By on May 2, 2013

In some ways my initial move across the Pacific was a lot easier than my return. I was at the end of my personal rope when I went to Japan in 1999 and, even though I was stepping into a dead end job, there was nowhere to go but up. Coming home was quite the reverse. Of course I had a job offer, but I had learned the hard way about birds in the hand versus the two in the bush and, truth is, I was scared. I had carved out a nice little life for myself in Japan. I had friends, a decent place to live and, for a change, money in my pocket. I had even purchased a car and a motorcycle, but now it was time to sell out and move on.

The car in question was my 1986 Twin Turbo Supra and it was in great shape. In the two years I had owned it I had taken good care of it, corrected a few minor paint issues with rubbing compound and special wax that turned the paint back to its original brilliant white, added new tires, a kick ass stereo and even completed the shakken. Back home in the States a similar car would have sold for several thousand dollars and there was no way I could have lost money, but in Japan, as usual, it was a different story.

Someone once told me long ago that Japan is like the pond in the center of a Zen rock garden. From the outside it looks tranquil, placid and is a perfect reflection of the sky above. Underneath, however, everything that happens in every other pond is taking place. Bugs are laying their eggs, frogs are eating the bugs and the fish are eating the frogs. The entire circle of life is going on under that water and it isn’t until you decide to plunge in that you really understand how deep and how murky the pond really is.

The Japanese, as I had learned during my initial purchase of the Supra, don’t generally do person-to-person sales of used cars. Sure, you might sell a vehicle to a family member or a good friend, as I discovered when I sold my Mazda MPV to my “Japanese family” when I left Okinawa in 2010, but selling a used car to a stranger is practically unheard of. I’m not sure if anthropologists have ever conducted a study as to why this is the case, but rumors about the Japanese belief in evil spirits attaching themselves to things that others have used in a personal way aside, I think it is because public transportation is nearly universal, parking is limited and cars are expensive to own. The result is that young people don’t need to own a car to get around and, thanks to all the fixed costs of car ownership, are effectively priced out of the market. Therefore, most cars are purchased by adults who can and usually do buy new because of status issues, increased reliability and other benefits given to new cars under the shaken inspection system.

The average Japanese person trades in their old car when they buy a new one. The money they receive in trade is ludicrously low, but given that most people don’t have the need, desire or even the extra space to keep an older car it works out well. Sure, like anyone who trades in a car they lose out on some money, but they are essentially paying for the convenience of disposing their old car. I had learned, however, that a little elbow grease and an unconventional approach could often circumvent the natural way of things in Japan and so I determined to turn to the “international community” for a solution.

There are quite a few foreigners in Japan. The vast majority of them are tourists, then in decreasing frequency come the international students on exchange trips, the Mormon missionaries, the JET teachers, company-men on temporary assignments and finally the dregs of Western society that end up as ESL teachers at for-profit English conversation schools, spouses of Japanese citizens and all the other flotsam and jetsam of the world that get swept into the relatively sheltered waters of Japan and end up staying there for years at a time. As with many communities that fail to fully integrate into their host countries, Westerners in Japan have built for themselves a vibrant and fun sub culture all their own and all it takes to access it is the time and willingness to sit down in an Irish pub and listen to people who have no intention of ever returning to their home countries bellyache about how much they hate Japan.

About a month before I returned home I put an ad in the local Gaijin (foreigner) classified ad paper, known as the Kansai Flea Market and waited for the calls to roll in. I got some quick bites on my bike and sold it after just a week at a small profit, but the car languished in the paper and generated just one call from an Australian bloke who was hoping I knew about any laws that might prevent him from taking it home. As my departure neared I checked with my girlfriend’s friends to see if any of them wanted it and was given a resounding “no” by everyone we asked. Finally I decided to take it to a place called “Gulliver” that ran frequent ads on TV about buying used cars.

In retrospect I should have probably guessed that any company that has the money to run almost constant ads on TV wouldn’t pay much for the cars they bought, but when the guy told me my car was so old that they would only take it for free I wasn’t very happy. Still, as the time for my departure was drawing ever nearer, I went ahead and struck the deal and told him I would bring the car back the next day. Of course one thing led to another and I didn’t bring the car back until the following week but since I was giving it to them who would have thought it would be an issue? Well it was, and imagine my surprise when the guy told me that because I had failed to honor my word and bring the car the next day the terms of the deal had changed. Now, instead of simply giving them my car, they wanted me to pay them $50 to take it. I wasn’t happy, but with my tickets to go home in hand, I went ahead and paid the money and bade my Supra farewell.

Had I known that I would eventually get the job of my dreams, marry my Japanese girlfriend and end up living in the same region of Japan just three years later, I would have paid up my parking fees in advance and let the car sit until my return. But at that point in time, with the future still uncertain, I know that it was better that I let the car go. Still, whenever I visit Japan and return to my “hometown,” I feel a sudden flash of shame and anger every time I drive by that shop. I know I was cheated and, frankly, it grates on me. Of course, outside of a snarky article on a car blog, I will never exact revenge. Still, it’s nice to think that someday, maybe someday, I will.

Thomas M 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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23 Comments on “Swimming In The Pond Of The Japanese Garden...”

  • avatar

    I think the concept of evil spirits attaching themselves to pre-owned things interesting but I have owned several cars that came with evil spirits already built in by the manufacturer.

    • 0 avatar

      Meh. That whole evil spirits thing was just a byproduct of economic prowess. Cut their purchasing power (see the Yen’s recent decline) and the social engineering will change all of that in time.

      It’s not just cars. I’m a musician on the side, and there are lots of “gray market” pianos from Japan (Yamaha, Kawai, etc.) which are used very lightly for several years, then ditched and sold overseas because the Japanese can’t be bothered to buy second-hand. It’s such a large problem that these Japanese piano manufacturers have had to do blitz ad campaigns about how these “grey market” units will self destruct the moment when they’re bought by unwitting North American purchasers wanting to save a few bucks.

  • avatar

    Sproketboy that was funny.

    Thomas couldn’t you even sell it to a recycler? that would have garnered a few yen plus some satisfaction of knowing you were not taken by a used car dealer.

    • 0 avatar

      They actually charge you a fee to recycle cars in Japan. These days when you purchase a car it is included in the purchase price.

      This is one of the issues I had when my VW Golf self destructed when I was living in Okinawa. That time I forced my job to ship it back home when we transfered and sold it on Craigslist.

  • avatar

    It makes me wonder, does the Gulliver place then re-sell the used cars? I mean they’ve got to stay in business somehow. From the Japanese perspective, what’s the difference between buying a used car from Gulliver than from a private party?

    • 0 avatar

      Generally they will sell to an export auction. Some of the best cars get cherry picked and sent out to Japanese car dealerships and people will buy them because there is some semblance of dealer support and help with registration and shakken etc.

      Like anywhere else, there are a ton of skeevy car dealerships in Japan but I think they mostly sell to poor people or will specialize in a certain clientel or specialty car. My Supra was pretty nice, but it wasn’t an R33 GTR…

  • avatar

    “the dregs of Western society that end up as ESL teachers at for-profit English conversation schools..”

    Used to read comments at Japan Times. Infested by them…. and always the first to take the tin-hat view of anything American. Some have been there since the early 70’s… Methuselahs of malice.

    • 0 avatar

      These types go more to China or Korea now these days. They’re still enough of a novelty over there that they can, without too much hassle, still get themselves onto a local TV show and make themselves into a 1-hour celebrity. Especially if they can speak the local language enough to be a laughingstock.

    • 0 avatar
      juicy sushi

      Yeah, it’s an extremely *ahem* varied mix of individuals in the ESL business. I think that things vary as well depending on the region. Kanto and Kansai, due to their size, glamour and appeal to the ignorant, tend to attract a lot of the cannon fodder. To wind up in the middle of nowhere takes either extreme stupidty, or you’re there by request. Those who went to the hinterland on purpose are generally nicer people.

      • 0 avatar
        Piston Slap Yo Mama

        I taught in both Odawara and Tsukuba – both almost but not quite “hinterland”. Lars Martinson wrote and illustrated an *excellent* graphic novel called Tonoharu on teaching/living in the styx of Japan: and it brought back a lot of mixed emotions re. my time there.
        Momus used to write a column for Wired Magazine that resulted in me going from being a fan of his to pretty much hating him. Half his columns referenced how awesome, perfect, utopian and blah blah Japan is, but I guess when you’re a rock star there it is. For those of us earning a living it’s rather dog-eat-dog with the occasional high point. My first job was hand’s down the worst I’ve ever had and after a concerted job search I found one that was far better. Re. Herr Kreutzer’s ignominious “sale” of his Supra, I sold the entire contents of my apartment for less than $50 when I left. Similarly, that’s something I try to not think about.

        • 0 avatar

          Shortly before I went home I discovered that Yamato Delivery Service had a “sea-mail” service to the United States. I was able to actually ship most of my important stuff home and left the crapola for the next teacher as previous teachers had left their crap for me.

          I asked to be in the boonies but ended up on the edge of Kansai. Fortunately Uji is between Nara and Kyoto which put me off the main train lines and the school higher-ups never wanted to waste an entire day to come out there. I was pretty much left to my own devices.

          Overall I had a good time in Japan. I avoided most other gaijin and did my own thing most of the time. I’m still like that when we are overseas and I think it annoys some of the people I work with. It’s not that I don’t want to be their friend, I just want to be left the hell alone.

          • 0 avatar

            “I avoided most other gaijin and did my own thing most of the time. I’m still like that when we are overseas and I think it annoys some of the people I work with. It’s not that I don’t want to be their friend, I just want to be left the hell alone.”

            I still don’t quite understand the instinct of the people I know who try to search out the American bar in every foreign city they travel to on vacation. Why would you travel that far only to have a crappy overpriced Budweiser? “Hey man, what’s the word for “dry cleaner” in [insert language here]?”

            It’s one thing if you’re trying to watch an American sporting event (e.g. the same reason people are more likely to go to a British pub if they want to watch Arsenal or ManU or what have you), but these people are specifically trying to isolate themselves from learning about the foreign culture of the place they’re visiting.

          • 0 avatar
            Piston Slap Yo Mama

            My 1st manager made it clear that she liked neither Americans nor men. And especially not American men, but the die had been cast and the corporate office put me there with no input from her. Adding to my stellar discomfort was the one other gaijin, a Canadian woman who shared the same views and was fast friends with my manager. To say I was hung out to dry would be an understatement. The graphic novel Tonoharu barely scratches the surface of my discontent …
            American tourists in Japan are indeed often lacking in class, and worse if they’re military on a furlough. I didn’t seek out their company but sometimes on long excursions on the Tokaido Line I’d sit with an English speaker if they seemed receptive just to get a brief respite from broken Japanese and tortured Engrish.
            My favorite store in Japan was “Hard Off” – the best named chain of stores anywhere. They sold used electronic goods for pennies on the dollar, like Nakamichi amps for $40 and Sony portable dvd players for $10 and more. The Japanese idea that used items had been somehow imbued with the spirit of the previous owner benefited aereligious skeptics like me but then bit me on the ass when it was time to pack and go home as nobody wanted to buy anything from me. Gomi day was always a treat too though I was really discreet about taking anything.
            Had I to do it over again I’d find a place in Hokkaido and perhaps have my own version of Haruki Murakami’s “Wild Sheep Chase”.

          • 0 avatar

            It’s bad juju when you get a wierd manager. My first manager was a silly witch who tried to insert herself into every aspect of my life. One time I asked to have a Monday off so I could go into the city to get my visa extended and she called the company HQ becasue she thought I wanted to switch my weekly days off from Saturday/Sunday to Sunday/Monday. That kind of crap happened with such frequency that you can’t convince me that it was just a “misunderstanding.”

            The worst is when you get another westerner from another country who decides they don’t like you because you are an American. Seriously? WTF, I’m just an ESL teacher like you not an instrument of my nation’s foreign policy.

            The current generation suffers from such underemployment that they are much more likely to buy used these days, that’s why recycle shops are everywhere these days. When I was there the bubble was well past, but most people still had enough money that they didn’t worry about what they bought. These days people really watch where their money goes.

          • 0 avatar
            juicy sushi

            I guess I had a much better experience with my first manager. I was in Kitakyushu and the staff were all around the same age (just out of university) and while very Japanese, also were pretty easy going and good to get along with. I’ll never forget the time one of them came huffing into the back room with a massive job magazine for Tokyo at lunch time. I asked her what was the matter and she said “I hate this place, I’m looking for another job!” (her boyfriend was in Tokyo and she wasn’t thrilled about being so far away)

            There was one manager at another school I worked at subsequently who was a bit of a hard-case, but I think that was partly due to her having both an extremely impressive work ethic, and a shy, serious personality. Over time she seemed to mellow a bit as I got to know her.

            I had friends who worked at other schools and had some right weirdos as managers though. I have to agree with Thomas though that my happiest memories are from things I did while avoiding the “gaijin scene.” There are few things as dull and monotonous as a bunch of expats in a bar…

  • avatar

    Yeah Japan really isn’t a great place for car ownership 120 million people packed in an area smaller then California. It’s really weird that we buy so many cars from a country that’s really not into driving.

    Its a very huge fail from our domestic auto makers. In Europe their leading automakers are still domestic.

    • 0 avatar

      The country is extremely into driving actually. Watch the Toyota Doraemon commercials, they’re all on Youtube. In America we completely forgot about all that, or at least the politically correct messaging and self-censorship would not let us remember.

  • avatar

    I really enjoyed that well-written article. Illuminating. Thanks.

  • avatar

    Silly question: Why could you not just abandon the car and leave?

    • 0 avatar

      People do that more often than you think. There is a quite a bit of ilegal dumping that goes on in the mountains and more than a few abandoned cars if you go back up into the woods.

      I’m not really wired that way. My expecations were progressively lowered over the weeks before I went and I eventually realized I would have to give it away. I was willing to turn it over to them for nothing, but when the guy pulled the switcheroo on me at the last minute I was pissed. He knew I was leaving in a day or two and that he had me over a barrel. At that point the idea of just dumping in the river never occurred to me.

      I’ve lived there a couple of different times since, so its probably better I didn’t just dump it. I’m sure it would have bit me in the ass.

  • avatar

    fascinating, i know some of those dregs you mention.

    There are quite a few brazilians of japanese descent in japan. They generally hate it and can’t wait to come back home. Looking like the locks you’d eXpect them to have an easier time of it than other gaijin but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s actually a little different situation and I don’t really count the Brazilian population among the regular “dregs.” Most Brazilians are recruited by Japanese industry and are put into jobs that Japanese nationals feel are too dangerous or dirty. They work hard, a LOT harder than most of the Gaijin that end up in bars complaining about Japan, and they generally live in their own communities.

      From what I have observed, the Japanese don’t really know what to do with nisei and other foreign born Japanese. They look like regular Japanese people on the surface, but they don’t understand the language well and don’t follow a lot of the Japanese social norms so they are confusing. The general reaction most Japanese people have is anger and impatience. It can make for some ugly situations.

      It’s hard to tell the difference by just looking, though. I was in a bar one night and met this beautiful Japanese girl. I noticed she was wearing a crucifix, something a lot of Japanese girls do as a fashion accessory., and I asked her if she really understood what it meant and she said, “Of course, idiot. I’m Brazilian.”

      • 0 avatar

        Hey Thomas,

        From what I hear and read, your observations are absolutely right. Not a comfortable situation. If you ever do go back to Japan, you’ll not find nearly as many Brazilians Jpanese as before. The Brazilian government estimates around 40-50% have come back in recent years, due to the improving conditions here and a general worsening there. Don’t know how right that is.

        BTW, great story with that girl. And you’re right. The most beautiful girlfriend I ever had was mixed brazilian-Japanese.

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