TOKYO (Reuters) - Long queues of empty taxis line Tokyo's busy streets these days as Japanese pinch pennies and brace for an economic recession.
"You see more people waiting for buses," said Takahisa Suga, a taxi driver for eight years, as he drove around Tokyo's Otemachi financial district.
"My colleagues and I just wait and talk about how much time we have to spare."
Known for their proximity to consumer trends, taxi drivers were among 2,000 so-called "economy watchers" surveyed in a government report on Tuesday that showed service sector sentiment hitting an all-time low in October.
Drivers were gloomy when asked about business, saying customers were especially hard to come by at night, even in prime entertainment areas where partygoers could previously be counted on to fetch cabs after missing the last train home.
"If you go to Ginza, Roppongi or Akasaka after 1 a.m., you'll see empty taxis everywhere," said Hiroyuki Kondo, in a navy suit and white gloves -- the customary garb of Japanese taxi drivers.
"That means companies are cutting back on entertainment."
During the day, those shelling out for taxis are keeping rides short, said Suga. Fewer customers take rides he refers to as "longs," or those adding up to more than 3,000 yen ($31).
"I used to get a lot of 'longs' in the morning, taking people into the city for work, but there are fewer of them now.
"It's depressing. When I don't get a 'long' first thing in the morning, it's like bad luck for the rest of the day."
Others were feeling the impact of the economic downturn from talking to customers who often complain about politics. A recent government plan to offer 2 trillion yen in payouts to encourage households to spend was particularly unpopular.
"People say they won't use the payouts because it just adds to government debt and won't help the economy," said Koshiro Tamura, 57, a taxi driver who took up the job six years ago.
Prime Minister Taro Aso is under fire in the media for changing his position several times over who would be entitled to the money, after a well-publicized debate among his cabinet ministers.
"Many customers get fired up when they talk about politics and ask for my opinion," said Tamura.
"But our company forbids drivers from talking about politics, religion and sports, so when that happens, I just smile and nod."
Editing by Hugh Lawson