How Japan teaches us that small is just big enough
SITTING outside an ancient tea-house in Kyoto, Japan, I look across the road at a Starbucks. Beside me is an enormous digital advertisement billboard that changes between strange Japanese products and Nike sports clothing.
Along the red lantern-strewn streets Japanese convenience stores are outnumbered by the American giant's '7/11' stores. And Ronald McDonald has some lovely property in the heart of the city. In other words, Japanese and western cultures are competing for space and the Japanese way looks like it is on the back foot. The front foot is slipping out of an Asics and into a Nike shoe.
Cars in Japan are changing, too. If the existing crop of older motors on the road is anything to go by, they are getting bigger. And yet something doesn't feel quite right. Progress doesn't look much like progress when one compares the older boxy Japanese style cars to the newer, bulbous and athletic styled ones.
When is big, too big? Perhaps, Japan was right all along when it comes to travel. They are certainly at the forefront of public transport with their Shinkansen (bullet trains) and regular-as-a-heartbeat bus services. This is by no means an endorsement of Japanese imports, which can come fraught with issues of insurance, provenance and long-term maintenance, but rather a look at what, if anything, we might learn from Japan on personal travel.
Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars are boxy. They are no more than they are required to be. With space a rare commodity, there is no place for broad arches and bulging bonnets that flatter the car's looks. Many have rear sliding doors, high-seating positions and small, efficient engines. Perfect for congested cities.
Parking in cities is taken care of by an enormous forklift. You simply drive onto a platform, get out, pay the attendant and your car is safely hoisted into position many feet above ground level. If cars get too big, the number of spaces reduces.
I don't recall hearing a beeping car horn or seeing any rude gestures being used.
In contrast, my commute from home to office is 9km and I frequently see near-accidents. In Japan no one shouts or beeps; and few pull stupid manoeuvres. Perhaps it is because cars are smaller and more manageable but there seem to be fewer incidents on the roads here.
The main Honshu island boasts some of motoring's biggest players such as Toyota, Lexus, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Suzuki, Subaru and Mitsubishi. Yet there is barely a diesel car among them. Most are hybrids. Everything from superminis to large executive saloons have some sort of hybrid badge. And that means everything is an automatic. Perhaps that explains why so few get stressed while driving. Driving a manual transmission takes quite a bit of conscious effort, you know.
The current ranges of cars in Europe and the US are very much of their time. They are stylish, large and comfortable. They are efficient and safe. But when we look at the future of cars, the space in our cities and the needs of our drivers, what do we see? Do we see the need for bigger, machines or the need for smaller, moderate.
In other words, when we look to the future, do we see Japan's past?