Scenes From Behind The Bamboo Screen # 1

one cannot understand one’s own country until one has lived elsewhere

The infamous Lego RC30, as seen in Japan. J. Burgess



What am I doing here?

Kawasaki is the only Japanese manufacturer that doesn’t have its own test track on the main Japanese Island of Honshu. Aside from the small circuit of Naoiri in the mountains of central Kyushu, and a makeshift test-road on the factory grounds, most of Kawasaki’s serious testing is done at Yatabe, part of the government’s automotive test center near the city of Tsukuba, north of Tokyo.

Centerpiece of the facility is a banked 2.5-kilometer oval where high-speed testing takes place. Built during the post-war period when 100 mph was considered fast, Yatabe’s designers never in their wildest nightmares envisioned a day when 175-horsepower motorcycles would be screaming around its narrow banking, mere feet away from the steel crash walls. I can clearly remember coming out of turn two onto the back straightaway at Yatabe in the summer of 1999 at about a 200k on a prototype Ninja ZX-12R. The chassis was not yet sorted, and the unruly beast communicated to me in most unambiguous terms that it would exact painful revenge if I didn’t treat it with proper respect. We (I was playing tag-along with a group of riders from Kawasaki’s various international distributors) were there to see if this much ballyhooed Hayabusa-beater-to-be could in fact reach the promised land of 300k, a.k.a. 180 mph. So, pasting myself to the tank and whacking open the throttle, I aimed the ill-mannered brute for the far banking and hung on for what seemed like dear life.

One quarter of the way down that looong straightaway, with the tach and speedo needles swinging remorselessly towards 3 o’clock, it occurred to me, as it does when one is riding a bike for the first time, that I might not yet be in top gear. Crazy thought! How could we not be in top gear?! The speedo was showing 220k and climbing, and my once tight leathers were flapping around like loose street clothes. So, even though I was certain that top gear was where we were, I made another tentative stab at the shift lever. “Oh, no!” Was all I could mutter as the rpm dropped slightly and the needles again began their relentless clockwise swing.

Few etymologists are aware that the term “tunnel vision” originated in a country called 300-km/h-on-a-motorcycle. It is a distant and somewhat dangerous land that few people will ever visit–a land where everything around you is sweeping past with such tremendous velocity that all you can focus on is a small circle far in front of you. And if you visit this land at Yatabe, what you will see in that circle is the looming banking and steel crash wall of the oh-so rapidly approaching turn. Anyway, I got somewhere in the vicinity of 300k, or close enough to say I did, before getting out of the throttle and cruising back to the garage. Been there, done that, I thought with relief. No need to do that again.

There must have been at least twenty Kawasaki engineers in the garage area, all tending an eclectic selection of modern speed machines. In addition to a few 12Rs, there was also an R1, an R7, a pair of Hayabusa, some Triumphs and other assorted go-fast bikes on hand for comparison. Test riders were coming in periodically and being debriefed. Engine internals and laptop computers were strewn across bench tops. And above all the commotion floated the distinctive lilting notes of the Kansai dialect spoken by the boyz from down south, Kobe way.

Those once familiar speech patterns brought back a lot of memories, and, as happens so often at times like this, I found myself mulling my eternal question: What am I doing here? It is a good thing we don’t think too much about the role chance plays in our lives, because if we did we would probably go insane.

One weekend, when I was thirteen, as my father and I were returning to Los Angeles from a day hike in the Tehachappi mountains, we passed a small airfield advertising glider rides. I went for a ride and was immediately hooked. With $150 saved from my paper route, I had just enough for flight lessons (this was a long time ago), and the drive home was spent dreaming of becoming a pilot. It would mean a long trip every weekend for lessons, but my mom and dad didn’t get along too well and my dad was always looking for an excuse to get out of the house. “Let’s go for a hike,” he would say on a Saturday morning, and off we would go. Only later would I realize that he found in nature and solitude the peace that eluded him in marriage. But at the time I was still too young to understand such things. All I knew was that I wanted to fly.

Two days later my neighbor let me ride his motorcycle. It was a strange mongrel of a machine, resulting from the ill-advised mating between a cut-down Triumph Cub frame and a Hodaka 90 engine. We called it the Hodumph. It was built by an iconoclastic fellow named Frank Danielson who later went on to build the first Supercross tracks at the LA Coliseum.

My friend wanted $150 for it. The Hodumph led to larger, more powerful machines; to desert riding and desert racing; to motocross, short track and TT; to scary Friday nights on the Ascot half-mile; to Daytona and Laguna, and inevitably, to a time when it became time to do something else. But what? I enrolled at Santa Monica City College, flew hang gliders for a while, started on a private pilot’s license (the flying bug was still kicking) but soon gave it up. After racing a 750 at Ascot, droning around in a Cessna 150 was just not scratching that indefinable itch that hadn’t completely subsided (it never does).

By this time my father had long since opted out of life in America, and my mother had long since opted out of their marriage. Ten years earlier he had left for Japan because, he said, he felt himself going to pot in America. At loose ends, I went over there for a visit and found him renting a small 6-mat room in a Buddhist temple in the old imperial capital of Kyoto. His possessions consisted of nothing more than a bicycle, lots of books and few simple pieces of furniture. He was teaching Russian, German and comparative literature at a nearby university and seemed utterly content.

One of the first things we did together was go for a hike. We also talked a lot. A new world was opening up to me, his world. It is said that stimulation is the most addicting of drugs. And to a young man just emerging from the narrow world of racing, Asia can be an intoxicating stimulant indeed. I returned to LA and began to study Japanese, supporting myself by fixing up non-running bikes and flipping them for a quick profit. A few years later, BA in hand and thoroughly fed up with academia, I was back in Japan, this time in Tokyo. A job as a re-writer led, after much mind-breaking study, to freelance work translating Japanese technical documents into English. Finally, the day came when I had enough confidence to call up the translating department at the Yamaha factory in Hamamatsu. I told them about my background as a mechanic, about the years spent racing, and about my hard-won translating skills. They told me to get lost. Only much later did I learn that this was not the way things are done in Japan.

Once again, it was my father who, in properly oblique Japanese fashion, showed me the way. His health had not been good, and I was in Kyoto to visit with him. We had just returned to his place from a short hike around the stone mason’s village of Kurama. He was now living in a small, low-rent apartment near his beloved mountains -two 6-mat rooms, a tiny kitchen and a covered hole in the floor for a toilet. Other than the fact that he now had more books, his simple possessions were unchanged. He seemed more content than ever. As I leafed absentmindedly through a week-old English newspaper, the word “motorcycle” in the want ads caught my eye. The ad turned out to be from a small translating company in Tokyo that had connections with a very large advertising agency–an advertising agency where, it turned out, the people knew surprisingly little about motorcycles and almost nothing about how to write about them. It would later turn out that they also needed someone to ride the bikes for the photos used in the endless stream of propaganda they were churning out for their client.

I would learn many things over the next two decades. I would learn that just as one cannot understand one’s own language until one has learned another, so one cannot understand one’s own country until one has lived elsewhere and learned to see it through the eyes of others. But most of all I learned that the strength we have to go off in search of romance and adventure in distant lands, to learn strange languages and to take on the habits, if not the appearances, of a foreign people, comes not only from ourselves, not only from the boundless courage and endless optimism of youth, but also from those we love.

And it isn’t until they are gone that we realize how much of what we thought was our strength was actually theirs. And that’s the story that will be so difficult to tell.


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