Macbeth, McDonalds and other Scotsmen. Bagpipes, bombs and a little bit of Honda

Flying into Tokyo's Narita Airport I was on a plane which had a TV camera mounted on the underside of nose. This allowed all the passengers a pilot's eye view of what was going on - and it was very interesting, not least as we manoeuvred into the parking position and watched a local men in a white helmet directing the plane with two luminous orange table tennis bats - I am sure there is a word for "Dayglo aeroplane-direction devices" but I don't know what it is... The man in the white helmet was very serious about his job and his performance was so like ballet that it seemed that he was almost sending himself up. He wasn't. This is Japan and these things are serious. It was a very stylized - very Japanese - performance.

Many years ago I had a pal who worked at the National Theatre in London - welding things and dropping lights on cringing Thespians. He rang me up one day and said that there was a show that I absolutely HAD to see. He had tickets for the show that night. I asked what it was...

"Well," he said, rather cautiously, " well... ah... When I describe what it is, you will say that I am mad. But it really is brilliant and it has had the best reviews of any show that I have ever seen."

"What is it?" I growled.


"No thanks. I've seen it. I've read the book. I've worn the T-shirt. Not today thank you. I have to wash my hair. I have a headache. I have to leave the country unexpectedly... Is that enough excuses yet?"

"You HAVE to see it," he said.


"Well," he explained, "It's three hours long and it's in Japanese."

I cannot remember why I went but I did and I sat through the most amazing piece of theatre I have ever seen. I did not understand a word of it, except when the three witches warned "Banzai Macbett! Banzai Banquo!" And yet it was brilliant.

One of the things I find most extraordinary about visiting Japan is the contrast that exists between the aesthetic and highly stylized traditional Japanese art forms - which are simple, graceful, elegant and refined - and the gush of popular Western culture which seems to hold the Japanese enthralled.

Art has spilled over into life in Japan and you can see it when a taxi driver adjusts his white gloves and bows to you or a bulldozer driver manoeuvres his vast machine around a building site with an elegant ease. There is a reason for everything and no energy is wasted. And at the same time you have silly schoolgirls - who are anything but elegant - waddling along, clutching Mickey Mouse dolls and tins of Coca-Cola, wearing uniforms which look as though they were designed by Stewart Grand Prix.

Understanding Japanese ways is not easy and most of the F1 community gave up trying years ago. They either don't make the trip or they stay in the Suzuka Circuit Hotel, where they can drink in the Log Cabin bar and eat in the westernized restaurants - or in the paddock where the team chefs turn out their usual fare.

Very few struggle with the locals - which is a shame because that is quite fun, involving lots of smiling and waving of hands and learning from mistakes. Not many of the F1 folk know that Suzuka is actually by the sea. They never see it. There is a Suzuka mountain range.

Suzuka is located in Mie Prefecture - which is like a county. But the area looks more to the sea Ise Bay, sheltered inlets and islands, which are famous for their seafood and their cultured pearls.

Not far away is Ueno City which is famous as the birthplace of Iga-ninjutsu which is the art of making oneself invisible. And not far away in the Kinki district there was a strange outbreak of "Eejanaika" - which means literally "Who cares?" - back in 1867 when people went bananas and danced non-stop and the men dressed up as women.

It was all rather Scottish. In fact, the theme of my week in Japan seemed to be a connection between the Japanese and the Scots. I discovered that an absurd percentage of the Japanese rugby team have Scottish names. McCormick passes to Gordon, who passes to Yamamoto, that sort of thing. There is also a Smith and a Joseph. Why? How? I have no idea, but when I spotted a fully-kilted bagpiper in the paddock I knew that there was something going on. I discovered that the Stewart team had searched the whole country to find a piper for the team photograph, to mark the passing into F1 history of Tartan trousers. I guess they went to the Yellow Pages and looked him up in the "Pipers - Scottish" section.

The Scottish nationalists will tell you that it was the Scots who built the British Empire and there is no arguing the fact that they currently outnumber all other nations. England only has two team bosses these days (Ron Dennis and Frank Williams), Ireland is loudly represented by Eddie Jordan, Peter Sauber is as Swiss as a cuckoo clock - and some would say just as cuckoo. Jean Todt and Alain Prost are both small and French. Giancarlo Minardi and Rocco Benetton are definitively Italian. But there are three Scotsmen: Jackie Stewart, Tom Walkinshaw and Craig Pollock.

There is no doubt that the Scots are an inventive nation - you have only to listen to the three Scottish F1 team bosses to know that - and the Japanese are similar. People say that they are a nation which improves on everyone else's ideas. This is certainly true of croissants which the French have forgotten how to make (for commercial reasons). The Japanese make the best in the world. But they are also very inventive. Who else would have come up with a robot to make sushi. This can produce 1200 of the raw fishy things in an hour? And who else would have invented the Executive Travelling Fishing kit?

My favorite example of this marvellous invention comes from the 1940s when relations between Japan and the rest of the world was not as warm as it today. It is a little-known fact that Japan managed to bomb mainland North America: once in 1942 when a reconnaissance plane was launched from a submarine and dropped incendiary bombs on Mount Emily in the Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon.

Later on they came up with an even more remarkable plan - which was hushed up by the US Office of Censorship - in which they used high-altitude air currents to send hydrogen balloons - made of paper glued together with potato paste - 7,000 miles to the US mainland. The first one exploded in the Wyoming countryside in December 1944, scaring a few cows. They reported the incident to the US authorities and boffins collected up the bits and reported that these came from Japan. In total 9,300 balloons were launched and 285 arrived, blowing up as far afield as Michigan and Mexico but there were only a handful of casualties when one of the bombs exploded near a picnicking family in the woods of Oregon.

One of the great inventors of the post-war era was Soichiro Honda and in the days before the Japanese Grand Prix the Honda Motor Company held a press conference in Tokyo to reveal the new V10 engine it is supplying to British American Racing next year. Toyota is coming and there are signs that in a year or two Nissan will follow suit.

A couple of days later at Suzuka there was a dinner to tell a small selection of the international media about something called Formula Dream. This is a series run by Aguri Suzuki, and it is designed to find and then develop Japanese drivers capable of winning Formula 1 races. It aims to teach them everything they need to know about working under pressure, setting up cars, dealing with the media, physical training, strategies and so on. It uses Dome chassis and Mugen engines and is backed by Honda and Bridgestone.

There is no doubt, however, that Formula Dream is not so much a promotion to find a Japanese World Champion but rather a scheme to find a star for Honda. Even the name gives it away. As any biker will tell you the Honda Dream was the motorcycle which in 1951 launched the company on its phenomenal rise to success.

There was a very clear feeling at Suzuka this year that after a few years in the doldrums, Japanese interest in F1 is growing again. The sun is rising in the east, but there is a big "H" on the horizon.

An image worthy of Japan's curious cultural mix...

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