SoftBank chief blasts Japan over curbs on ride-sharing services

TOKYO • SoftBank Group chief executive Masayoshi Son blasted Japan yesterday for not allowing ride-sharing services, calling it "stupid" and saying the country was lagging behind overseas rivals in areas such as artificial intelligence.

"Ride-sharing is prohibited by law in Japan. I can't believe there is still such a stupid country," Mr Son said at an annual company event aimed at customers and suppliers.

The comments reflect Mr Son's frustration with Japan, where he built SoftBank's domestic telecoms business, the cash engine that has powered his investments.

The group has, however, focused its growing range of technology investments overseas.

Mr Son has also been highly critical of the government previously when SoftBank was still a fledgling telecoms service trying to break up a cosy duopoly in Japan.

"A country that gives up on the future has no future," Mr Son told attendees at the SoftBank World event, saying Japanese business is lagging behind countries such as the United States and China in employing artificial intelligence.

Japan outlaws non-professional drivers from transporting paying customers on safety grounds and the taxi industry lobby has vigorously opposed deregulation.

Its strict rules have confined ride-sharing firms to providing limited services, with SoftBank and China's Didi Chuxing saying yesterday that they will trial a taxi-hailing service - matching users to pre-existing taxi operators - in Osaka beginning in the autumn next year. Uber is also piloting a taxi-hailing service.

When asked for a response to Mr Son's comments, a spokesman for the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said that an issue with ride-sharing services was that while the driver was in charge of transporting passengers, it was unclear who was in charge of maintenance and operation.

"The ministry believes that offering these services for a fee poses problems from the points of both safety and user protection, and careful consideration is necessary," he said.

Ride-sharing is not the only service in Japan feeling the impact of government restrictions. Strict new rules on home-sharing came into force last month that have radically reduced the number of lettings on sites such as Airbnb.

The curbs on Japan's nascent sharing economy come despite a rapid rise in the number of inbound tourists likely to access such sharing services, and at a time when Japan wants to show its international face ahead of hosting the Rugby World Cup next year and the Summer Olympics in 2020.

While Mr Son, an ethnic Korean born in Japan, has at times criticised the Japanese government, he can also be politically suave.

He has praised US President Donald Trump with warm words and pledged to invest billions of dollars and create thousands of jobs in the United States.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2018, with the headline 'SoftBank chief blasts Japan over curbs on ride-sharing services'. Print Edition | Subscribe