From Japan with love: An affair with a car

Russell Baker

November 20, 1990|By Russell Baker

MY FRIEND the tube inspector thinks he has spotted a trend. While stationed at his tube the other morning checking the health of the Republic, he was startled to hear America being offered "a new and meaningful personal relationship" of an unusual kind.

"Not to be arch about it," he said, "it was with an automobile."

As a veteran tube inspector, he has been exposed for decades to tube people raving about new and meaningful personal relationships, but not with machines. As he said when phoning in his report, the high volume of tube talk about new and meaningful personal relationships had made him wonder if he was the last man in America who still hungered occasionally for an absolutely meaningless personal relationship.

I had to remind him that his duty as a tube inspector was to stick to observable facts about the state of the nation and not taint his reports with personal bias. If America insisted upon gorging year after year on new and meaningful personal relationships, I pointed out, that was America's business.

"It ill behooves a tube inspector to let a bias toward meaningless relationships creep into his reporting," I said.

"You should be warned," he said, "that nobody has said 'it ill behooves' since approximately 1937 when John L. Lewis said it to Franklin Roosevelt. Your saying it now may mean you are no longer in America."

"Nonsense. That isn't America you tube inspectors spend your lives inspecting," I said. "It's just Tubeland."

"You mean there's something else?" he asked.

He had me there. A wrong word and I might find myself in trouble with the House Committee on Un-Tubeland Activities. "Stick to business," I said, "and give me the details of this strangely motorized new and meaningful personal relationship."

"I think it's Japanese," he said. I perked up at that. Japan is not like Tubeland. Japan is serious geography.

The inspector said that at breakfast, while flicking his tube from network to network to make sure there had been no diminution of the blondness of either Deborah Norville, Joan Lunden or Paula Zahn, he had glimpsed a Japanese car. He believed it was called a "Galant," but had been too blinded by blondness to be absolutely sure.

He was certain, however, that it was Japanese and that it had promised "a new and meaningful personal relationship" to American buyers. He had jotted down the words: "new and meaningful personal relationship."

"Do you think we're talking sex here?" I asked him. People who have lived there say that sex is to Japan what the tube is to America. They say Japanese businessmen riding the subway to work don't read tabloids, they read sex comic books.

I also knew that Japan's auto industry had been slow to satisfy the American car buyer's demand for air bags. Maybe they were making a desperate effort to compensate by offering something entirely different.

"Maybe Jesse Helms should be told about this right away," I told the inspector.

"Not until you hear the rest of it," he said. The night before, he had heard one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's love poems being recited on the tube, the one that begins, "How do I love thee?" then goes on to count the ways.

Fearing he had fallen into an educational channel, the inspector did not get alarmed until he saw that the poem was accompanied by a picture of, he thinks, a Honda.

"Japanese!" I said. "They're using Liz Browning to get Americans erotically stirred up about cars."

It was either diabolical or another example of Japanese engineering-and-design genius. Old people remembered a time in the 1950's when Detroit car makers had tried to sell their machines with innuendo: for instance, decorating bumpers with huge chrome globes suggestive of Wonder Woman.

This, however, had ended in the disaster of the Edsel, which some people said -- though Ford denied it -- was an effort to make a Ford front end evoke thoughts of female sex organs.

"It didn't work for Detroit, it won't work for Tokyo," I told the inspector. "Automotive engineering still isn't up to delivering on these suggestive promises."

"Sure," he said, "so look at the front page of USA Today, the newspaper for people too busy to watch the tube."

I looked. There was a report on a new high-priced Japanese car called Acura. The writer James Healey had astounding news:

"The race-tuned engine unleashes a primal howl. ... The interior is a leather womb. ..."

What next, you clever Japanese?

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