When hunting for destinations for a holiday in Fukushima, I reached not for a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet (my 1994 edition of which anyway devotes just a couple of its eight hundred pages to the delights of the prefecture) but for an altogether more outré publication, Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s 1998 bilingual bestiary of the bizarre, Roadside Japan, described by the author himself as “a heaping helping of crass, dumb, and vile nonsense”, a book that celebrates every stupendous banality of modern existence, from the idle menace of swan pedalos to the tragicomic absurdity of abandoned restaurants capped with giant concrete Buddhas, and which has served as a wellspring of inspiration these last few years. What did Doctor Tsuzuki prescribe for Fukushima? Only three sites, as it turned out—Godzilla’s egg (which we’ll come to later), the treasures of the ogre hag of Adachigahara (which sadly we won’t), and Tohoku Safari Park, which on first blush sounded unpromising:
You can nose your Honda as close as you dare to a yawning lion, feed giraffes from your car window, get bison slobber all over your windshield, it’s a thrill a minute here!
Yes, been there, done that, remain in therapy from the assault of a troupe of chimps on the vinyl roof (well, it was the seventies) of our slice of ripped-off bargain-basement Detroit iron at a certain British safari park when I was six, something I am still subtly paying for in the shape of an ever so slightly diminished inheritance. No bison was going to slobber all over my Honda’s windshield, thank you very much. But Tsuzuki mentions in passing that the park had an “Erotica House—something for the kiddies and something for the grown-ups”, and this called for further investigation.
No trace of the Erotica House was to be found at the website of the safari park—my, how prudish we have grown in our dotage, Japan—and it turns out that in 2006 the president of the park, Tokio Kumakubo, then aged 74, briefly ended up in the clinker for displaying pornographic photos of un-mosaicked couplings in his Erotica House. This wasn’t Kumakubo’s first brush with the law: back in the sixties he had become one of the largest real estate brokers in Tohoku but his operations fell apart in 1973 when he was suspected of tax evasion. Somehow he navigated his way through bankruptcy while holding on to large tracts of land, on which he built a couple of successful safari parks, and was reputed at one time to own a hundred racehorses.
In the course of unearthing all this, I learned that Kubota had indulged his son, Nobushige (41), by building him a network of motor-racing tracks, Ebisu Circuit, on lower hillside land to the east of Tohoku Safari Park, that these circuits were regarded as the spiritual home of that made-in-Japan motorsport, drift racing, that Nobushige was a pro drift racer and the Lord of Ebisu, where he is known as “The Controller”, and that the weekend I would be in town the circuit was scheduled to hold a Drift Matsuri festival. Sold!
Pulling up in front of the safari park entrance, it was instantly apparent that something was awry.
Although it should have been one of the holidaymaking peaks of the year, the ghastly seventies hulk of the Safari Hotel had been crudely mothballed, a stub of two by four jammed down behind the round handles of its glass reception doors.
Mold was creeping up the long-closed shutters of a used tire vendor.
Across the road was a spartan dosshouse nap room, bedding heaped in corners, available free of charge to circiut drivers too impecunious or obsessed to pay for accommodation.
At the admission gate I forked over a very reasonable Y1,500 ($20) spectator fee, for which I was rewarded with a complementary pair of black driver’s gloves emblazoned with “Drift Tengoku” (Drift Heaven) in pink—drift is nothing if not colorful—and a sheaf of bilingual maps, guides, and warnings, the sternest admonition being a chillingly ultimate disclaimer of responsibility: “No matter what happens (for example, death, wound, damage) during Drift Heaven Week, we can’t take responsibility or be liable for anything”.
Roars, screeches, and bellows, not of the lions, bears, and tigers of the safari park but rather of the Soarers, the Chasers, and the other big beasts of drift, drew me in.
Someone—I forget who—once wrote that you could live in Japan a long time before realizing that the head of state was the emperor. I’m not sure that’s true, but you could certainly live out your life in Japan—even as a Japanese—without being aware that the subculture of drift-racing existed, never see it on the nightly news (broadcasts are relegated to an obscure satellite channel), never read of it in the daily papers, never hear of it in morning coffee conversations with coworkers. That’s I think because it has its (eighties) roots in highly illegal touge mountain-pass racing on public highways and is hence condemned to be forever part of the ura, the hidden Janus face of society, rather than the omote face presented to the world, no matter how much it has been made respectable and spread around the globe in recent years.
Nothing quite prepares the drift novitiate for the unearthly banshee wails and tortured turbo whinnies of a drift car driven at the limit, and within moments I was hooked. Drift struck me immediately as everything modern omote Japan so fastidiously tries not to be: stinky, grimy, raucous, unrefined, unfettered, and very definitely high-testosterone—no soshokukei herbivore men need apply here. And as Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the BBC carlife show Top Gear, might say, I absolutely bloody love it. This well-watched video, Ebisu: The Soul of Drift, captures the poetic, almost balletic, rhythms and cadences of drift far better than any still photo could.
And yet, for someone primed like me to look for signs of trouble, they were everywhere. The pit blocks were at best half-full of wannabe racers. What cars there were, were of a certain vintage, like this R32 Skyline from the distant early nineties, easily tuneable rear-wheel drive monsters of power that the Japanese auto industry doesn’t much deign to churn out any more.
The merest handful of spectators, including this couple out on a date (at whose instigation, I wonder), were scattered across the creaking, peeling stands.
The circuit’s maintenance and support vehicles were without exception of extreme antiquity. An old woman loitered at the door of her customerless restauant, watching the action. The VIP room had been furnished with worn and lumpy sofas that might have been yanked off the street in the glorious sodai gomi days of yore, when people junked their almost new yet already unwanted furniture by the roadside. Could it be possible, I mused: in the land of its birth, was drift adrift?
Much to my surprise, a knot of foreigners were lounging around the pit walls. I approached one, a US Air Force dude who’d driven down from the Misawa Air Base in far northern Aomori and who’d missed the last festival because of a tour of duty in Iraq. He’d been here four days and nights straight—no time to sleep, he said—but had smacked into a wall and done some damage to his ride, which is why, at the chaotic lower echelons of drift, bruised is best.
“The great thing about drift, man, is you get to mix with the pros, people like Naoto Suenaga.”
“It’s not like NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Junior, ya know.”
I assured him I was sure it wasn’t.
After a couple of entertaining hours, I wended my happy way north, but was left with a headful of nagging questions. Was drift one of the holy places where the races meet? It seemed so, from the conviviality with which pro Suenaga chatted with his foreign admirers. Was drift in peril in its homeland? So hard to tell, what with the circuit only about 65km west-northwest of Fukushima Daiichi and the dislocation and disorientation of the March 11 disasters so fresh. Or was drift only ever a minority passion? And why was I so smitten?
I vowed to return to Ebisu Circuit in August, when it hosted rounds six and seven of the D1 Grand Prix professional drifting series, and in the meantime mugged up a little on the history of drift, which I’ll recount here first through half-a-dozen key words.
Hashiriya (走り屋, hooners): Drifters that once upon a time raced illegally over mountain passes or in wharfside warehouse districts. The originators of drift, hashiriya at first raced on grip principles until a quiet drift boom built up in the mid-eighties. Street drifting as practiced by the hashiriya peaked in the mid-nineties and went into decline as drift moved, not without police pressure, onto circuits and into the world of omote.
Broadly defined, my online Japanese drift lexicon tells me, hashiriya includes a subtribe, the “maximum speedsters” (最高速系, saikosokukei), who liked to race on Tokyo’s extraordinary network of elevated expressways and who themselves could be divided into sects: the “bayshore kids” (湾岸系, wangankei), who preferred the flatter, straighter Tokyo Bay expressways and the “roulette tribes” (ルーレット族, roulettezoku), who preferred the central elevated ring road. One rouletteer cheekily quipped to a TV reporter full of omote outrage in a late nineties newsclip I unearthed that the Tokyo expressways are like a racing circuit with a Y700 admission fee—which is exactly why they have featured in so many a video game.
These subtribes are not to be confused with a bewildering assortment of other mostly dormant or extinct speedster sects from bygone eras, many two-wheeled: the “thunder tribes” (カミナリ族, kaminarizoku), the “Mach tribes” (マッハ族, Machzoku), and the “thriller tribes” (スリラー族 thrillerzoku), bikers of the sixties who gathered spontaneously in parks and plazas, the din of their exhausts, mufflers removed for enhanced performance, reminiscent of rolling thunder; the “circuit tribes” (サーキット族, circuitzoku) and the “750 tribes” (ナナハン族, nanahanzoku), Saturday night station-front racers of beefy Honda 750 bikes who were mostly tolerated by the police, even on occasion trained in safe riding skills by them; the notorious “violent running tribes” (暴走族, bosozoku) biker delinquents of the eighties, keener on brawling and militarist paraphernalia than racing; and the “rolling tribes” (ローリング族、rollingzoku) of the eighties and nineties, who aped the style of pro superbike racers, tore over mountain roads in the depths of night, and died in droves on corners and off cliffs.
Dorikin (ドリキン, drift king) – The nickname of the man widely credited as the godfather of drift, Keiichi Tsuchiya (55), who first rose to fame for his drifting techniques and six straight victories in the 1984 Fuji Speedway freshman races and who briefly in 1987 lost his Japan Automobile Federation racing license for a hair-raising video, The Touge
filmed on the treacherous and now bypassed old road over the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma prefectures—all this in a country where it is a reputedly a crime to leave tire marks on the white lines on the road. Also known as the “drift dude” (ドリフト野郎, drift yaro), Tsuchiya is these days the retired elder statesman of drift.
Dorisha (ドリ車, drift car) – This is what you drift in, your wheels, your ride—better get yourself a fly one. A portmanteau word combining the first two of the four Japanese syllables in “drift” and the pseudo-Chinese reading of “car”.
Hachiroku (ハチロク, eighty six) – The Toyota Levin/Trueno Sprinter AE86 featured in The Touge video above. Known affectionately as the “the little hachi that could”, the AE86 was the first great drift car and is still widely adored and drifted today, even though production ended in 1987. Slumming it in the Tokyo ’burbs in the late nineties, I often wondered why these dowdy and already dated coupes were going for anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 at the second-hand dealers—guess I know now.
D1 machine (D1マシン) – At the far end of the spectrum from the (originally) cheap, cheerful, lightweight and modestly powered hachiroku, these are the mean machines that duke it out in D1. We’ll encounter some later.
A series of landmarks punctuated the gradual emergence of drift from the shadowy ura valleys to the sunlit omote uplands. In 1995, Initial D, a manga about young hashiriya, started serialization in Weekly Young magazine, spawning an anime of the same name that ran intermittently from 1998-2006, (mostly shown when hoon-fearing folk were safely tucked up in bed—27:20 to 27:50 in one case on the magnificent only-in-Japan 48-hour clock), and a 2005 Hong Kong movie. In 1997, a monthly magazine in praise of all things drift, Drift Tengoku, began publication. In October 2000, the first races in the All Japan Professional Drift Championship, which would soon morph into D1, were held at Ebisu Circuit. By now, drift was going global: Formula Drift started in the US in 2004 and the first Red Bull Drifting World Championship was held in 2008.
Hollywood at long last sat up and took lucrative notice of the drift explosion in 2006, with the third in the Fast and the Furious film franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a fine example of a favorite subgenre, so-bad-they’re-good films (ostensibly) about Japan. Here’s a blurry fanboy video montage, music courtesy of the Teriyaki Boyz:
I wonder if you know
How they live in Tokyo
If you see me then you mean it
Then you know you have to go
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)
I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo? Not quite like that, to be sure. The movie is unabashedly a teenboy’s wet dream, something made amply clear about five minutes in, when a tanned blonde highschool babe offers up her body to the winner of a grudge-match roadrace. The sheer wet dreaminess of it all is quickly and cheerfully acknowledged in the dialogue: as our hero motors into an implausible multistory car park filled with tattooed Asian hotties in microskirts bent over throbbing engine bays, his buddy hands him a conveniently at-hand box of tissues. After a split second of incomprehension: “That’s for when you blow your wad, man.” How thoughtful!
Our teen hero, Sean, supposedly 17 years old, is played by Lucas Black, already 24 back then (and already able to pass for forty), which made him the oldest teen swinger in Tokyo town—and the most ridiculous one ever to try and ease himself behind a Tokyo high school desk, albeit at a most fantastical high school where something akin to sushi but more elaborate, rather than curry rice, is served for lunch.
As we’re in the Tokyo ’hood and all, we have to get with the local lingo, and until very late in the action, where Sean develops overnight a stunning competence in Japanese, the movie is fixated on two words: gaijin, foreigner, which goes through many mutations, the most favored being a heavily accented first syllable and a long drawn-out second—GUYjean—and yakuza, gangster, which is pronounced as if “bazooka” had had its “b” replaced with a “y” and the “z” and the “k” swapped—yaKOOza. I braced myself for what was surely to come, and yes, there it was, halfway in, uttered by Sean’s gone-native and fount-of-local-wisdom father: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. Let that be a lesson to all you drifters out there. But don’t worry too much if you’re a foreigner, as Sean’s drift guru Han has some words of Nietzschean wisdom to impart: “Outsider, insider, doesn’t really matter, all that matters is knowing what you really want and going after it”. Austrian house-painter Adolf Hitler would have been hugely consoled.
Due to the utter dearth of thoroughbred Japanese actors and actresses able to get by in English, everyone in the movie under 40 of any importance, aside from Sean (white) and his pal Twinkie (black) is a hero of hyphenation: Sean’s guru, Korean-American actor Sung Kang; the love interest, Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelly; the villain, Japanese-Korean-American actor Brian Tee, and the villain’s sidekick, Argentina-born Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam, which gives the movie the air of having been filmed not in the monoculture of Tokyo but in polyglot Los Angles—as indeed much of it was…
So I found myself one sweltering and thunderous August Saturday pounding up the Tohoku Expressway in search of drift. The first surprise was the Ebisu Circuit car park: aside from the odd souped-up econobox that no go-faster sticker or low-profile tire should ever grace, the spectators’ vehicles were eminently sensible and would not have looked out of place in the lot of a suburban supermarket.
Stalls that lined the path to the main circuit offered insights into the culture of drift.
The T-shirt hanging left-center assigns ateji, phonetically equivalent Chinese characters, to the four Japanese syllables of “drift”—怒輪, “dori”, “angry wheels”, 風徒, “futo”, “follow the wind”, making the foreign indigenous. On its left, the towel is adorned with the expression togekotai (峠攻隊, mountain-pass attack force), in conscious echo of the tokkotai (特攻隊) special attack forces of World War II, known to the rest of the world as kamikaze pilots.
A stall offering one of the strangest of all offshoots of the phenomenon of drift: rajidori, radio-controlled miniature drift cars, which once had to have their wheels encased in PVC tubing to make them slippery enough to drift but now come equipped with their own tiny low-grip drift tires.
Crea (vocals) and Mia (rap) of duo 80’s☆Doll, selected in last year as official D1 artists, were hawking their debut album, Lip Service, a lively mix of eighties disco music and current club sounds (says their website).
A kimono-clad lovely was doling out free samples of Beast Eye, a homegrown alternative to Red Bull. A fair few of the womenfolk, who made up maybe a quarter of the crowd, had donned kimono for the occasion, which lent the proceedings a matsuri feel, as did the customary and coronary-inducing choice of festival fare: kara’age fried chicken, American dogs (deep-fried sausages on sticks), and fried yaki soba noodles.
Over the tannoys, the MCs chattered away about a shank of beef that was roasting on a giant spit and would later be carved up for all who stayed for the evening fireworks.
No mention was made of the home of the cow that had been slaughtered to fill the bellies of the worshippers of drift; let’s hope it wasn’t a local, radioactive one.
The setting was certainly stunning: this view of the stands looks east, over the central Fukushima valley and out toward Fukushima Daiichi beyond the pale blue hills in the distance.
No surprise that prominent among the sponsors were three tire brands, Toyo Tires, Dunlop, and Goodyear: drift is so brutal to tires that many pro drift racers change theirs after every bout, which lasts all of a couple of minutes.
My guess was that the grand prix had mustered an attendance of three or four thousand, around the number that gathered back in October 2000 for the very first D1 races: drift then was perhaps neither thriving nor dying, but idling, ticking over. Still, there was enough money left in the pot to afford an LED ad truck, to remind you where you were in case you forgot.
Back on the circuit, the D1 machines screamed on, leaving layered acrid veils of burnt rubber through which others had to drift.
There exists a drift technique, “smoky curtain driving” (煙幕走行, enmaku soko), designed to exploit the haze and rob drivers behind of their sight, although it wasn’t being deliberately practiced here.
A short sharp squall breezed down from up in the mountains, and the nimble drift cars, at both sides of the limit of adhesion in the dry, were reduced to lumbering dinosaurs in the wet, gingerly tiptoeing into corners at half their normal speed and even then often spinning out to shunt the walls of tires and giant polystyrene blocks.
The track dried out soon enough and my attention turned to the scoring, which operates on an all-must-have-prizes principle. Drivers start out with 100 points and have them deducted for not following the prescribed line around the four corners on which they are judged, for wobbles, for sloth, for shallow angles, and for lifting off the throttle. Nobody scores fewer than around 95 points (with usual local precision, scores are pushed out to two decimal places, so 96.78 would represent an average score) unless they spin or lose their drift and return to the prosaic world of grip.
It dawned on me that not only was drift scored like figure skating, it resembled it in a host of other ways. All other motorsports are akin to speed skating, where time is not only of the essence, it is the essence. In drift, though, while speed is key, it is not an absolute god whose word is law. Drift, like figure skating, has single and pair events, and outside of regular competition, synchronized drifting with multiple cars. Drift, like figure skating, is about skill, transition, execution, choreography, and interpretation (the five components of the International Skating Union non-technical judging system). Drifters even practice figures of eight, and pirouettes around a single cone.
My attention wandered back to the crowd. D1 spectatorship was not just an escape for lonely young men but a day out for the whole orange family.
Go Team Orange! (Whoever said Japan was suffering from a collapsing birth rate?)
A pair of portly, bonneted, and very well provisioned women left too many questions unanswered.
Was that a brace of young mullets I saw before me? The father’s baseball cap bore the forbidding Rabelaisian legend: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”. Amen to that—and the halves of the global fruit can be sliced at so many angles.
Unimaginatively, I dubbed this willowy trio the Vuitton boys, after the Vuitton clutch bag one of them slung nonchalantly from his shoulder and the Vuitton wallet one of them carelessly left sticking out of his back pocket. Wonder how long they’d last at a NASCAR race?
Up in the stands stood the pink Crocs tribe, the leader sporting a pair of those monstrous crimes against footwear in the most shocking of shades.
For some, the heat and the smoke and the excitement, not to mention the family feuds, had all become a bit too much, underscoring the uncanny local ability to sleep through unholy levels of noise.
Finally I found a fence-free sweet spot, on the last corner before the finish line, from which to snap the drifters slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination…
One of the incidental fascinations of drift is its physics, the subject of a droll 2006 paper with a Keatsian title, On the Dynamics of Automobile Drifting, by Mujahid Abdulrahim of the University of Florida for the US Society of Automotive Engineers.
Drifting is…an important part of any memorable movie scene involving a police chase. Despite the performance advantages of low-sideslip driving, it is well known that villains are more appropriately apprehended with much tire squealing and smoke.
Abdulrahim kindly explains from his lofty physicist’s perch that drift “challenges drivers to navigate a course in a sustained sideslip by exploiting coupled nonlinearities in the tire force response”, a thought unlikely to be uppermost in the mind of the average drifter approaching the apex of a bend. Here are some random shots of passing sideslippers captioned with soundbites on the physics of drift.
Takahiro Imamura (39) in a Mazda RX7 FC3S (1986-1991)
Through the complex relationship between slips and forces, equilibrium is achieved in general with front tires in counter-steer and rear tires spinning.
Robbie Nishida (33) in a Toyota Cresta JZX90 (1992-1996)
The coupling between longitudinal slip and lateral force is of particular importance for drifting, considering this is the primary means by which moment stabilization can be achieved at large sideslip.
Tatsuya Kataoka (32) in a Toyota Trueno AE86 (1983-1987)
The rear tires in a typical drift maneuver operate in the nonlinear plateau regime while the front tires operate nearer the linear range at small slip angles.
Ryoji Jinushi (37) in a Toyota Soarer JZZ30 (1991-2000)
The sideforce generated at large sideslip is generally less than the maximum sideforce, thus drifts cannot maintain high levels of lateral acceleration. Drifting produces unstable conditions such as positive cornering stiffness gradients and large restoring/upsetting yaw moments.
Yoshikazu Kawakami (36) in a Nissan Silvia S14 (1995-2000)
Thus, the challenge of drift racing is manipulating the vehicle controls to achieve small yaw moments in order to maintain a large-amplitude sideslip attitude.
None of these cars, at their battered and beaten cores, was less than a decade old, and a couple might have been on the road a quarter of a century. These were low-ranked drivers, to be sure, with scarcely a point between them all season, but the drivers on the leader-board were largely at the reins of steeds no more modern. Almost without exception the drivers are on the far side of thirty, with some, such as number four ranked Ken Nomura (48), pushing the half century mark. Drift, I concluded, was getting gouty, putting on a middle-aged gut—much like the land that gave birth to it.
Despite our physicist’s talk of longitudinal and lateral tractive forces, the dominant force that drift both does battle with and tries to harness is inertia, as does any attempt to pilot round a corner at moderate velocity a modern vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, which would much rather go straight on. A motorsport called drift with inertia at its heart: could there be a better mirror-metaphor to hold up to contemporary society?
Aside from half-Japanese US army brat (and I mean that in the kindest way) Robbie Nishida, pictured above, there was only one foreign driver on the circuit that day, Italian Federico Sceriffo, whose Subaru Impreza’s business end looks like this.
Neither of them had accrued any points in the season thus far, and much as it pains me to say, I suspect neither—nor any GUYjean—has much of a chance of climbing the rankings, unless drift gets itself organized under an international governing body, as it should—why, if figure skating is, it could be an Olympic sport one day.
Among the 38 (naturally all-male) drivers, only one was at the wheel of a foreign marque: Takahiro Ueno in a BMW 320i, the traitorous filler in this colorful sandwich.
And as far as I could tell, your tourist-correspondent in the world of drift was the only roundeye in the spectator stands.
Of my two trips to Ebisu, I preferred the former, with its overwhelming shock of the new. At the D1 Grand Prix, there was not even an overpriced beer to be had, thanks be no doubt to the Fukushima constabulary. The patter of the MCs was drenched in excruciatingly formal Japanese and winners were welcomed to the podium with a tremulous titter of applause. A friend known for his delicate turn of phrase forecast that Ebisu would be chockablock with “chapatsu slappers” (translation: women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair) but there was scarcely a bottle brunette to be found. Drift at the top has been professionalized, commercialized, sanitized, and suburbanized, stripped by the dominant culture of the “sub” of its subculture. Nothing wrong with that in many ways—even drifters have to eat, after all. But in the long and winding road from ura to omote, something fierce and vital has been sacrificed along the way: the barking, howling, snarling beast of drift has finally been tamed.