Dave Barry Does Japan (excerpt)


The Background of this book: TV Violence

My first impressions of the Japanese came from watching them act like raving homicidal maniacs on television. This was in 1953, when I was six, and we got our first TV set, one of those comical old models with a teensy screen embedded in a wooden cabinet roughly the size of the house where Lincoln was born. Many of the programs I watched on that little screen involved homicidal maniacs. If I had to summarize the important early lesson I learned from TV, it would be: "Watch out -- the world is full of people who want to kill you!" The western shows, for example, were infested with bad men who did nothing but grow chin stubble and ride around shooting people. Your average hero cowboy, such as Gene Autry or the Cisco Kid, could not ride his horse twenty feet without getting ambushed by bad guys packing six guns that could shoot 17 million bullets without reloading.

Fortunately the bad guys had the tactical intelligence of a waffle iron, so the hero was able to outsmart them by ducking behind some rocks, then putting his hat on a stick and holding it up. The bad guys -- who never learned, no matter how many times this trick was played on them -- were fooled into thinking that the hat contained the good guy's actual head, so they'd shoot all 17 million bullets, each of which would ricochet off the rocks with a loud chinngggg. (Forget erosion: The main reason why the western landscape is so rugged is that bad guys ricocheted so many bullets off it.)

Even outer space had maniacs. I learned this from a show called Captain Video, featuring a man named, oddly, Captain Video, a space pioneer in charge of an extremely low-budget spaceship that appeared to be made from materials that you might I find around a TV studio. For example, the device I he used for communicating back to the Earth was obviously a regular telephone; Captain Video held the handset as though it were a microphone and talked into the listening end.

While pioneering around the universe, Captain Video kept running into homicidal space aliens with Russian accents. In my favorite episode, an alien invented a robot named -- get ready for a clever robot name -- Tobor, who looked a lot like a man wearing cardboard boxes covered with Reynolds Wrap. In the dramatic final scene, the villain orders Tobor to get Captain Video.

"Attack, Tobor!" says the villain, and Tobor lumbers toward Captain Video. Things look very bad, but suddenly, at the last instant, with Tobor only inches away, Captain Video has an idea -- a crazy idea, but one that just might work.

"Go back, Tobor!" he says.

And Tobor, who clearly was not in the gifted program at robot school, turns around and starts lumbering toward the villain.

"Attack, Tobor!" says the villain, and Tobor once again goes into reverse lumber.

"Go back, Tobor!" says the captain, who was probably up all night memorizing his lines.

For most of the episode Tobor goes back and forth until finally he breaks down, thus ending the threat, because you know how difficult it is to get a robot serviced in space.

But the most maniacal of all the maniacs I watched on TV were the Japanese soldiers in the World War II movies. The German soldiers were also homicidal, but they weren't crazy. Whereas the Japanese -- always sensitively referred to as "Japs" -- were completely out of their minds. They'd crash their planes on you and leap out of palm trees on your head and just generally swarm at you like some species of giant suicidal shrieking, sword-waving, spittle-emitting insect. Total wackmobiles.

You could always tell when the Japanese were about to appear because brass instruments on the sound track would play an ominous, Oriental-sounding musical chord. A group of GIs would be walking through the jungle, nervous but still making spunky American wisecracks, and suddenly the sound track would go:


And right away you knew there were Japs in the trees, ready to pounce.

Or a U.S. Navy ship would be motoring along, and the lookout would put his binoculars to his eyes, and


there would be a Jap destroyer. Probably one of the major reasons why the Japanese lost the war is that the sound track kept giving their position away.

But they were tough. They fought like crazy, and they would do anything to win, including taunt the Americans in an unsportsmanlike fashion ("Hey! GI Joe!") from their jungle hiding places. If they captured one of our guys their leader always turned out to have a UCLA education, which he then -- talk about ingratitude -- turned against us. ("American! Terr me the rocation of yoah headquatah! I see you suppry I speak Engrish so werr.")

The point is that my initial impression of the Japanese was not favorable. Fortunately, as I grew older my intellectual horizons broadened, and I no longer received information about the outside world exclusively from television; I also started going to horror movies. From these I learned that Japan was not just a weird foreign country that had tried to kill us; it was also a weird foreign country that was for some reason under almost constant attack by giant mutated creatures. Godzilla was the most famous one, of course, but there were also hyperthyroid pterodactyls, spiders, etc., all of which regularly barged into Tokyo and committed acts of mass destruction. I imagine this eventually became so commonplace that Japanese TV weathermen included it in their forecasts. ("Partly cloudy this afternoon, with a sixty percent chance that Tokyo will be leveled by immense radioactive worms." )

These movies always had a scene wherein the creature, striding through the streets, would knock over a crowded commuter train. It must have been hell being a Tokyo commuter in those days. You'd arrive at work two hours late, and try to explain to your boss that your train had been flung into the harbor by an irate praying mantis the size of Belgium, and he'd say, "What, again?"

My only other contact with Japan was through products made there, mostly cheap toys that my father would sometimes bring home for me. These did not survive long in the harsh environment of my room. I'd get a little friction-motor car, and I'd rev it up to about 20,000 rpm and set it loose, and it would hit the wall and -- sproing! -- disintegrate into dozens of tiny car parts. It would have been more efficient if my dad, instead of going to all the trouble of lugging these toys home, had just smashed them with a hammer right at the toy store.

Automobiles: Us
Back then, of course, we thought all Japanese products were cheap. How could the Japanese make good products, given the time they spent fleeing from Godzilla? The suggestion that Japan could make real cars would have been laughable. Real cars were made here in America: Fords, Chevys, Plymouths. These were large chunks of Detroit iron -- cars that had the size, weight, and handling characteristics of aircraft carriers but worse fuel efficiency; cars with huge engines and vast backseats that a person could get pregnant in without undue contortion and big round dashboard clocks that never moved. (I think there was a quality control inspector at the end of every auto-assembly line to check the clocks; if he found one that worked, he sent the car back.)

Back then you formed a family loyalty to a brand. If your parents were Ford people, you were a Ford person, and every few years you traded your Ford in for another Ford. It was like a religion. When I was a student at Pleasantville High School in the sixties, the major lunchtime activity for a large group of boys -- the industrial arts students, or "hoods," for short -- was to stand on a corner just off school property, wearing tight black pants that stopped at midcalf, smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes, spitting frequently, and holding long scholarly debates concerning the issue of Ford versus Chevy:

FORD GUY: Ain't no [bad word] way that any [bad word] piece of Chevy [bad word] is gonna beat a 497 with dual overhauled quad thrusted cams!

CHEVY GUY: Oh yeah?

(They fight.)

Actually, I don't think there were many important mechanical differences among American cars back then. The big difference was styling. Every year the manufacturers would come out with new models featuring more chrome and bigger fins, in a fierce competition to see who could produce the ugliest car. The winner was Chrysler, which in the late fifties came out with a model that had a set of fins tall enough to menace commercial aviation. Any given one of these fins contained sufficient sheet metal to house all the poor families in Mexico City. This car looked like Captain Video's rocket ship. But people bought it; because it was a big, solid American car, and, by God, Americans knew how to make a car.

My first inkling that Japan might be able to make a vehicle that was not powered by a friction motor came in the late sixties, when I was in college, and my friend Buzz Burger bought a Honda motorcycle. It had a hilarious, incomprehensible owner's manual that appeared to have been translated from Japanese to English by somebody who spoke only Swahili. It was full of statements like:

WARNING! To take and put the earth wire not having
a smart holding, a fatal eventuality may incur.
We got a lot of entertainment reading aloud from this manual when we were supposed to be studying. Those wacky Japanese! Thinking they could put out an owner's manual! We couldn't help but notice, however, that it was a really good motorcycle. To start other motorcycles, especially in cold weather, you had to mess around with various adjustments, then spend twenty minutes or so jumping up and down on the kick-starter while cursing. Whereas to start Buzz's Honda, you just turned the key and pressed a button, and purrrrrr it was running nice and smooth.

So, we figured, OK, maybe they could make a motorcycle. Also we were starting to hear some good things about radios made by a company called Sony. But that certainly didn't mean that there was any reason for us to be concerned about America losing its


Hey! What was that sound? Probably nothing, we figured. We didn't think about it; we were occupied with being Leaders of the Free World, which meant building a Great Society plus fighting a war in Vietnam plus defending all of Western Europe from the Soviet Menace plus building enough nuclear weapons to vaporize the entire planet 173 times plus sending an endless procession of men with nicknames like "Doke" to the Moon. We didn't have time to be worrying about what Japan was up to. We were busy.

Automobiles: Them
Then, in the seventies, we suddenly ran out of oil. There were huge lines of cars at the gas stations, and people were actually shooting each other in disputes about line-butting. It was a scary time. A lot of people started thinking that maybe they should buy small, fuel-efficient cars. And guess who was making them?


That's right. The wacky little maniacs were now making cars, with comical names like Toyota. They didn't look very sharp -- in fact, they looked like large versions of the friction-motor cars I used to smash into my wall -- but they ran pretty well, and they got good mileage, and they were dependable and cheap. More and more people started buying them.

Automobiles: Us
At first the American auto manufacturers resisted making small cars for aesthetic reasons: Smaller cars sell for less money. But finally, feeling the pinch from foreign competition, the U.S. auto makers decided that, OK, they would make small cars. But not just any small cars: No, they would make really bad small cars. The shrewd marketing strategy here was that people would buy these cars, realize how crappy they were, and go back to aircraft carriers. This strategy resulted in cars such as the Ford Pinto, the Chevrolet Vega, and the American Motors Gremlin -- cars that were apparently designed during office Christmas parties by drunken mail-room employees drawing on napkins; cars that frequently disintegrated while they were still on the assembly line.

I know what I'm talking about here. In 1971 I purchased a Vega, which I believe was manufactured entirely out of compressed rust. Moments after I bought it, the body began developing little holes, which turned into bigger holes, until the Vega looked like an educational demonstration X-ray car, with most of its body removed so that interested onlookers could examine its working parts. Except that it hardly had any working parts. It did have a recurring ignition problem, so the only way I could get it running was to raise the hood and use a screwdriver to connect two metal things, which would cause sparks to go shooting around the engine compartment and sometimes also cause the engine to actually start, but frequently not. I spent many hours waiting for tow trucks, idly picking large rust flakes off the fender and listening to parts fall off. Parts were always falling off the Vega. If I couldn't remember where I'd left it in a parking lot, I'd just stand still for a moment, listening and -- clang -- there would be the familiar sound of the Vega jettisoning, say, a shock absorber.

And the Vega wasn't even the worst of the small American cars. The Pinto sometimes exploded. ("Where'd we park, Marge?" BOOM. "Over there!") But these were the vehicles Detroit was offering us. And so, more and more, we bought from the Japanese, whose cars were growing less comical- looking all the time. Finally the U.S. manufacturers realized that, if they were going to win this fight, they'd have to employ something other than the Really Bad Car strategy. So, showing the kind of spunky, independent, "can-do" pioneer spirit that made America the self-reliant nation it is, they went whining to the government for help. Industry leaders like Lee "Air Bag" Iacocca argued that Americans needed import restrictions to protect them from the threat of cheaper and better Japanese cars.

Other Stuff: Them
But it was too late. American consumers had discovered that they really liked Japanese products. And not just cars, either. You walked into any home-electronics store and


you were surrounded by new and wondrously clever rnade-in-Japan devices that were crying out to become a part of your life-style. ("Hey! GI Joe! You rike Mitsubishi VCR, yes?")

Also there were cameras and skis and guitars and pianos, all of them well made. The Japanese were sending freighters full of products over to us, and we were sending freighters full of money back. And then they were starting to use that money to purchase things that we had always thought of as unalterably, uniquely American, such as Hawaii. We didn't like this, but we kept buying their products. We had come to just assume that anything made in Japan was better than anything we could make.

Of course, there was a lot of hand-wringing about this. We asked ourselves: What happened to us? Why can't we make VCRs? It seemed as though every week the newspaper had yet another article about yet another study showing that American children who were graduating from high school scored lower on standardized academic tests than Japanese children who were still in the womb.

We wondered. And worried. Are we really stupider than they are? Can it be that we're inferior to the little banzai wackmobiles? This is a very difficult concept for Americans, long the butt-kickers of the world, to even think about. The irony is, we spent all those years in the life-or-death Cold War, Struggle against the Evil Soviet Menace, and we finally achieved victory so total that by 1991, the only remaining Soviet menace was that you might get crushed under a statue of Lenin being toppled by a crowd of Latvians wearing Guess jeans. This should have been a time for us to pour champagne on our heads and shout "We're number one!" and hold street celebrations culminating in widespread arrests and some looting, but instead we looked around and secretly speculated: Are we really number one? Do we feel like we're number one, with our lousy schools and our wasted cities and our pandering slimeball "leaders" in Washington and our endless whining lawsuits caused by a ratio of roughly four lawyers for every human and all our multiskillion-dollar weapons systems protecting us from what? From freighters filled with Infinitis ordered by orthodontists in Connecticut? So we thought: Maybe we're not number one after all. And we looked at the Japanese, with their booming economy and their high literacy rate and their low crime rate and their tourists showing up all over the world wearing designer clothes that we can't afford and spending bales of money in exclusive stores that we don't even dare walk into, and they ticked us off, I mean, we beat them in the war, right? We invented the automobile, right? We are, on average, taller, right? Who the hell do they think they are?

Oh, there's a lot of anger. Every now and then you see a news story about a group of American workers, usually assisted by a member of Congress, demonstrating their concern over Japanese imports by smashing the hell out of a Japanese radio with a sledgehammer. This is, of course, an extremely effective way to reduce Japanese imports, the only teensy little flaw being that it's stupid, because in order to smash a Japanese radio, you have to import it. Some smart Japanese company is probably doing a brisk business over here, selling radios that are specially designed to smash in a dramatic and photogenic manner. This company also supplies the sledgehammer, and perhaps even the member of Congress.

But never mind the economic logic. The point is that there's a lot of hostility and mistrust on both sides, and as Japan has grown stronger, the relationship between the two countries has gotten worse. There was even a best-selling book not long ago called The Coming War with Japan, although I hate to think that we'd be foolish enough to go to war with Japan, because there's always the terrible danger that we'd win again.

But the mere fact that we can even think about another war shows how bad things have gotten, and how important it is for us to try to improve understanding between these two great nations.

And that's why I wrote this book: to try, in some small way, to make this world a better place for people everywhere, and for the generations to come.

I'm lying, of course. I wrote this book because I thought a trip to Japan might be pretty funny, especially since Random House had generously agreed to pay for the whole thing. This was a major factor, because I had heard that prices were pretty high in Japan. People who'd been there were always telling me horror stories. "Oh, yes," they'd say. "In Tokyo, Frank ordered two eggs over medium and the bill came to $16,500, plus $312 for the parsley sprig, and he wound up having to sell both of his corneas."

So in the summer of 1991 I filled several large suitcases with traveler's checks and went to Japan with my wife, Beth, and my ten-year-old son, Robert. We spent three weeks bumbling around in a disoriented, uncomprehending manner, The Three Cultural Stooges; because it turns out that Japan is an extremely foreign country, where you can never be sure whether the sign on the door you're about to open says:




This book is an account of that trip. Please don't misunderstand me: I don't claim to have become an expert on Japan in three weeks. The Japanese culture is thousands of years old; to truly grasp its incredible complexity and infinite subtle nuance, you'd need at least a month.

Ha-ha! Just kidding. I don't know if an outsider can ever really understand Japan, but I know we never came close. When I arrived there, my major objectives immediately changed from things like "try to determine attitude of average salaried worker toward government industrial policy" to things like "try to find food without suckers on it."

So this book is not authoritative. If you want authoritative, go buy a real book. This book is just a highly subjective account of our trip, with a lot of personal impressions, some of which may well have been influenced by beer, which by the way is another thing they do better than we do. In fact, they do quite a few things better than we do, and I'm not just talking about cars and radios. But it also turns out that we are way ahead of them in important areas, such as pizza.

My most important finding, however, does not involve the differences between us and Japan; it involves the similarities. Because despite the gulf, physical and cultural, between the United States and Japan, both societies are, in the end, made up of people, and people everywhere -- when you strip away their superficial differences -- are crazy.

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