Japan's Weird, Wonderful American Propaganda Theme Park

Ride a bus from Tokyo's Narita airport north for three hours to Utsunomiya, the capital city of Tochigi prefecture. Ride east for another two hours across the Haga District flatlands, watching as pachinko parlors and strip-malls give way to lush farms. Meander up the two-lane highway until there are pine-covered mountains shrouded by silver mist. You will reach the small and ancient town of Motegi. Just beyond it, carved into the mountain, is the huge and hypermodern Motegi Twin Ring Speedway—a international motorsports venue that hosts several major race events a year, including the Motegi MotoGP, and the track's signature race, the IndyCar series Indy Japan 300.


Twin Ring, named for an unusual, dual-track configuration, is the centerpiece and raison d'être for Mobilityland—a sprawling, motorsports-themed entertainment complex built by Honda Motor Company. A citadel of cultural imperialism and self-contained bubble of hyperrealist sensory overload, Mobilityland boasts the Twin Ring tracks, seating about 60,000, plus a luxury resort, a motorsports-themed kids' playland, interactive driving exhibits, and glittering glass-and-steel automotive museum celebrating all things fast and Honda.

As the name suggests, Mobilityland is supposed to be a sort of Disneyland for Gearheads. But it feels more like a Tokyo Disneyland. That is, Mobilityland is less of an authentic amusement park—assuming such an absurd thing can even exist—than an imitation theme park reimagined for a Japanese audience. Mobilityland, really, is a simulated simulacrum.

But wait. It gets weirder.

Most amusement parks are basically entertainment companies—divisions of the mass-media conglomerates that own them, supporting themselves though ticket sales, merchandising, and cross-promotion across a universe of media platforms. Mobilityland is owned by Honda—a giant of industry famous for making cars. Odd in itself. Imagine if Ford Motor Company had their own theme park—and make your own jokes about Pinto the Exploding Horse mascot.

But Mobilityland doesn't promote Honda—not exactly. Certainly not to the same extent that Disneyland promotes Disney movies, or that SeaWorld markets the various Shamus. Mobilityland doesn't sell cars—no showrooms on site with the latest Accords and Preludes. Beyond the obligatory raceday souvenirs, in fact, there's precious little Honda Racing merchandise for sale either.

Perhaps that's because Mobilityland wasn't created to promote a brand, but a lifestyle. Or, more accurately, to propagandize an alien culture. Namely: ours.

The park was built, according to the lilting English version of the company's website, to offer "the new mobility culture of American motorsports" to the Japanese people. Judging from the packed house at the IndyCar race, they've accepted.

Sure, Helio Catsroneves dominated the race itself. Defending series champ Dario Franchitti took second, putting him within striking distance of current points leader, Will Power, for Sunday's season finale. But the race seemed almost incidental compared to the real story—the meta-story—of an unabashed, disarmingly earnest, only occasionally absurd celebration of Americanism. Not just racing. Not just of American cars and car culture and the freedom they represent, but of everything Red, White, and Blue.

Witness the "Motegi Supaamerikansandesutorito" which translates (roughly) to "Super American Sunday Car Parade." Ostensibly an automotive swap meet and chance for Japanese collectors to show off their impeccably restored classic American muscle-cars, but the real purpose is getting "a day to fully enjoy as American." Fans not only were sporting American-style race gear, but shirts and hats with every permutation of the Old Glory motif, along with Woody Woodpecker, Felix the Cat, Mickey and Minnie, logos for American beer, rock bands, and loads of t-shirts covered in those vaguely-related strings of English words the Japanese use as design elements on clothing for the same reasons Westerners get Asian character tattoos. Bizarrely, and with postmodern irony thick enough to stop Foucault's Pendulum from swinging, more than a few fans wore clothes bearing insignia of the US Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.

Weirder?

Right before the Star-Spangled Banner, for reasons not entirely clear, pre-race ceremonies included an operatic, warbling soprano rendition of Lee Greenwood's patriotic kitsch classic, "God Bless the USA." A best guess is that the singer got the song confused between with the infinitely more appropriate "God Bless America," but who knows? Maybe Lee Greenwood is huge in the Haga District. Just imagine the good folks of Indiana trying to stage a completely authentic sumo-wrestling match and you'll get some sense of the incongruity.

Weirder, still? Come on.

Okay, if the Indy Japan 300 felt like theater more than sports—like a staged reenactment of an Indianapolis 500—that's because it was designed to be so. The event was conceived as a copy of the famous race—a bit like going to the Far East for a golf tournament and finding the course is a replica of Augusta National, right down to the dogwoods. The Indy Japan winner's trophy, for instance, is a scale model of the famed Borg-Warner given to Indy winners. Motegi is sister-cities with Speedway, Indiana, the town-with-in-a town that's home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Motegi fans even snack at the track's Brickyard Café, where the "American-style" hot dogs have a rubbery skin, but the Hot Burger is magnificent. That's ground beef rolled into a tube shape, griddle-fried and served on a hot dog bun with traditional hamburger fixings—a cross-cultural culinary masterstroke proving to all that this whole hyperrealist imperialism thing might have an upside. And that could be the weirdest part of all.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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