Scenes From Behind The Bamboo Screen: Motorcycle Math 101

Nick O’Kane’s Suzuki TL1000-based streetbike. Dean Adams

(Originally published Monday, March 20, 2006)

When you have money,
think of the time when you had none.
Japanese proverb

In the final scene of Juzo Itami”s “Marusa No Onna” (A Taxing Woman), the tax cheat Hideki Gondo has been tracked to his lair by the sexy government tax agent Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto). There, next to a giant safe filled with his ill-gotten gains, she asks him what every poor slob wants to know: How does one become so filthy rich?

Gondo (played brilliantly by Tsutomo Yamazaki) knows the game is up. The cops are on their way and, like any man, he can’t resist a chance to brag to a woman about his wealth.

“Money is like this whiskey here,” he says, holding up a half-filled tumbler. “When it is half-full, you dare not take a drink. Even when the glass is finally filled to the brim, you indulge in not the tiniest sip. Only when the glass is over-full, do you lick the drops which spill over the rim.”

What he meant, of course, is that one becomes wealthy by investing, not by spending. The rich invest their money in order to make more; the poor spend it and remain poor.

Motorcycles have traditionally been the poor man’s transportation. A comparatively low purchase price, super fuel economy, and low operating costs make the motorcycle the vehicle of choice for the financially challenged. For most of us here in America, however, this is a very temporary situation. A little study, a bit of hard work, and before long, the bucks start rolling in. And the first thing that most riders do then is ditch the bike and buy a car.

But, what would happen if you kept riding that bike long after you could afford not to? How would you fare had you invested that car money rather than spent it?

Let’s take the case of a guy who finally finishes school and starts his first real job. The first thing he does is dump his faithful bike and buy a new car. The median price for new cars is now about $25,000. To that must be added about $2K in sales tax, another $500 or so per year in registration and insurance, $70 a month for gas, and about $30 per month for maintenance. If our young man was naãve enough to take out a loan for his pride and joy, add another $5K or so.

Motor vehicles depreciate faster than almost any other purchase. Our young man can kiss about 30% of his new car’s value away after the first year or two. From then on, it loses value at about 10% per year.

The next ten years of car ownership will cost him the following:
_ Gas: $8,400
_ Registration & Insurance: $5,000
_ Maintenance: $3,600
_ Loan fees: You don’t want to know!
_ Depreciation: $20K or so

However you crunch the numbers, this all amounts to a sizeable chunk of cash for a young person.

Now, let’s look at Mr. Cheapskate who continued to ride his beater. Because he can perform most of the general maintenance himself, those costs are minimal. When he needs tires and chains, he scrounges them at junkyards and installs them himself. Gas and insurance costs are equally minimal. The bike, already well-used, is essentially free.

Mr. Cheapskate takes that $25K and invests it in the stock market. Because he is young and doesn’t know anything about stocks, he chooses the safe route and puts it into a conservative mutual fund that earns him 8% a year. In ten years, that $25K will grow to about $50K.

In other words, while Mr. New Car is blowing about $25K, Mr. Cheapskate is earning about $25K. That’s a difference of $50K. Or, the difference between becoming wealthy and staying poor.

“But,” you say, “I don’t want to ride a beater. I want to go fast! I want one of those shiny new bikes!” Trust me, speed is relative, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Drafting big rigs on a two-lane road at 65mph on a Honda 160 is just as thrilling as doing 120 on a GSX-R750. Drifting the rear wheel out of a corner on your Ducati 350 Sebring with the blown-out rear shocks at 45mph is just as satisfying as sliding a big Ninja at 80mph. To paraphrase the immortal words of Dick Mann, going fast on a slow bike is just as much fun as going half-fast on a fast bike. As to appearances, a bike that’s making you rich looks a lot better than one that’s making you poor.

So, what kind of motorcycle is best if want to get rich? Obviously, an inexpensive, simple bike that you can maintain yourself. It should be air-cooled, have no more than two cylinders, and offer easy valve adjustment. The lighter the machine is, the better the fuel mileage and the less you’ll be spending on tires and chains.

In “A Taxing Woman”, Gondo earns his loot not from cheap motorcycles, but from a chain of love hotels. And it is his obsession with hiding his wealth from the tax authorities that attracts their attention. Ryoko, his charming nemesis from the tax police, is just as obsessed about making him pay. Like cop and criminal, she and Gondo are opposite sides of the same coin, joined in a love/hate relationship that can only be consummated by the destruction of one or the other. Their obsessions are a metaphor for Japanese materialism at the cost of spiritualism.

The love hotel is a particularly Japanese institution. Offering 100% anonymity, one can rent and pay for the rooms without ever seeing or meeting another person. These rent-by-the-hour love nests are available in an astonishing range of dÇcor–from Wild West to Buddhist temple. All are fully equipped with every modern and traditional amenity you can imagine, plus a few that you couldn’t possibly imagine. All are designed to make your stay as pleasurable as possible.

The entrance is always via a very discreet and poorly lighted side street. Once inside, the guests are faced with a panel of backlit screens showing the dÇcor of the various rooms. A key for each room is located in a slot next to its screen. When the key is selected, the guests enter an elevator that takes them directly to their floor with no stops on the way. The rooms are windowless, but the sense of claustrophobia is offset by total privacy and, when the lights are off, absolute darkness. When leaving, the elevator descends non-stop to the lobby, where payment is slipped discreetly under a tiny window to a hidden clerk.

Of course, I have personally never visited such establishments and know of them only by rumor.

“A Taxing Woman” was one of a series of satirical movies about Japanese society that made Juzo Itami one of the most powerful directors of his generation. One of his final films, “Minbo No Onna” was about the yakuza, Japan’s gangsters. In it, in typical Itami fashion, they were portrayed not as the modern-day samurai they think they are, but as the bunglers and losers they really are. Shortly after the movie’s release, three yakuza jumped him near his home in Tokyo’s fashionable Azabudai district and slashed his face. He wore the scars with pride.

A few years later, in 1997, at the age of 64, Itami jumped to his death from a Tokyo high-rise, two days before the weekly magazine Flash was due to report that he was having an affair with a 26-year-old woman. The police thought he might have been pushed.

Let your motorcycle build your wealth, and you will easily be able to afford that trip to Japan, where you might even end up in a love hotel and have a few stories of your own to tell.

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