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INTERNATIONAL - Dara Khosrowshahi, in his first trip to Asia since becoming chief executive, made it clear that the ride-hailing company isn’t about to scale back its business to just countries where it already has a strong market position.

During his first stop in Japan, he said he’s willing to forge partnerships with taxi companies in order to succeed, even though Uber has less tha 1percent market share and only offers limited services there.

“I saw Japan as an incredible opportunity, and when I asked the team why wasn’t our Japan business larger, I started learning the history of our approach to Japan, and it was an approach that frankly didn’t work,” Khosrowshahi said in Tokyo yesterday.

It’s clear to me that we need to come in with partnership in mind, and in particular a partnership with the taxi industry here.”

It’s the clearest sign yet that the ride-hailing giant will redouble efforts to take a piece of Japan’s $16billion (R186.45bn) taxi market, even amid signs of pressure from its biggest shareholder, SoftBank Group, to focus on core markets.

Amid heavy operating losses, Uber has retreated from some markets, including China and Russia. It’s also said to be considering a sale of its Southeast Asian business. After Japan, Khosrowshahi is scheduled to visit India, where Uber is competing against local ride-hailing start-up Ola.

Last month, Rajeev Misra, a SoftBank executive joining Uber’s board, suggested in an interview with the Financial Times that Uber focus on core markets such as the US, Europe, Latin America and Australia.

Khosrowshahi pushed back against that notion in an interview he gave at Davos, saying the company would be “leaning forward” to expand. Moreover, Uber is aiming to hold an initial public offering as soon as next year, making it even more important for the chief executive to highlight potential areas of future growth.

While Khosrowshahi didn’t announce any specific deals during his visit to Japan, he made clear that Uber would make a renewed push to expand in the country.

Although Uber has clashed with taxi rivals and regulators around the world, it has played by the rules in the archipelago, relegating its business to car hires and a ride-sharing programme for the elderly in a small rural town.

Uber still faces an uphill battle in Japan. Local rivals such as Nihon Kotsu, Tokyo’s largest cab company, have already released popular taxi-hailing apps.

Uber’s Chinese rival Didi Chuxing last year began partnership talks with taxi operator Daiichi Koutsu Sangyo, with the discussions facilitated by SoftBank, a person familiar with the matter said in October. Uber is also said to be in talks for a venture with Daiichi Koutsu.

And yesterday, just an hour before Khosrowshahi spoke, Sony unveiled an alliance with six taxi operators in Japan, which have a combined fleet of more than 10000 cabs in the greater Tokyo area.

Sony is aiming to develop a ride-hailing app powered by artificial intelligence and also provide payment services.

Uber’s chief executive said Japan’s taxi utilisation rate is 30percent, while Uber’s is more than 50percent.

By combining Uber’s brand, technology, along with demand from tourists and partnerships with the taxi industry, he said the result would be a “win-win” for Uber and the taxi industry.

Khosrowshahi’s enthusiasm echoes comments from Uber’s Asia head Brooks Entwistle, who said this year that Japan will be a major focus for the company in 2018.

That’s a turnaround from previous boss Travis Kalanick, who largely left the country in the hands of a local manager.

Asked about SoftBank, which in January became Uber’s biggest investor, Khosrowshahi said the Japanese telecoms and investment company is “simply the smartest moneyin the transportation space”.