Home > Focus on Japan 2007 > The Price of Pride

The Price of Pride

May 24th, 2007

Sometimes it’s a good thing to have insurance.

A few weeks ago, I was coming back home on my scooter. My apartment building is part of a complex, and each column of apartments has its own bike/motorbike parking area, with a little pathway leading into it from the parking lot. The parking lot has little roads connecting a few different lots.

As I came in on the parking lot road, a takkyubin (delivery) vehicle was parked there, and as they often do, they left their empty cart blocking the entrance to the bike parking area. I asked the delivery guy, who fortunately was there, inside the truck, to move the cart, while I waited. I was almost in the middle of the road, the back of my bike pointing out.

When they guy came to move the cart, he was careless; he got between myself and the cart, his back to me–and then started backing up right into me. Not wanting to get hit and fallen on by this guy, I used my feet to back up a little bit out of his way (scooters don’t have a “reverse”), while uttering some kind of sound to let him know he was going to back into me. That’s when I heard the pop and scrape.

While I was waiting for the cart to get moved out of the way, a guy and his wife were driving out of the lot. There was barely enough space between the back of my bike and the other side of the road for this guy to get through, only a few inches clearance. Worse, since he was going downhill, he coasted, which meant there was no engine noise to warn me he was there. He did not make any signal that he was about to pass within inches, despite the fact that he could clearly see that I could not see him. He saw everything that was going on and had ultimate control of the situation. I did not have to back up much for my tail luggage rack to hit the side of his car as he passed.

Well, you know people and their cars. In Japan, it can be even worse than America, in fact; people have an almost obsessive-compulsive desire to keep their cars spotless. There are exceptions, of course, but one thing even car-loving Americans tend to be surprised by when they first visit Japan, is that so many of the cars look squeaky-clean and new.

So this guy hears the scrape, stops his car, and jumps out, pissed off as hell. Even in Japan, where people tend to avoid fights and conflicts, if someone feels that you’ve scraped his car, he’ll be ready to jump down your throat. A few years back, I passed a van in a close situation. I know exactly what happened: my muffler scraped the curb, but I know for a fact that I did not touch the van. The owner of the van, having heard a scrape, felt differently. I knew nothing of this until several blocks later, when a man jumped out of his van, leaving it in mid-traffic, strode up to my bike as I waited at a red light, and made a grab for my keys. He later came back and parked nearby when I told him I’d wait. He was pissed as hell, saying I’d scratched his van. I asked him to show me where, and in an ironic twist, this was one of the few people in Japan whose car was full of scratches. He turned to his van and started to point, but soon saw it would be hopeless to identify which one was supposedly the one I had caused. In our pursuant discussion, he said that the scratch was not as important to him as the fact that I did not apologize (though I think that the fact that his van was already in bad shape helped to turn that balance). I explained that I did not scratch his car, I was positive I had not–but he said it made no difference. So just to end the situation, I apologized. They guy nodded in a lordly manner, and left.

That is one way to defuse the situation: apologize profusely. In Japan, that does not necessarily mean a legal admission of fault or guilt, it is often just to grease the wheels. It was the same with the guy I was now dealing with in my building’s parking lot. Had I turned over, shown my belly, and allowed him to growl over me, his dominance assured, things would have gone differently. Unfortunately, my American tendency not to instantly apologize but to stand my ground, this was still strong enough–in addition to the fact that it was not such a clear-cut accident. I have no problem admitting that I should not have backed up without looking. However, there were mitigating circumstances. First, I did not move under motor power–I simply backed up with my feet, and did so to avoid collision, under a split-second choice. Second, it’s not as if I switched gears and backed up while having time to be careful and look both ways–it was a sudden, reflexive avoidance reaction, like ducking back if someone puts their hand too close to your face. And third, his car was to my back and silent–and I still hold that if you decide to pass within inches of people with their backs turned to you, you must accept at least some of the blame yourself.

This guy was having none of that. Even more pissed that I did not immediately humbly apologize for being fully at fault, he became even further enraged when I explained that I was not yet sure that I was 100% to blame. His wife was no help to defusing things, she backed him up and was similarly angry.

Well, we called the police to take a report on the accident, and called the insurance companies. In this kind of a case, despite the mitigating circumstances, I was technically at fault–mostly because my bike was moving backwards, no matter how little or for what reason, and hit his car on the side door, leaving an almost invisible blemish. He had the blemish, and all I had was my story.

You may think I understate when I say the words “almost invisible blemish.” However, I use those words because when the police asked the guy to point out the scratch–they could not find it themselves–the guy came to point it out…but couldn’t find it. Not for several seconds, at least. As it happened, I had already found the scratch a few moments before he tried to, and saw that he started by pointing almost at it… but then his finger wandered away from the scratch, and he had to look really hard in order to finally locate it. That was the extent of the damage. It was so light that at one point, I wanted to try to rub it with my finger to see if it would come off, like a soft paint transfer–but before I could touch it, the guy yelled at me threateningly, telling me not to touch it. The way he was looking at me, I swear he would have gotten physical had I gone ahead and actually touched his car. (Who knows, maybe he was afraid I’d wipe the smudge off and he’d have nothing to stand by; it’s not as if I wasn’t going to pay for it anyway if I made it worse, he already had my insurance info by that time.)

It still rankles me a few weeks later to remember it. I could not prove that he passed within inches, nor could I prove that I only moved back a few inches, even if it would matter (which it probably wouldn’t). The delivery guy had his back turned and so saw nothing. I accept responsibility for not looking before backing up, no matter why I did it, but this guy refused to acknowledge that he might even be in the smallest way also responsible for his silently passing within inches of me when I had my back turned. Instead, he acted like I had just delivered the worst possible insult to his manhood by leaving a near-invisible scar on his automobile and did not immediately prostrate myself and beg forgiveness.

Fortunately, I have insurance for this; I paid about ¥40,000 for two years’ worth of insurance to cover damage to other vehicles and property. When I spoke to the insurance office (someone there speaks English well), they at first suggested that I wait until the damage estimate came in to decide whether or not insurance would pay, as my next insurance payment would go up by $100 if I did. The insurance agent seemed to think that the repair could be done for under that amount, and if so, it would be better just to pay out.

A few days later, I called them back. They told me how much Mr. “My Car Is More Precious Than Life Itself” had the vehicle repaired for.

¥181,461. In U.S. dollars, that $1,493.

For a nearly invisible smudge on his left rear door.

Am I nuts, or could you not replace the entire freaking car door for less than that? It wasn’t a Mercedes or any type of luxury car, just a standard domestic sedan. And in Japan, this kind of repair is usually less than it is in the U.S., at least as far as I have seen and heard before now; parts may be a bit more expensive, but labor is usually much cheaper here.

So naturally, the insurance will catch it, and if I want further extended coverage, I’ll cough up the extra hundred. If people can get away with highway robbery like that and the insurance company agrees to pay, it means that I’d better have the extra coverage just in case something like this happens again.

To be perfectly honest, if it were me, I would not even have cared about such a blemish. Cars get scratches. Deal with it. Live with the shame. Better to have a few scars than constantly be wound up about what might happen to your beautiful faux manhood. My brother and I used to share a car in college; it looked like crap, and we didn’t much care. It’s a thing, and the thing worked just fine. In that car my brother and I had, we got rear-ended several times; each time, the insurance companies pointed out that the car wasn’t worth enough to make a full repair of the severely dented back end, so they just paid off the total cost of the car–something like $700. My brother and I just had a basic un-denting done, and didn’t think about it again. We certainly didn’t get mad or angry or excited about it, nor did we go ballistic when the other driver essentially said, “whoops!” and “here’s my insurance info,” even though we knew the insurance wouldn’t pay to set things back to the way they were before. And heck, my scooter has been scratched on several occasions–some by myself, other times by others–and I barely notice or care. Who really gives a damn? I mean, I love my Mac PowerBook like some people love their cars, but if someone scratched it, I’d say, aw, too bad, and go on with life. I wouldn’t fly into a rage and demand his insurance pay $1000 to replace the casing. If it still worked, that’s what matters.

Now, safety, that’s something else. A few years back, on my old scooter, I was driving across a bridge, in the middle of the single lane of traffic going my direction. Some ass in a car wanted to speed past me. He did not even bother to honk at me, flash his brights, or otherwise indicate he wanted to pass. Instead, he just flew past in a confined roadway while I was still in the middle of the street. I was already going about 10 kph faster than the speed limit, about 60 kph, and this guy was easily doing 70 or more–and as he passed me, his car side-swiped my scooter, throwing me off balance and nearly making me crash. I could hear his car scrape against my bike for what seemed like one or two seconds as he passed me. That must have left quite the scrape on his car… but of course, he did not stop. He sped off.

I was soon able to catch up to him, and honked at him to pull over. I know, it was stupid to, probably, but I was pissed. Not because he might have scratched my precious bike. Rather, because the bastard had come this close to frakking killing me. He dodged down side streets, tried to shake me as I pursued him, honking my horn all the way, hoping to attract a police officer. I busied myself memorizing his license plate (Tama 300, な 81-83, and I don’t give a damn who knows), before he finally got away by going up a ramp to an expressway, which my level of scooter was not allowed to enter. Maybe I should have still followed him and caught him at the toll gate… but then again, the prick had a nationalist hi-no-maru sign in his rear window, so maybe I was better off leaving him go as I did.

Instead, I went to the nearest police station, gave them the license plate number and a description of the car, and filed a report. The police assured me that my name would not be released to the guy; they could not file charges, after all, having no eyewitnesses, but they told me they would visit the guy’s house and give him a talking-to. Despite my lack of faith in Japanese police, I have little reason to believe they did not. Maybe I wound up causing the guy some grief after all–maybe it was a stupid kid driving daddy’s car, and the police visit did him no good. I like to think so, anyway. I also was confident it would not come back to me as the guy did not have my license plate number, nor any idea of who I was or where I lived.

My point? If somebody nearly kills you, getting pissed may be stupid, but at least it’s understandable. If someone barely smudges your car, I can even understand you not accepting what responsibility you had and trying to lay it all on the other guy–you’re protecting your own interests and being defensive, and that’s human nature. Maybe I’m doing that here more than I deserve to–I don’t think so, but it’s possible. And understandable.

But don’t expect me to accept your rage as an equally understandable reaction.

Categories: Focus on Japan 2007 Tags: by
  1. May 25th, 2007 at 17:14 | #1

    This is so typical of males in Japan and one of the reasons why I have little respect for many Japanese men. They are so weak and insecure that they need everyone around them to bow to their authority to reinforce their feeling of manliness (it’s a fragile, little thing, likely in proportion to certain body parts). When you don’t cower under their disapproving gaze, they become aggressive and try to intimidate you into buckling to their need to be kowtowed to.

    The older the men get, the worse they become in this regard. Even if it was 100% that guys fault, especially if he was 40 or older, he wouldn’t have apologized to you and may well have blamed you regardless.

  2. Paul
    May 28th, 2007 at 06:53 | #2

    I’ve been reading a book by Daniel Goleman called “Emotional Intelligence”. It’s several years old but was pretty revolutionary at the time.

    As it turns out, rage is something that we don’t necessarily always have a lot of control over. It’s a part of our brain that receives and processes things quicker than our cortex, and since it’s pretty autonomous, we’re at its mercy. It’ll flood our systems with hormones and such and now our hair is standing up and we’re pissed.

    What I find interesting is how you’re exactly right- there are some situations where people will get all enraged and others where they won’t, and *they vary by culture*. This suggests that it’s NOT simply a lizard brain reflex in certain situations.

    I had a rage experience myself recently. I was heading over to Sequim to hang with my dad and was in line for the ferry. A guy in a Porsche SUV cut the ferry line- and cut it pretty bigtime, several blocks worth of wait. Had he gone to the end of the line, he likely wouldn’t have made the next boat, and would have had an extra 45-60 minute wait.

    I’d already told one guy about how to get to the end of the line and he was very kind and gracious, turned around, and went to the back. But he only had another block or two added and would have made the boat.

    The Porsche guy blew me off immediately, claiming that since he’d made a “legal” turn into the traffic (which he hadn’t, actually) he was okay. I was amazed at how I went from 0 in anger to a million so quickly.

    I told the State Patrol (who are usually at the gates of the facility providing security for the ferries- they’re very concerned with the threat of terrorists putting one into the chilly waters of Puget Sound) and the car ahead of me (directly behind the cutter) did as well. Unfortunately they didn’t make the guy return to the end of the line, which also pissed me off.

    But I did notice one thing. Many people, once they’re on the boat, will get up and walk around, go up to the cabin and grab a bite or see the view. It’s about 35 minutes to Bainbridge so there’s plenty of time to get back to the car before it’s time to unload.

    I had my dog with me, and a newspaper, so I didn’t bother. And he didn’t budge, either. I’m sure he had visions of me keying the crap out of his rig (which was parked several slots back of me, since the Patrol had held him up and given him a hard time about cutting.)

    I really wish that instead of giving him a stern talking-to they’d simply sent his ass to the back of the line; making him miss the boat would have been much more effective in driving the point home. Especially some richer-than-thou jerk with a freakin German SUv.

    Ah well. Like you, Luis, I have his license number, and should karma ever present the opportunity to me to mess with that jerk again, boy, he’s going to pay.

    I’m a Buddhist but I’m not one of those never-eat-meat-turn-the-other-cheek-pacifist ones. Not yet, anyway. Maybe in the next lifetime. 😉

  3. Andy
    June 7th, 2007 at 17:09 | #3

    Hello Luis,

    Interesting stories. This reminds me of myself when I got my first job. Instead of buying a new shiny sportscar or luxury sedan like many of my co-workers did, I bought an entry level car thinking that I have less to worry about when it gets damaged cosmetically. I drove around a lot and parked in places where most cars have visible scratch marks from deliberate damages by pedestrians and such. So it happened shortly after I bought this car. One day I discovered that it had been keyed on the side of the car pretty badly. One long scratch mark. I still remember I got very upset about it for a couple of days. After that, Ive constantly checked for more scratch marks whenever I had a chance just so I can try to narrow down where it might have happened. Not that I can do much about it besides repairing it.

    Another thing to consider is that often leased cars have strict clauses that require keeping the car neat cosmetically. So any scratch marks must be fixed when dealership take it back. It could turn into a pretty hefty repair bill for some, as some scratch marks may require more than just buffing, possibly new and costly painting.

    So, on a different topic. I’ve just read that you’re a computer professor in Japan. I thought maybe you can give me some pointers on the job market there. I’m planning to move to Tokyo with my wife, who is Japanese, but I am of U.S. citizenship. I speak very little Japanese and dont write or read it. Will there be any job opportunities for me in Tokyo? I plan to learn Japanese after I move there but must find a job. I dont have any professional certificates but mostly because I’ve never needed one. I worked as a software engineer with Java for 4 years or so. Do you know if there might be any opportunity for me there? Please omit this paragraph from your blog if possible and if its ok you can email me back. Thx in advance.


  4. Luis
    June 7th, 2007 at 17:30 | #4

    Andy: Thanks for the comment. I could understand people being upset over keying, especially such a long and pronounced keying–that’s almost like a intended personal insult, and driving around with it would essentially say, “some person was mad at me, got back at me, and I am powerless to do anything about it.” Still a bit superficial, but eminently understandable as something you don’t want to drive around with. It’s the minor, accidental stuff that people blow up over which really makes no sense. I have never damaged another car intentionally, but I have to say that I have been sorely tempted to when I see some ass with a mobile phallic surrogate park diagonally over two spaces in a crowded parking lot, forcing someone else to park far off and walk a long distance just so this jerk doesn’t run even the slightest chance of getting a ding. I would never key a car even in that situation, but I wouldn’t report a person who I saw doing it, I have to admit…

    Anyway, on jobs: I can clue you in to a certain extent on jobs in the teaching market, especially the English teaching market, but I am afraid that the computer industry jobs market is unknown to me. What I can tell you is that if you are married to a Japanese citizen, you can get a spousal visa which (I believe) allows you to do pretty much any work. That might ease the way into getting a job. But as for actual job opportunities… you got me there.

    English-oriented teaching jobs usually prefer that you not speak Japanese, at least in class, but I have the feeling that other jobs might prefer some Japanese language ability so you can communicate with others on the staff. But that might vary from place to place.

    Places to look might include the Monday Japan Times want ads, but I would guess that knowing people in the industry and getting info on available jobs on the grapevine could be more productive. Of course, you’ll want to check job listings in professional journals or such, whatever is most appropriate for the computer industry.

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