One of the best car adverts of all time was filmed in the 1980s – before political correctness became a national obsession – and featured an assortment of Volkswagens being dropped from a great height onto a comedy Japanese gentleman in a badly-fitting suit and patently fake moustache.
This subtle campaign was somehow meant to underline the fact that the Volkswagen Golf was the number one selling imported car into Japan and was presumably also strong enough to resist the impact of any unfortunate human beings who happened to come into violent contact with it. The good news is, thanks to the power of YouTube, you can still watch it now.
To tell the truth I never really understood the message either, but it was extremely funny. Especially when you were aged less than 10.
What’s even odder was that the advert was also aired in Japan at the time – and they apparently found it even funnier than we did. This, you have to remember, is a nation where public humiliation became an art form, as typified by the legendary Clive James Japanese Endurance TV game shows.
For those unfamiliar with his work, the show consisted of Japanese people taking part in competitions that would probably simply be classified as ‘torture’ in most other countries. The challenges involved activities such as the application of wasabi to intimate areas, and there was also one particularly delightful game that consisted of competitors being locked in a glass dome for a day or two without food and water. The monotony for the unfortunate inhabitants was thankfully relieved by watching other people consume a five-course meal just outside the dome, while ice cold water was trickled tantalisingly down the outside of the glass.
How we laughed as we watched the crazed participants repeatedly head-butting the walls in desperation while screaming hysterically about hara-kiri.
Ritual self-abuse still forms part of everyday life in Japan, because otherwise how else would you explain the rabid popularity of karaoke, even now? You’ve not lived until you’ve heard a rowdy group of Kirin-fuelled Japanese revellers massacring Beatles classics such as “Ruv, ruv me do.” This was more or less the premise of ‘Lost in Translation’ after all.
Many of the trendier ones will be wearing T-shirts emblazoned with inspirational slogans such as “Discover Now Two Corns!” In fact, surreal mottoes are everywhere in Japan.
Aquarius – a commonly-sold lemon drink – is apparently not just that but also a “whole body thirst solution.” Other famous Japanese non-sequiturs include a brothel in Tokyo that is apparently called ‘Granny’. Or so we’re told.
And, on an entirely different subject, why on earth does anybody need a toilet that massages you in three different directions while playing the Ode to Joy? A friend of mine clearly did though – and imported it to his home in Surrey. Owing to plumbing incompatibilities, it’s now been repurposed as an alternative armchair in his study.
It’s moments and artefacts like these that make Japan one of the first places I’m looking forward to visiting again once long-haul travel becomes easier again. To call the place odd would be a bit like describing Salvador Dali as slightly eccentric, but as a celebration of complete diversity nowhere else comes close. If you’ve not been, put it to the top of your list. Especially if you drive a Volkswagen Golf.
The people are politeness personified, which is maybe why they occasionally choose to escape the straight-jacket of social convention in an unexpected manner. Good luck to them. If everywhere in the world were like Japan, we’d probably all live in peace and harmony. And even if we didn’t, we’d certainly all have a very good laugh.
Amazing what rummaging around vintage car adverts makes you think about…
Anthony Peacock works as a journalist and is the owner of an international communications agency, all of which has helped take him to more than 80 countries across the world.