Status and fear can do a swift job of clearing a congested road ahead of you. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen twice on double-lane highways in Japan in the past six months. One time, crawling along at 15 kph in heavy traffic, I spotted a convoy of three black S-Class limos in my rearview mirror threading their way through the congestion. The precision with which they maintained single-file formation and the way they blocked both lanes by straddling the center white lines was as eye-popping as it was educational. None of the other motorists got upset. Nobody honked their horns. Try such antics on roads in Europe or the United States and people are bound to take offense, call the cops or just block you.
But in Japan, common sense prevails: When you see big black or white limos, normally top-of-the-line Mercedes S-Class or Lexus LS models, pushing their way through the traffic, just let them pass. Or if you see them blocking a driveway or parked on a corner, just drive on by. That’s what the locals do. Mr. Average doesn’t want to tangle with whoever might be inside. I let them pass, too. I like life too much.
But when you write about cars and drive as much as I do in Japan, you’re bound to encounter some dubious sorts from time to time. Luckily, my first face-to-face encounter with yakuza gangsters was at an interview specially set up to inquire as to why they so often travel in left-hand-drive Mercedes-Benz S-Class limos (usually black or white) in Japan’s right-hand-drive car culture. It is a question a Japanese writer wouldn’t dare ask. Why? Because they think it is too direct, or even rude. A foreign writer has more license — although there are still rules. If you ever do cross paths with this underworld fraternity, you had better know when you can ask probing questions and when to just shut up or move seamlessly on.
After many weeks of tip-toeing around potential cross-cultural minefields, and careful diplomacy to locate a possible candidate, one yakuza clan boss finally agreed because, as I read it, he was intrigued with the foreign media. We agreed to meet in a park in central Tokyo. While I was sweating bullets, thankfully Japanese mobsters don’t usually carry guns. What did surprise me, however, was the extent of their politeness and concentration on what this insignificant reporter was asking.
“So why do you drive S-Class Mercs?” I asked. As expected, the boss’s replies centered on the marque’s strong build quality, as well as the car’s grunt and high status.
“The S-Class has plenty of power, looks good on the road and has a lot of luxury inside. Nothing really comes close, except maybe a Lexus LS,” said my honorable interviewee.
Having asked one seemingly obvious question, and having got a straightforward answer, I decided to ask another. “Why the tinted windows?”
Without any hint of irritation, he answered, “Because we like our privacy. It also pays off when certain people (our rivals) cannot see inside our car.”
And there was naive me thinking that tinted windows were handy because they reduce the heat and sunlight entering a car in summer. I thought better of asking if that was a bonus. Privacy is reason enough in the mobster business.
What about the mobsters’ penchant for left-hand-drive cars?
“They don’t come in right-hand-drive,” was the reply.
Well, that may have been the case a decade ago in Japan. But now you can get S-Classes with their steering wheels on either side. Still, somehow I figure that these well-dressed gents will stay with left-hand drive. The uniqueness commands more status, or should I say it generates more fear and awe, which — you might remember — is very effective at clearing a crowded road. And that makes for a much cooler ride than tinted windows.
Feeling comfortable with how the interview was going, I next ventured to ask how they practice the tight formation driving I had witnessed in heavy highway congestion. When the boss grinned at me and replied, “That’s our little secret,” I thought I had pushed my luck far enough and suddenly realized that it was late and I had taken up enough of their valuable time. Bowing profusely, I thanked them and humbly excused myself.
It is often said that Japan is a country of extremes. On the surface, everyone seems very polite and courteous. And most of them are. For example, road rage is far less of an issue here than in many Western countries. I’ve only ever seen frustrated drivers stop and get out of their cars to voice dissatisfaction with another motorist once or twice. And it never ended in fisticuffs.
Still, Japan is steeped in traditional and unwritten rules, and it is good to unravel some of them. I’ve been here 20 years and I’m still learning. So, if you’re going to drive in this nation’s megacities, you should be mindful that there are underworld organizations living a parallel existence to mainstream society. One day, you might just find that demimonde roaring up behind you — and knowing how to respond, or not, is one way of remaining, ah, healthy. As the yakuza boss explained, “You have to know your place and show the right level of respect. Otherwise things can get out of hand, and quickly.”
Point taken, sir.
Peter Lyon is a 20-year veteran motor journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.