo? “It’s very apparent the drivers like to keep to themselves.”
A serious approach to taxiing is the backbone of Tokyo’s $15 billion taxi industry. Some 44,000 cars compete for passengers, with the best-rated drivers receiving their own stands at major train stations. The excellent service almost makes customers forget about the fact their chauffeurs—most around age 60—don’t always know the roads.
But the fanfare doesn’t guarantee the industry’s future. Passenger volume fell by a third from 2005 to 2015. And though companies have tried to draw new customers by lowering fares and developing ride-ordering and sharing apps, their long-term stability is anyone’s guess as companies like Uber and China’s Didi Xhuxing try to break into the market ahead of the 2020 Olympics. Nissan is also testing autonomous taxis that could make the rides even quieter.
Tolstoy wanted to document Tokyo’s drivers amid this uncertainty. It seemed like a natural progression from his 2016 series Who’s Driving You?, which captured traditional black cab and Uber drivers in London, where he lives, at the height of tensions between the two. For Who’s Driving Tokyo?, he spent more than 50 hours roaming Shibuya and Shinjuku, commercial districts with massive digital displays that make Times Square seem small. Standing on the sidewalk, he pointed his lens into the taxis as they passed about six feet away.
In the photographs, neon street light spills into the vehicles, illuminating the impassive gazes and pursed lips that set the cabbies apart from their peers around the world. “In London, black cab drivers are often up for a chat,” Tolstoy says. In Tokyo, not so much.