By on May 22, 2013

GSXR1100

At just 10:30 AM the sun was already near its full zenith and it beat down upon the city of Osaka with an intense, angry glare. Waves of heat shimmered up from the pavement and superheated the air which blew around in tepid, weak breezes that offered little respite. Perhaps later, the column of heat created by the great city’s many square miles of pavement would spark a sudden thunderstorm as it rose high into the stratosphere and the resultant rain would bring relief as it cascaded down and turned the streets into raging torrents. For now, however, there was only the glare of the sun, the stifling heat and, for me, the thought that riding an 1100 cc air cooled sport bike in a full set of leathers was a choice I should have avoided making.

The morning had begun as all summer mornings do in Japan, with the incessant shrieking of cicadas and the knowledge that sweltering heat and insufferable humidity were to follow. Regardless, my bike had sat unused for far too many days and I knew that if I failed to get the it out on the road I would regret my inaction later. To mitigate that future guilt, I decided I would make the trip across town to get a hot dog at Costco. My silly, trumped up excuse for action firmly fixed in my mind, I rolled my mighty GSXR from its hiding place under the stairwell of our apartment house, slipped into my familiar riding gear and set out.

It was still early enough that traffic was light and despite the big bike’s size, I weaved through traffic with relative ease, splitting lanes as needed but never really putting bike‘s full power to the ground. When it had been built back in 1991, my GSXR was as close to a street-going race bike as you could get. Regardless of that fact, its first owner had modified it to be even faster, adding larger carbs and a full stainless steel race exhaust that raised the bike’s horsepower well into the triple digits. It was loud, temperamental and, compared to the newer, fuel injected sport bikes made today, crude and it hated to be constricted by real world concerns like traffic laws and my own will to live. By the time I got close to my destination, the bike too was having trouble with the heat and was beginning to show signs of a fouled spark plug.

Photo Courtesy of Trekearth.com

I rolled onto the wide boulevard that led the last half mile to my destination and pulled up at a stoplight. Ahead of me, the road stretched out wide and straight, three lanes wide in each direction and on its surface only the shimmering waves of heat rising from the pavement gave any indication of motion. The light turned green and I revved the bike, using the open road as an opportunity to raise the revs a bit higher into their range to tray and blast loose that bit of carbon that I knew was clinging to the electrode of at least one of my plugs. It was the city, however, and I stayed in the lower gears, letting off the gas and killing my acceleration just under of the speed limit. Ahead, the last two lights between me and my destination turned green in tandem and I held my speed.

Just then, out of the entrance to a blind alleyway, a bicyclist shot out into the main street. How he failed to hear me, I have no idea, but the distance between us negligible and a collision looked imminent. I laid on the horn and just as quickly clamped on the brakes. I squeezed down hard and the big Suzuki’s brakes bit deeply, unsettling the bike’s suspension and shifting the bike’s weight forward onto the front end, almost bottoming out the forks. With me baring down upon him, the bicyclist stopped dead in the road and right in my path – a deer in the headlights.

You learn to make choices fast on when you are on the back of a sport bike and years of experience had taught me my options were limited. There was no time to swerve, and a sudden pivot in any direction would leave me dumped on my side in the street. There was no swerving then, my best option, I decided, was straight ahead, right up and over that stoplight running SOB. It was going to be ugly.

I bore down on him like a freight train, my big bike’s dual headlights boring into his soul as I closed the gap, my horn blaring steadily. The distance closed to inches and then, a split second before impact, in an act of sheer desperation the bicyclist kicked forward with is foot and rolled just one foot forward. That movement saved us both and I slid past behind him with a bare inch to spare stopping about 5 feet beyond what would have been our point of impact. I turned my head, glared back at him over my shoulder and extended my arm palm up, giving him my best sign language version of “WTF?” With a downward motion of his hands and a slight bow, he placated me and, with the cars behind beginning to bare down upon us, we separated, him to his destination and me to mine.

The manual operation of the bike occupied my attention while I covered the remaining distance to Costco and parked, but once inside the store the entire experience hit me hard. It took some time to compose myself, it isn’t every day you almost kill someone, after all. After a brief period of adrenaline related butterflies in my stomach, I headed into the store and my mind was filling with the other possible courses of action I might have taken. Lost in deep thought, I approached the food court.

For whatever reason the line at the hotdog stand was huge. Hundreds of small dark haired women, many with children scuttling around their feet, waited patiently in long lines, each one taking a few extra moments to verify the complicated menu that listed so many odd, Western food options prior to making their order. The process took far too long, but it was OK, after the events of the morning waiting mindlessly in a long, slow moving line was rather cathartic. After many long minutes I found myself before the counter, made my order and scurried away to condiment table where I dressed my hotdogs and filled my cup with cold soda.

Photo Couresty of travelsara.com

I turned towards the tables and found myself shocked at the site of a sea of sullen faced men, none with food in their hands, occupying virtually all of the tables as they waited for their wives who were lost somewhere in the mass of humanity lined up before the counter. There I stood, two dogs gripped in my right hand as it stuck through the chin bar of my full faced helmet, my leather riding jacket in the crook of my arm and my tank bag and a soda tenuously sharing the grip of my left. There was nowhere to sit, and I found myself flushed with sudden anger. This was typical.

Like a well practiced team, these men had rushed to the tables and staked out their places while their wives ordered and prepared their food, Meanwhile, no one else would be allowed to sit. I stalked into their midst staring them down and forcing them to turn and look away whenever they dared to glance in my direction. At last in the middle of this group I found a single table, a carefully folded jacket draped across one side of it. Frankly, I didn’t care anymore, chances are I would finish before the jacket‘s owner returned anyhow so I sat down and unloaded my food.

I unwrapped a dog and had only taken my first bite when they arrived. An elderly man, perhaps in his 70s, his small, silver haired wife, their daughter and grandson approached the table furtively and made to take the coat away. In their hands they each had a plate of food, a drink and I could tell when I made eye contact that, like me, they knew there was nowhere else to sit. I began to wrap my hotdog back up and rise, but the man bade me to sit and after a word with his wife the family sat down with me, the little man across from me, his wife to my right and the daughter across from her with their grandson on her lap. It was only mildly uncomfortable for us all and soon they were chatting away with one another about the most ordinary of subjects, carefully and politely avoiding the subject of the giant gorilla of a man who had stolen their spot. I finished quickly, gathered my trash and made to leave when the old man spoke to me for the first time.

“Are you an American?” He asked in English.

I paused. It could be something of a loaded question, I knew, but I am what I am and I looked him in the eye and said, “Yes.”

He bade me sit again and leaned in close. “I speak English,” He told me in a quiet, almost furtive voice. “I worked for the American Navy in Yokosuka at the end of the war.” And then he told his story:

I was 12 years old and my father had been killed in the war. Times were very bad and I needed to work to buy food for my mother and sisters. I went to the Navy base to look for work. I was scared. I had been told the Americans hated us and I thought they might kill me. But I knew that without food, we would die anyway, it was that bad.

They didn’t kill me, instead, they gave me a job shining boots. Every morning, I would go to the base and meet with the other workers in a small hut. Someone from the base would come to take them men to their work sites and bring us boys boots to shine. It was hard work and we got little money but whatever I earned, I gave to my mother and with it she bought food. It was never enough, though, and we were always hungry.

One day just before it was time to go home, an American sailor came into the hut where we gathered. He had a big shoulder of beef in his arms and he put it on the table in front of us. He told us, “Don’t anyone touch this! This base has a rat problem and we need to see if this shack has rats in it. I will leave this beef here and if it is gone in the morning I will know there are rats here and can call an exterminator.” Then he left.

We thought he was crazy! We were starving and he was going to leave the meat for rats! When he left, we cut up the beef leg and took it home. We knew it was wrong, but our families were starving. We thought we would be punished.

Fraternization was strictly forbidden in all theatres after the war.

Fraternization was strictly forbidden in all theatres after the war.

The next day, the man came back as we were going home and instead of punishing us, he put another large piece of meat on the table. He told us, “There must be many rats in this building because in the morning I didn’t even find a single of the meat left yesterday. I need to know how many rats are here, so I will leave this meat here as well and come back again tomorrow.” Naturally, we cut that meat up and took it home as well.

The man came every day for several months and we always laughed about how foolish he was. Today I am older and I understand what he was doing. That man had been told it was against the rules to give food to the Japanese, but he saw us starving and found a way to help us. He might have been arrested and punished for disobeying orders, but he put himself in grave peril in order to give us food. We laughed at him and I am sorry about that today.

The old man looked at me with tears in his eyes and, to the shock of his wife and daughter took me by the hand. “The Imperial military abused the Japanese people and they would have let us die for their glory. Our enemy came and saved us. I love America. I know it is the greatest country in the world. Thank you.”

I can see that sailor in my mind’s eye now. He is typical of those we call the greatest generation, tall, hollow eyed and raw boned. He might be a farmer from the Kansas plains, his brown hair bleached blonde from long hours of hard work in the sun. He might be shorter, heavier, and a survivor of the hard streets of New York or some other crowded North Eastern city. He might be an American Indian from the Southwest plains whose family had been consigned to a life of poverty on an isolated reservation, or an African American who had gone into the service despite his own country’s lack of respect or concern for him and his family’s well being.

Whoever he was, that sailor knew what suffering was when he saw it, because he had lived it. He had felt the bite of hunger, seen the swollen bellies of his brothers and sisters and he knew, despite the fact that the people in whose faces he saw it reflected had recently been our sworn enemies, that he could not let human suffering go unanswered. Instead, he chose to make a difference, and that choice echoes down through time to this very day.

On Monday, our country pauses to honor the men and women, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents who swore their lives to our nation’s service. We will remember their great deeds, the battles they fought and the obstacles they overcame. It is all too easy, however, to let slip away those other important things that they do in all our names, those times when they act out of compassion and simple human concern. We should seek to remember those things as well, because it is through them that we win the peace.

To all of you who have served, thank you for your service, and your sacrifice. More than that, however, thank you all for your humanity and your kindness. We honor you, because you have honored us all. Thank you.

"The American Way"  Painting by Norman Rockwell

“The American Way” Painting by Norman Rockwell

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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41 Comments on “Close Encounters of the Japanese Kind...”


  • avatar
    kosmo

    Nicely done. Thank you to all the vets. Hard to beat a Costco hot dog!

  • avatar
    noxioux

    Great story. Thanks, TK. You just made my day.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    It’s fine to salute vets on Memorial Day, but how about less of the pontificating (I don’t mean you, TK), and more help for these folks after they return. They’ve suffered physical and mental injury, and need much more assistance than they get. A jobless, homeless vet is a disgrace. I’d happily pay more taxes if it would do some good.

    • 0 avatar

      I can not endorse this post enough.

    • 0 avatar
      bball40dtw

      Unfortunetly, more taxes probably wouldn’t do any good. The VA actually does a good job. There could always be improvements, but the assistance is there. You can’t force people with mental health problems to attend outpatient treatment.

      There are also many companies that prioritize hiring of Vets. Chase is one of them.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff Waingrow

        Perhaps I’m misinformed, but my understanding is that many veterans’ claims for assistance (psychiatric, etc.) are much-delayed. A recent article in the Times stated that more vets were taking their own lives than were being killed in Afghanistan. If true, pretty worrying, no?

        • 0 avatar
          bball40dtw

          22 Vets commit suicide everyday. I agree that it is a horrible problem.

          It is true that more vets are commiting suicide than being killed in Afganistan. Its been like that for awhile. Even though all of the current soldiers have been debriefed from combat better than ever before, there is still an extremely high suicide rate. The VA has just hired 1600 more mental health professionals to try to combat this problem. They’ve also opened up mental health services to anyone that has served since 1980.

          I’d gladly pay more taxes if it would cut vet suicide rates. Instead of giving the VA more money, they need to evolve to meet the needs of veterans with existing funding. The VA isn’t perfect, but there has been a lot of progress over the last few years.

          Edit: you are right about some services having delays. Hearing and TBI are common ones. It really depends on the VA facility though. The Ann Arbor, MI VA hospital is fantastic.

    • 0 avatar
      corntrollio

      Isn’t the jobless rate for veterans better than the general population?

      www dot washingtonpost dot com/blogs/on-leadership/wp/2013/05/03/unemployment-report-shows-rates-looking-up-for-veterans/

      For all veterans, it’s more than 1% lower than the general population. For recent vets (post-9/11), it’s exactly the same as the general population.

      Most of the long-term-homeless people I’ve met, vets or not, usually have mental health issues and need help with that, more than anything else. Most of them couldn’t hold down a job without significantly more intervention.

      That’s not to say the issue you bring up is unimportant, but the VA does do a lot towards this. Could some of what it does be better? Sure, but a lot of other things could be better too, and we can’t fund everything.

      Thanks for another great column, Thomas.

  • avatar
    bachewy

    Great story, thank you, Thomas. Too often it seems the stories of folks behaving badly gets more attention than the more numerous stories of folks who are true ambassadors of goodwill.

  • avatar
    gessvt

    What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing a shining example of kindness to fellow human beings.

  • avatar
    niky

    Lovely story. Being fourth-generation Japanese on one-side, and part-American on the other, my family saw the war from both sides back in the day. And, unfortunately for my elders, being half-Japanese and half-Caucasian simply spelled “Jap” to other Americans, no matter how far removed they were from the original immigrants.

  • avatar
    gearhead77

    Pretty sure this beats Bertels article. Great article, thanks.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    An excellent pre-Memorial Day read. Thank you.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Thank you Thomas .

    As always , you have a good grasp of reality and the skills to share it .

    I’ve been there on my Moto as well as hungry poor and cold as a youth .

    I know many Niesi’s here in the states as well as older Japanese , glad to hear not all were consumed by the bitterness .

    -Nate

  • avatar

    Thanks for a great story – the ride to Costco and then the wonderful meeting with the elderly Japanese man. The writing is exceptional and you were fortunate indeed to have the experiences of that day!

    That big gixxer’s got to be challenging to wheel around there, as it is not a small bike. Have you ever thought of an Aerostich in lieu of leathers? When it’s hot and humid, a pre-soaked ‘stich is sooo much nicer than leathers.

    • 0 avatar

      I ended up buying a very nice mesh suit, but in that kind of heat you are soaked in sweat by the time you hit the end of the block. Also, in a full face helmet, you are constantly fighting persperation in your eyes, smudging your glasses etc. It was always a miserable experience and I am sure that, along with the birth of my first child, it was experiences like those that made me give up riding altogether.

      The big Suzuki was a real beast of a bike. It had a lot of different suspension adjustments and it took months of tinkering and looking for online help to get it set up for my weight. Because of its boxy design and short wheel base, it carried its weight up high and always wanted to tip in. At higher speeds it was a real kitten, but it was not the right bike for trapsing around town and diving between cars.

      I am a big guy, usually around 260, so a big bike is generally fine for me. In fact, the only time I actually feel spry and athletic is when I am on a liter bike. I feel like an NFL running back out their dodging cars…

      • 0 avatar
        JuniperBug

        One summer I had access to a ’92 GSX-R 750 with an 1100 swap, and it was indeed an unwieldy, powerful bike. I don’t know whether it was just my specific example, but it had a propensity to headshake once leaned over to a certain angle. It also would do it seemingly randomly at upwards of 130 MPH, abating only after trying to stay loose and coasting back down to much saner speeds. That’s saying nothing of the time the owner (not I) was riding it with a missing bolt in one of the front rotors, and the brakes came off at 170 or so.

        Riding a big-power (by mid-90s standards; I can barely imagine today’s) bike is a feeling that’s hard to adequately describe to someone who hasn’t done it. You feel immensely powerful and unbelievably vulnerable at the same time, and few things can make you feel closer to life and to death, depending on what’s happening in the moment. I’m lucky to have survived my early-mid-twenties stupidity on a short string of bikes, and after a relatively mild, unexpected accident totalled my near-new VFR, I decided to walk away – at least for now – while I still could. Nevertheless, I have a mental filing cabinet full of things I’d never condone doing again, but glad I did once, on two wheels.

      • 0 avatar
        Piston Slap Yo Mama

        You must have positively LOOMED over every Japanese person you encountered. At 5’10″ and 170lbs I was slightly bigger than the norm a decade ago. I’ll bet that’s parity today thanks to those very same Costco hot dogs and pizza slices as size is determined more by diet and protein consumption than genetics.

        Thanks very much for recounting this story – from the bottom of my heart. My time there was punctuated by many events both good and bad. The bad ones fade but the memory of my pal Taka’s grandfather will be eternal as he embraced me and said he’d fought my countrymen in WWII and was happy to finally meet an American and express his sorrow at the past and gratitude for the future.

        I have an uncle who’s on death’s doorstep as I write this who arrived in Japan as part of the occupation forces at the very close of hostilities. He was the sergeant in command of the military police in Kyoto, and generally found himself trying to keep the brothels there under control. When he goes the world is going to lose a very colorful piece of history, and I, a beloved uncle.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    Thomas; your writing is superb. After reading your articles, I always reflect for a while about them.

    back to the article;
    The Japanese Imperial Army was determined to allow all of their civilian population to suffer horribly and die. Even after two atom bombs and incredible devastation by fire bombing, there were still some fanatic generals and cabinet ministers who attempted to prevent Hirohito from delivering the surrender notice.

    If that much suffering was expected from Japanese civilians, imagine the suffering of Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other countries which the Imperial Army brutalized.

    No wonder that those countries still cannot fully forgive Japan.

  • avatar
    rpm1200

    Great article.

  • avatar
    jhargis

    Thanks for sharing a moving story.

  • avatar
    typ901

    Thomas,

    Let me know when you are in Chicago. I’ll have a beer waiting for you. Thanks for sharing.

  • avatar

    Yet another superb article in a long line of fantastic writing. I aspire to write such great prose.

  • avatar
    manbridge

    Nice piece.

    A small, hair splitting correction, the 91 GSXR was air AND oil cooled like an old 911. (Old Suzuki Cup racer I was).

    • 0 avatar

      This is a car crowd and I felt the detail would be lost upon most people.

      If you like, I also helped write the “Suzuki Advanced Cooling System” article on wikipedia and the bike in the photo is also the one used at the top of their GSXR1100 article, which I expanded upon much some years ago.

      • 0 avatar
        Crabspirits

        I read that article when I almost selected one of these Vanilla Ice bikes, a highly modified example, to be the drivetrain donor for my Subaru 360 project. The tech is pretty cool, and would have been easier to package in the car. I decided against it even though it was quite cheap because it would have been hell finding parts for it, as well as keeping it in a good state of tune. I got a CBR 954RR instead.

        “The Greatest Generation” indeed.

      • 0 avatar
        manbridge

        Cool, I’ll search for that article as I like techy content.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    Wow, great story!

  • avatar
    Fordson

    A wonderful piece of writing – this made my day.

    I am not in Chicago, like another commenter here – I am in BUFFALO and would buy you a beer any day of the week.

    Thanks for adding so much to the experience at TTAC.

  • avatar
    SpinnyD

    Excellent article as always, In any of your travels in Japan did you ever get to go to the county fair in Kiyosato? I wanted to go and visit but never had the time when I was in Japan. I would be interested in your opinion of the area, very pro-american there. Here is a show about the man who made it that way before the war, Paul Rusch. There is nothing like seeing a Japanese Bluegrass band!

    http://www.ket.org/kentuckylife/1200s/kylife1216.html

    • 0 avatar

      No, most of my Japan time has been spent in the Kansai region. One day I will get up to Nagano and the Japanese Alps. I understand that there is a “Hotel Kreutzer” there. I’m going to give them a shock one day.

  • avatar
    vaujot

    Excellent article!

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    Really a nice read!!

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Thomas ;

    I am so sorry to hear you gave up riding ~

    After my accident it’s very difficult now but I still ride when I can .

    I’m assuming the heat in Japan is humid ? . luckily I live in So. Cali. so it’s mostly dry heat , you’re right about the sweaty glasses etc. but , ATG , ATT ~ right ? .

    But for my gear I’d be dead now instead of just crippled .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      jeffzekas

      I once felt the same way- not anymore, not since the loss of my oldest son… http://www.angelfire.com/ca2/zekasfamily/

    • 0 avatar

      The east coast of Asia is a lot like the east cost of North America. Osaka is about as foar south as the Carolinas so you can imagine the kind of heat and huidity they suffer from.

      I walked away from riding after more than 20 years in the seat and I did it willingly. Mostly it was a matter of time. Given the choice between doing my own thing on the bike or spending time with my wife and kids, I chose the latter. That’s the kind of thing a man does when he is almost 40 years old when first child is born. If I had been younger I might have tried to do both, but at that point it was one or the other.

      I rode less and less over time and then, like it was with my 300M, one day I looked at the bike and realized just how long it had been sitting in the garage waiting. It went up on a local newsgroup’s classifieds and was gone a couple of weeks later. It was hard to dee it roll away but I haven’t missed it a bit.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Giving up riding .

        I *may* be approaching this ~ I was still very young when Jr. was born , somewhere I have a photo from 1979 holding him next to my ’65 PanHead Harley .

        He began riding with me when he was about 6 and soon passed my skillset when he began riding his buddy’s dirt bike in the abandoned water resivoir on Highland Park .
        .
        I still enjoy riding but , the pain is pretty intense . I retire in three years and if I’m still able I plan to begin working on the large pile of vintage Honda 90′s I’ve collected , those are very easy to ride , we’ll see .

        8 hours of back roads in my Met Saturday , had me so sore I had to bail out and come straight home Sunday morning =8-( .

        SWMBO says I should give up all this running around , I may have to , don’t want to just yet .

        -Nate

  • avatar
    daiheadjai

    Beautiful writing as always.
    Thank you!


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