Noritomosan faces unique cultural challenges in bringing its ridesharing service to Japan.

By Luca Eandi

Need a ride? You may have to wait, because Japan’s not quite comfortable with you hopping in a stranger’s car just yet. Due to legislative hurdles, ride-sharing services have not gotten moving in Japan as fast as they have in the States, Europe or China. For one, Uber’s ridesharing pilot program, “Everyone’s Uber,” was shut down in Fukuoka last year after the Transport Ministry deemed it in violation of Japan’s Road Transportation Law. Uber’s private car service, Uberblack, and taxi-hailing service, Ubertaxi, have been the only divisions of the company to legally operate in Tokyo since 2014, and have yet to expand to any other Japanese city. UberX – the company’s low-cost option – is every thrifty bar-hopper’s dream, but as it stands, its future in Japan is murky at best.

Meanwhile, Uber’s main competitor, Lyft, has received a big investment from Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten, but no immediate plans for a service have been announced. Another ride-hailing player is popular messaging app Line, who, rather than compete with existing taxi companies, have opted to partner up by offering Line Taxi, a taxi-booking service, within their app.

Now, newcomer Noritomosan is testing the waters by attempting to create a ridesharing community, allowing users to connect directly with each other to set up trips. But it’s slightly different in approach than its established rivals. By merely acting as a platform for private users to connect with one another, Noritomosan operates within the law. Users create a profile, propose plans for a trip or join existing ones, and then they’re off. Aimed at foreign travelers and residents alike, Noritomosan looks to bring people with a common destination together, whether it’s a weekday trek to load up on bulk-pack snacks at Costco or a weekend outing to a distant beach town. But legislative hurdles aren’t the only obstacle to expansion: there are also distinct cultural differences that make Japan a unique challenge.

We recently spoke about the new service with Bacher Ouro-Gnao, the 28-year-old French engineer who founded Noritomosan.

What brought you to create this service?

When I arrived in Japan for the first time in 2006, I wanted to visit various places for cheap while meeting locals. At that time I didn’t speak Japanese, so I was looking for a carpooling website in English. Unfortunately, I found nothing and I was quite upset. On my fifth trip to Japan there was still no carpooling service available, so I decided to dedicate my personal time to build a service in English and Japanese in order to match foreign travelers with local drivers. But some time later, I realized that I could also try to match Japanese people between themselves. I started developing on October 30, 2014 and released on January 29, 2016. We are still a young company, but we’re growing. Fuji TV believed in us and we have recently been featured on the TV show “Tokudane!”

What are the unique cultural challenges that you’ve run into while getting your service off the ground?

When I was talking about creating a ridesharing service in Japan, everyone told me that it’s not a part of Japanese culture – they would never go anywhere with a stranger. What I’ve figured out is that ridesharing services, as they are currently being used abroad, wouldn’t work in Japan. We needed to handle Japan as a unique country with unique features in order to provide a unique service. It means that the model we are developing in Japan is not a model that can be exported so easily to other countries. I’m working with Japanese staff to provide a good ridesharing service for the culture. It means focusing on security. Our biggest challenge is to convince Japanese people that getting a lift from a stranger is safe enough to motivate them to try it.

Regarding the legality of commercial carpooling, similar services (UberPool, Lyft Line and Sidecar) have run into legislative difficulties operating within municipalities. What challenges, if any, have you encountered with Japanese business, commercial and transportation laws?

Most Japanese people had never heard words such as “carpooling” or “ridesharing” until Uber arrived in Japan. In my opinion we are not playing on the same customer segment because Lyft, Line Taxi, and others compete for an intra-urban service (short lifts) whereas we are focused on middle and long distance lifts. Also, because we are not only sharing a ride, we are also sharing the total cost of the ride. To be more specific, with Noritomosan, the total fees per person for getting a lift must consist exclusively of actual traveling expenses (gasoline, road tolls, parking, car rental costs) divided equally between members. Consequently, no profit is to be made with our service. So, my main challenge is to sell Japanese people on alternative ways to travel in Japan other than night buses, trains and planes, and to explain that carpooling is far cheaper, far more fun, and far better for the environment.

Do you plan on expanding the service to other platforms?

We currently have a responsive website to test the market. At some point we will consider iPhone and Android applications. Depending on our users, we might also considering adding some extra languages, such as Chinese.

Main image courtesy of Noritomosan.