Tokyo Motor show credentials
Tokyo Motor show credentials. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Norm Mort

Photo Gallery:
Lost in translation

Tokyo, Japan – Being one of the world’s top manufacturers of motor vehicles, the country of Japan goes all out for its international auto shows. Like many of the European events, the Tokyo Motor Show takes place every two years. This year, the Tokyo Motor Show attracted 1,425,800 visitors in its 17-day duration which ended on November 11th.

While most of the North American auto shows focus on small trucks and automobiles, Japan’s Tokyo Motor Show includes motorcycles, big rigs and even buses. In Japan the motorcycle and scooter market far exceeds that of North America’s. The motor scooter and cycle manufacturers have a separate hall where displays and demonstrations take place on a regular basis funded by the manufacturers or local police.

One of the popular teams this year was known as the “White Women.” In most countries, this term would not be acceptable, but in Japan it seemed logical to name an all-female motorcycle team dressed in white police uniforms, the “White Women.” This type of literal translation is common in Japan.

Japanese micro car books
Japanese micro car books. Click image to enlarge

English words are on most signs, books and companies. I purchased two fine books on Japanese micro vehicles at the booths that lined the mezzanine above the show floor. The titles were all in English, but there was no English between the covers. These books are read back to front, but the numbers depicting each model presented are printed left to right. The names of the cars on display are not printed in Japanese, but bear English names. Again, a lot is lost in the translation and not because these are domestic companies only.

For example, Toyota, which sells vehicles around the world and advertises in virtually every language known, sells dozens of models with strange English nameplates. There is a top-of-the-line Zero Crown; the economical Corolla Rumion and Fielder; the 1.3L Vitz; or the “Runner with activity and space,” Ractis.

The strange badges are not unique to Toyota. Nissan has its small sedan called the Tida Latio; Mazda has the mico minivan known as the Scrum Wagon, and Daihatsu the tiny Terios Kid.

The automobiles are also described in rather unusual terms. The RAV4 is promoted with the line, “Active for Freedom;” the Mazda Premacy as the “20CS Lift-up Seat Vehicle,” and the Honda Vamos as the “L-Turbo, Lowdown 2WD.”

High-tech credential chip
Show girls
High-tech credential chip (top); show girls. Click image to enlarge

Entry to the show was by a pre-registered, numbered press card that was scanned not by bar code, but an actual chip implanted in a sticker. Printed on this sticker in English was “The ‘Chip’ Opens New Possibilities.” It was simple and fast. There was also minimal security at the gates. There were no small armies of police at each door checking your bags and no bomb sniffing dogs.

Inside the show young Japanese girls, who appeared to range from 13-17 years of age, are everywhere. These young women are keen to be hired to stand beside an automakers car and be photographed. Many in the past have started their modeling career being seen in photos taken at the Tokyo Motor Show. In fact, it is difficult to take a picture of a car, motorcycle, etc. without having a young Japanese girl standing alongside.

In the introductions at the Tokyo Motor Show, the company public relations people, presidents and vice-presidents stressed not only the technical and styling details of the latest vehicle, but spoke at great lengths about the joy and happiness this new car would bring to the potential customer’s life.

The Japanese automakers also appear to be the most fascinated by “bubble” cars. Perhaps it stems from bubble teas or the wide range of micro cars offered mainly by Suzuki and Daihatsu.

Interestingly, on my flight to Japan I was reading a British classic car magazine with a feature on micro cars. The article noted the large number of micro cars in Japan. But both times I have been to Japan I have been surprised at how few micro cars I have seen. Most common are cars the size of the Corolla/Civic to Camry/Accord. Micro vans and pickups are commonly seen as service vehicles, but there are few under 1,000-cc cars, identifiable by the fitting of a white license plate. While in Tokyo this time I spotted three Hummers and two Suburbans, as well as an extraordinarily high number of Ferraris and Aston Martins.

Tokyo Motor Show brochure
Tokyo Motor Show brochure
Tokyo Motor Show brochures. Click image to enlarge

As a visitor walking about the streets of both Tokyo and Hiroshima you immediately become aware that Japanese people are extremely polite and very honest. You can generally leave an unlocked bicycle outside a store or an office all day with a parcel in the basket and both will be there at the end of the day.

The taxi cabs are immaculate inside and out and all taxi cab drivers were a hat, suit, white shirt and tie. When not driving their taxi they are polishing their cab. Inside you’ll find an air cleaner and anti-Mecosta on each seat.

The Japanese people are always very polite to foreigners. Many speak English and most will say they do. It is not until you are well into your second sentence that you realize you are speaking far too quickly and that although they “speak” English, a conversation or detailed instructions is something different altogether.

Our guide on the trip also explained the customary greeting and bowing, rather than our handshake. First rule, eye contact should always be made. Stop and bow your head slightly when greeting someone for the first time. This is known as a “five after the hour” movement of the head. A “ten-after” bow is expected if you have met in the past – this is common among friends and working associates. If you have a closer relationship – such as a family member – then you bow more from the waist to almost “fifteen-after”. For those you have borrowed money from, or owe much to for their kindness, it is expected that you show your respect by bowing to “twenty minutes past the hour”. Although this is expected throughout the Japanese culture, I discovered that it is different for North Americans and Europeans. The five-after nod or bow is still there, but there was no continuous eye contact. Perhaps this just wasn’t expected from a foreigner and thus ignored.

Travelling back and forth from the show; which is held in Makuhari Messe about an hour from downtown Tokyo, the offices in the buildings that lined the route were still busy well after five o’clock.

Our guide described the workers as “salary men.” He had once been a salary man who would work from nine to five, but be expected to stay until at least seven o’clock at night. At that time the salary man was then expected to go out with his fellow workers to have drinks and food, often beer and wings (which must be universal!) The salary man normally allots twenty dollars a day from his wages. Out of that, five dollars is for lunch, while the rest goes for the evening meal with those in his office. He would then get on the train around nine o’clock and be home by eleven. In the morning the routine begins all over again.

A small condo apartment in the suburbs of Tokyo would cost about $700,000 dollars. The mortgages run from the customary 25-years to the now more common 75-year mortgage for a 500-600 square foot apartment. The children assume the mortgage if it is not paid off during your years of service with a company.

Hiroshima bathroom
Hiroshima bathroom. Click image to enlarge

Two weeks holidays are usually not taken, but in Japan there are approximately sixty days of civic holidays for family, visiting ancestors’ homes and travelling. Professional salaries apparently start at $35,000 and if you follow the prescribed routines you will advance over time and your salary at retirement in upper management ranges from $75,000-$90,000 dollars. Failure to adhere to this expected practice will have dire consequences.

In Hiroshima I was surprised by a traditional box television in the room, but at the Tokyo Grande the two televisions in my room were flat screens – a smaller one was on the bathroom counter. This hotel bathroom was used in the film “Lost in Translation” – the glassed-in shower and tub were featured in one scene.

Hiroshima toilet
Hiroshima toilet. Click image to enlarge

In both of these Japanese hotels, the toilets were something closer to chairs found in a NASA rocket. The toilet is in a separate enclosed small area off the bathroom and features a heated seat with a full range of settings, a fan inside the toilet activated after flushing, a separate bidet, wash and rise control panel and the usual telephone – a worldwide barometer of how classy your room really is in the hotel.

Obviously we’ve come a long way since the little shack out back with the Eaton’s catalog, but we don’t come close to the Japanese. Cleanliness is stressed with wipes provided before every meal, as well as after.

For those who have never been to Japan I would encourage you to visit. Steeped in tradition and rich in culture, but heavily influenced by the electronic age, it is a truly fascinating country.

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