It's after midnight. The trains have stopped running and won’t start again until 6am. I have rented a home in central Tokyo but I am standing on the sidewalk in the Roppongi district. Takushi! Taxi! I wave a tired arm at the animatronic mass of passing vehicles and hope something human will be alerted and come to my rescue. As my mind adjusts to the visual overload I start to get a sense of what's going on in the street. The taxis all have a distinctive piece of neon signage on their roofs. If illuminated — the cab is vacant and available for hire. If not, keep waving.
The taxi signage is so dynamically J-Pop I get a blast of energy and start to enjoy the passing parade of neon art. What I am witnessing is the identification system for Tokyo’s 58,000 taxis. The neon icon atop the taxi informs the (informed) viewer which of the 1,024 taxi companies this taxi is registered to. But as seen from some of British photographer Alexander James’ nightscapes of taxi top art, the ultimate identification can remain wildly ambiguous. A big eyed puppy, a fisherman and his fish, a frog and a fat, raised forefinger each identify a different taxi company. But who are they? What is the actual name of the company? While some signs do display a name there are even more with art you might expect to find on a Japanese candy shelf or in a child’s coloring book. As I ponder how this abstract system functions so perfectly that Tokyo recently placed first in friendliest taxi drivers and best taxi services (per TripAdvisor December 2012) a taxi pulls to a gentle stop at the curb in front of me. With robot finesse, the passenger door automatically opens and I look inside at the white seat covers and white gloved driver listening to a circa. 1968 transistor radio taped to his sunvisor. He nods and I start to get in, but then step back and stare at the neon art identifying the taxi. I take a photo of the icon, then get in and close the door. A hushed geo-exchange with the driver and a flawless ride through night time Tokyo follows. Outside the taxi the city is all go-go energy but inside I am still wondering about the translation. The driver only smiles and nods when I ask what the art means. “Yes. This is our taxi. Welcome.”