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BEYOND THE PAPER SCREEN / Ride-sharing services highlight differences in Japan, U.S.

By Sawa Kurotani / Special to The Japan News “We used to tell kids never to get in a car with a stranger,” quipped Jason. “We also used to say that it was dangerous to meet people online. Now we are meeting strangers online and getting right into their car.” True, I thought to myself. And that’s pretty funny coming from a Lyft driver!

Lyft and Uber, the largest of the online ride-sharing companies, have quickly become a popular alternative to taxis and limousine services in Southern California. Many of my friends use them occasionally and had raved about them. But I stayed away from them until recently because of what Jason was able to say so well — the idea of getting a ride from a total stranger sounded crazy to me.

That is, until the time I found myself stranded in Los Angeles after a 10-hour flight from Tokyo. Desperate to get home in Redlands, 130 kilometers away, I pulled out my smartphone and went to the Lyft app. Ten minutes later, Jason, a total stranger who popped up on my phone’s screen, picked me up in his red Corolla and whisked me away from the chaos of the L.A. airport.

Fortunately, my desperate decision had a good ending. After just a few minutes in his car, I found Jason to be a competent and courteous driver who, it turned out, had been driving full time for Lyft for over two years and was recognized for good customer care. This also turned out to be one of the most interesting rides I’ve taken in a long time. Jason’s tale of becoming a Lyft driver (he is a nutritionist by training) was surprising and unexpected.

He found driving for Lyft “addictive.” It allowed him to have complete control over when, where and how he worked, and challenged him to plan his day strategically and navigate through the city efficiently. He was friendly and had quite a sense of humor, as you can tell from the opening quote. He enjoyed telling me some outrageous experiences he had driving around strangers he had met online, as he watched my reaction through the rearview mirror.

What came across clearly in Jason’s story was a sense of control and self-determination. Jason’s red Toyota was clean, comfortable and utilitarian. He was well-mannered and extended all the courtesy that a mature adult would toward another, but he also expected me to reciprocate with similar civility. In his worldview, the driver and the passenger were two equals who enter into a mutually beneficial agreement: The latter gets to where they need to be, while the former gets paid for the convenience provided.

He even told me a story in which he asked a passenger to get out, whom he found to be inconsiderate and arrogant. His car is his personal space, and even an extension of himself. “I’m happy to give them a ride, but they have to respect the fact that it’s my car that they are riding,” he explained. “If they act like they can do whatever they want in my car, I’m not gonna put up with it.”

I can’t think of a more stark contrast to Jason than the cab driver I had had just a few days before in Japan — Mr. Kojima, as indicated on his cab license. He was a professional who knew his way around the city. He got me where I needed to go safely and within the expected time in his spotless car with an automatic door, both expected features of Japanese taxis. During the 30-minute ride, he uttered all of three short phrases — “yes” (when I told him the destination), “here we are” (when we arrived), and “thank you” (when I handed him the fare). His eyes were always downcast, and he didn’t look directly at me even once. Perhaps Mr. Kojima also loved his job driving a cab, but there was no way of telling from his completely expressionless face.

Mr. Kojima was, in many ways, a typical cab driver one would expect in Japan. In the country where “the customer is god,” as a popular adage goes, service providers like Mr. Kojima automatically assume a servile role in relation to their customers. His deferential demeanor and white gloves are the telltale sign of his servile position vis-a-vis the passenger, who sits in the back seat, which is covered with a starched white cloth, much like the overstuffed chair in the parlor of an old middle class home into which guests were cordially ushered.

Both men operate in their own web of social expectations and cultural values. For Mr. Kojima, the hierarchy between the customer and the service provider is a fundamental assumption that he as an individual can’t defy. For Jason, life as an independent Lyft driver is underwritten by values of individualism and egalitarianism at the core of American culture.

Defining their differences as “American” versus “Japanese” is, however, to oversimplify the complexity of their circumstances: Mr. Kojima, on one hand, who works in a well-established and highly regulated transportation industry in Japan, and Jason, on the other hand, who presented himself as an independent business owner in a technology-driven new industry; a middle-aged man who has learned to serve demanding customers and keep his thoughts to himself, compared to a younger man who doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind, even to a paying customer; a worker in the national economy known for quality control, compared to an entrepreneur taking advantage of laissez-faire global capitalism that thrives by defying commonsense regulations.

These many intersecting differences, not the old fashioned “cultural” differences, are what define us all in today’s ever-changing world.

(The next installment will appear Sept. 9.)

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.Speech

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