Tokyo “Might” Be Uber’s First Asian Launch

TechCrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler and I are in the Land of the Rising Sun this week, completing a series of startup interviews and talks, and guest moderating TechCrunch Disrupt Tokyo 2012.

Earlier today, amidst the breaking news that the California Public Utilities Commission had issued a series of citations and fines to a gaggle of transportation apps including Uber, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick also took the stage here to make the case for the black car and taxi dispatch app’s Asian ambitions.

Spending the last part of his talk trying to recruit a team of twenty “very smart [Tokyo-based] people” for Uber Tokyo, Kalanick revealed that the city was likely in the crosshairs for Uber’s first Asian launch. The launch could take place in as little as three weeks if timing was right, he said onstage.

When asked directly whether or not Tokyo was absolutely the company’s first choice for an Asian launch, he said “possibly,” explaining that Uber’s Asian launch strategy was contingent on getting the right people involved. He also mentioned that the startup, which has raised a total of $49.5 million in funding thus far, had someone on the ground in Hong Kong, but Japan was the first city he personally had visited.

If the company does choose to launch in Tokyo first, it faces, just like it’s faced everywhere else, challenges from all sides. The city of Tokyo is glutted with taxis since Japan’s economic downturn eliminated many other forms of gainful employment, around 58k licensed cabs at last count. It’s unclear whether the startup, which doesn’t own any black cars itself, would require a license of transportation from either the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism or the Tokyo Metropolitan Transportation department to operate here.

It’s also unclear whether Hong Kong, which already boasts a few taxi apps, would be a better market for Uber than Tokyo with regards to regulation and demand. Despite the influx of cabs in Tokyo, it’s still an incredibly laborious trek to the Narita International Airport, which is about a two-hour bus or train ride away from Tokyo’s city center. A taxi to Narita costs a prohibitive $300 and might even be slower than a bus, because taxis have to clear a series of tolls to leave Tokyo proper.

What is clear is that, despite increasing setbacks and criticism, Kalanick remains singularly focused on expanding the Uber platform and is full speed ahead as far international plans are concerned. The CEO, who ended up taking a bus to and from the airport during his stay in Nihon, was headed to the US for a pit stop, then Australia next.