It took about five minutes at the Japanese car dealer for my dreams of buying a Japanese car to go screeching off the road and crash flaming into a tree.
But let’s back up a second, because in America, Ken Seeroi was a born legend when it came to fast cars and slow women. With a longneck beer in one hand and a blonde in the other, I crossed the mountain passes and desert plains of that wide nation countless times, driving everything from motorhomes and massive diesel trucks to hotrod Chevy Vega’s and riceburner Nissan 350Z’s. Gotta steer with your knees, is the key. During those years I spent money like water, customizing the cars of my red-blooded American boyhood dreams: Super Sport Nova, classic Ford Bronco, drop-top Benz.
Features you Want in a Japanese Car
So when it came to buying a Japanese car, my plan was to get something cool and fun, like a convertible Z3 or a Jeep or something.
“Ah, you don’t want those,” said my coworker. “You’ll look like a tourist. The sun in Japan’s too hot and it rains too much.” Japanese people are always positive and supportive like that.
I don’t know why I took her car shopping with me anyway, since she knows jack about vehicles. Well, she did have a magnificent ass, so maybe that was a factor. I’m shallow; I know this about myself.
“Well, how ’bout something sporty, maybe like that Acura?” I asked.
“As long as you don’t mind everyone thinking you’re in the U.S. Army,” she replied. “Only military guys drive those.”
“Okay…well, how’s this Honda then?” I asked. “You can’t argue with the price.”
“That’s because it’s red. Everywhere you go, people will know it’s you.”
“Jeez, Ken Seeroi ain’t tryin’ to have that. Fine, then, what do you suggest?”
“What about this one?” She asked.
“A Kei car? It’s like a riding lawnmower wrapped in sheet metal. I’ve been on motorcycles with bigger engines. You gotta be fucking kidding,” I said.
Turns out, she fucking wasn’t. That’s when I came to understand that buying a car in Japan draws upon the cardinal values sacred to all Japanese people: Frugality, Anonymity, and Fear.
The Three Sacred Japanese Values
After riding Japan’s excellent public transportation systems—which you can do while reading a book, drinking a pile of beer, or sleeping—it seems clearly insane to spend thousands of dollars buying a Japanese car to sit locked in traffic. Not to mention the cost of insurance, a parking place, bi-annual inspections, road tax, oil changes, wiper blades, car washes, and toll roads.
America’s all about buying stuff—homes, cars, bikes, boats, planes, and toys of every description. No money? No worries—Payday loan! Credit cards, layaways, financing. The thinking in Japan is the polar opposite—what’ll I do when I get old? How will I pay the hospital bill if I get sick? If America’s the Land of Opportunity, Japan’s the Land of Worry.
A few years of living here changes you. You pay cash for everything, and if you had a little extra yen at the end of the year, well, maybe you could actually run the heater a few hours to keep from freezing to death over the holidays. At the fearsome salary of an English teacher, a car just looks like having to work years to pay for something less useful than the train, which we already have.
This is the country where wearing a surgical mask or locking yourself in your room and never leaving is actually normal. Japanese folks want to be anonymous for good reason—-because it’s a small country full of small, incessant gossipers. Stop your red car at the bakery just once and you’ll never hear the end of “Foreigners love pastries.” Pick up a latte on the way to work and your office mates will casually hold a conversation within earshot about how much better it is to brew coffee at home than to waste money at Starbucks (see “Frugality,” above).
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say your every move is monitored and scrutinized, on video cameras and by hordes of curtain-parting grannies. Try to sneak out a measly tunafish can in your burnable garbage Monday night and you’ll find the same trash bag deposited on your doorstep Tuesday morning. Want to know why there’s no litter or crime in Japan? Well, there you go. Of course, online crime or dumping trash in the countryside—sure, there’s heaps of that. So long as nobody’s watching, anything goes. If your old fridge falls in the forest, does anybody actually hear it? Hopefully not.
So watching Japanese traffic is enough to make you wonder if you’ve gone colorblind. it’s a long monochrome procession of white, silver, light grey, dark grey, brown, and black vehicles, punctuated by the occasional blue rental car full of red-faced Korean tourists. The car that sticks up gets hammered down.
“Be careful.” お気をつけて。Easily one of the top ten Japanese phrases.
“I’m going to the store.” “Okay, be careful.”
“I’m going to lunch.” “Be careful.”
“I’m gonna go take a whiz.” “Be careful.”
Japan’s a nation that sweats the small stuff. It’s also a nation of incredibly narrow streets and elderly citizens. Compared to America, people drive insanely slow. Go five years without an accident and you get the coveted gold stripe on your driver’s license and a nice reduction in insurance rates. Ken’s got two more years of slow, careful driving left to go.
It’s also a nation with tons of hit and run, for the same reason. Leaving the scene of an accident is practically in the driver’s handbook. The newspaper story’s always the same—-some dude clipped a Japanese ojisan or flattened some kid on his bicycle, took off, and the cops tracked him down later with the surveillance footage.
That being said, I’ve probably seen an average of three traffic accidents a year, and the majority of those involved some “person of color,” i.e., white, black, or brown. Hell, in the U.S. I’ve been personally involved in more car crashes than I’ve even seen in Japan. None of which were my fault for driving with my knees, of course.
But what about all the Japanese street racing? Didn’t Japan invent “drifting”? Is it all just a massive internet lie?
Uh, yeah, pretty much. I mean, look, it’s a big nation. Out of 127 million people, you’re gonna find a few guys into fast cars. That doesn’t make it a Japanese thing, any more than rockabilly, cross-dressing, or owl cafes. I’m pretty sure there are more dudes dressing up as schoolgirls tonight than going street racing.
What Ken Seeroi Drives
So I wound up buying a Japanese car the way Japanese folks order food at restaurants. By ignoring the menu and just going with the same thing everybody else at the table’s getting. Yo, I’m already a hairy six-foot tall white guy; I don’t need to stand out any more. I took my coworker’s advice and picked up a small, used Daihatsu in stunning medium gray. Because honestly, nobody in Japan gives a damn what I drive. It’s reliable, costs peanuts to run, and every yen I save puts me one day closer to my dream of never teaching English again and moving to Bali. So when Osaka girlfriend needed a new set of tires for her Toyota SUV, she griped about having to shell out $750 for a set of four. But when Mr. Daihatsu needed his own lawnmower-sized rubber, he got four brand-new tires, mounted and balanced, for under 200 bucks. That’s one hell of a deal. Bali, here we come.
It’s strange, you know? Because all those years in the U.S., I dropped thousands of dollars on custom paint jobs, carnauba wax, and Armor All. But now, in some weird way, the worse my car looks, the better I feel. Because when some jarhead dings me with the door of his red Acura in the bakery parking lot, or I come back from a day on the farm covered in mud and tree sap, or an afternoon at the beach and the floor mats fill up with sand, I could care less. I wouldn’t drive anything else. And maybe that’s the secret to happiness after all: not caring more, but caring less.