10 Japanese Certainties

  1. TV presenters will proclaim all food, no matter how disgusting, to be “delicious”.
  2. There will be ten new Prime Ministers by the time this decade is out.
  3. Payment of inducements to public servants serves the greater good by building business relationships.
  4. The miniskirt will never go out of fashion.
  5. Overtime spent in an office = Automatic productivity.
  6. Nature is evil. It must be cleansed by concrete.
  7. Owning an old car is bad for the economy dangerous.
  8. In order to (dis)respect someone, you must first be certain of their age.
  9. English exists solely for the design of unintelligible T-shirts.
  10. The older one gets, the freer one becomes. Once you’re over 90 you can say whatever the heck you want.
cleansed by concrete
#6: Nature cleansed by concrete in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Kei Cars and 30km per litre

Since I seem to be on the theme of cars recently I have another automobile-related post for you today, this time at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Japan has a special category of light vehicles called kei-jidousha (軽自動車) that are cheap to own and operate. When I was previously living in Japan (before I had kids) I owned one of these. To give you an idea of its size, when sitting in the driver’s seat I could touch all four corners of the interior roof with my left hand! They are perfect for short commutes and as a daily runner.

To qualify as a Light Vehicle, cars must have an engine size no more than 660cc and maximum power of 47kW, as well as meet certain physical size restrictions. These small cars are identified by yellow number plates and qualify for lower stamp duty on purchase, lower highway tolls, lower road tax, lower insurance, and lower vehicle inspection fees (weight tax component). Being so small, they also result in lower human survival rates in crashes. As we were told in one of our orientation seminars when first arriving in Japan, “If you get a kei car, and you have a highway accident, don’t expect to be able to use your legs again.”

There is even a category of ute known as a Kei Truck. My parents-in-law use one of these midget utes around the farm.

Of course a huge advantage with Kei cars is that they are fuel misers. Suzuki are currently advertising a new model that achieves over 30km per litre of petrol. Our Camry back home would go about 7.7km by comparison. (Incidentally, I like the km/litre metric that is used in Japan to measure fuel consumption. It’s much easier to calculate running costs compared to Australia’s litres/100km metric.)

Kei Car
Japanese light motor vehicle.

You bought what?!

Yesterday my father-in-law made a stealth purchase. He didn’t tell Nicewife or I about his plan. He didn’t tell his wife either. He just casually rocked up at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon with a Porsche, parked it, and went inside without any comment.


Thanks to the fact that older cars rapidly depreciate in Japan he bought this 1992 Carrera, with only 66,000km on the clock, for a fraction of what it would have cost in Australia. At least now the question of whether or not he’s in the midst of a mid-life-crisis is well and truly settled.

Self-serving Self Service

It’s taken a long time for self service petrol stations to take hold in Japan.

When I was last living here some 7 years ago they were still the exception. Filling up at a full service petrol stations became something that I quite enjoyed at that time, which is surprising considering the sentiment most people hold when paying for a cartel-controlled overpriced daily necessity. At Japanese full-service petrol stations not only do you not have to get out of your seat, but the service extends to cleaning your windows and side mirrors, filling up the tank, emptying your ashtray and taking any other rubbish off your hands, taking payment and giving change without leaving your seat, and even safely directing you back onto the road when there is a gap in the traffic.

Fast forward 7 years – the economy is down and cheap self service is king. But in typical Japanese style they haven’t done it half-heartedly. Today I stopped at a self-service station. There is a touchscreen terminal at the pump at which you place your “order”, pay in advance and fill up. After the machine determined that my tank was full it forced me play a slot machine game. Three wheels started spinning on the screen and the only option was a large “stop” button. I touched it and the wheels slowly span down (wasting valuable time while the person behind was waiting to fill up) and stopped on 777. They ALWAYS stop on 777. My prize was then announced: a discount, not for today when I actually need it, but for when I come back next time. Hmph.

After the mandatory slot machine you are then presented with a receipt with a barcode. You take that to another machine located literally 2 metres away from the pump where you paid, and you scan the receipt for your change to be dispersed into the tray underneath. The whole process takes far too long – but the mandatory slot machine is what I think really makes this Japanese self-service petrol stations absurd.

Slot Machines
This photo is only vaguely related to the post, but it gives me an excuse to include some Engrish. The “Slot Machines” referred to by this sign were actually vending machines. They can be found right next to the ravatory.

Cash Prize!!

On my cycle this morning I spotted what I can only assume is a Google streetview car. Here is a photo of it:

Streetview Car
Streetview Car, or mobile 70s disco? We may never know.

My father-in-law is on streetview. He’s standing in his driveway fixing a pump. I kinda like the fact that he is on the internet while he doesn’t even know what the internet is.

Anyway, to liven things up a bit around here I’m offering a cash prize to the first person who can find me on streetview. Good luck! And beware of the ravages of carpel tunnel.

Traffic Sign Hymns

Our eldest son, ID, has a curious fascination with road signs. Although his Japanese in general matters is still rather rudimentary, he knows the official names of most of the signs on the page below. He carries this book with him everywhere, always open at this page.

We are wondering how he will cope when he starts nursery school next year. Although he won’t be able to manage “Hi, my name’s ID and I’m 3 years old”, he will fluently spout off, “Overtaking prohibited! Pedestrian crossing ahead. Caution: road narrows.”

His obsession has recently reached a new level. After church one Sunday, Nicewife overheard ID singing a hymn-like tune interspersed with the official names of traffic signs. He finished with “Amen”.

It seems that traffic signs have now officially become a religion.

traffic signs

Meaning of Traffic Lights in Japan


Japanese traffic light
Japanese Traffic Light


Green* = Go!

Amber = Go, but faster.

Red = Go, provided you are one of the first 3 cars to pass the stop line after the light turns red. (Otherwise reluctantly stop.)

* Incidentally the Japanese call green traffic lights ‘blue’. I once saw a chart comparing the green/blue hue of ‘green’ traffic lights around the world. Japan was very much at the blue end of the spectrum. Still reading? You nerd!


Ageing (car) Population

Daihatsu Car Model
Japan – A country where you can express yourself in surprising ways by your choice of car.

I am married to Nicewife, a Japanese national.

Nicewife’s dad has some special friends that he has know from his schooldays that have become legendary characters to me. Let me introduce them. There’s “special car friend” (he owns a car dealership and garage), “special-tomato-friend” (he owns a hydroponic tomato farm), “fisherman-friend” (quite dissimilar from his strong minty-tasting namesake), and “always-wearing-purple friend”. I love the fact that they are named with reference to what benefits their friendship provides – apart from “always-wearing-purple friend” that is, who presumably counters his apparent uselessness with a good social presence.

Late last week we met “special car friend” to take possession of a car that we will be able to use during our gap year in Japan. If there is anywhere in Japan where the car is king, it’s Aichi. The lifeblood of this prefecture is the automotive industry. The largest car manufacturer in the world, the Toyota Motor Corporation, is headquartered here. When I was first living in Japan (about 8 years ago), people were generally driving nice, modern cars that were only a couple of years old, but were yet complaining that they could not afford to replace them because, “the economy is bad”. As an Australian, and being from the State with the oldest car fleet in the country (if we exclude Tasmania – which is a good thing to do generally anyway), I found this pretty amusing.

I was curious about just how things have changed since 2003. In the intervening period the Japanese economy has continued to stagnate. The national public debt has ballooned to about 200% of GDP. The population has peaked and is several years into its forecast near-terminal decline (more people are dying or emigrating than the combined total of those being born and immigrating). The government, with its funds depleted, are facing an expensive cleanup operation in northern Tohoku following the March 2011 Tsunami, which includes yet unknown costs related to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

I asked “special car friend” how business was going. He sat back in this chair, sucked the air through his teeth, and then gave the following frank assessment.

“The problem with cars nowadays… they don’t break down”, he explained.

“That’s terrible!” I sympathised.

“What about car servicing? Surely that’s a cash co…. um, I mean, surely that’s a vitally necessary public service you can provide?”

“Retirees, housewives, workers who commute by public transport. They’re only driving short distances… 1,000 to 2,000 km per year, so they don’t bother getting their cars serviced very often.”

“I see. What about new car sales?” I inquired.

“Well, you know, the economy isn’t good. People used to change cars every 3 years or so, now they’re holding onto the same car for 5 or even 10 years! And when they do upgrade, they buy privately off the internet.”

These things are all relative, however. Special Car Friend pointed to a white Toyota Crown parked out the front of his office. It was a trade in, about 10 years old with 100,000 km on the clock. Equivalent Camrys in Australia are for sale on carpoint.com.au for around $8,000. How much for this white Toyota Crown? Less than nothing! Contrarily, special-car-friend will have to pay for its disposal.