How I covered my first Tokyo Motor Show 20 years ago

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Don’t Drink And Write

By the time you read this, I will have arrived in Japan for the biennial Tokyo Motor Show (TMS), whose theme for its 45th edition is “Beyond The Motor.” Which I take to mean technological advances that transcend the conventional automobile. Before I lay my eyes on the concept vehicles that embody this motif, I want to remember with fondness my maiden visit to this expo, before technology radically changed the way journalists chronicle it.

I first went to TMS in 1997, a full two years after I’d joined an automotive publication as a lowly editorial assistant. In local motoring media, a sponsored invite to this event means you’ve paid your dues and that the industry (or at least one automaker) officially recognizes you as a legit member of the beat. Presumably, mine came after my former boss had been impressed by my efficiency in encoding the articles our contributors sent by fax machine.

A fax machine — for the benefit of millennial readers — was a device for transmitting printed text through a telephone line. This was before the advent of e-mail. So if you wanted to submit a story to your editor from your home, you had to print a copy of your work, feed it into the machine, and press “send.” Your editor, who had a similar machine in his office, would receive a facsimile of your manuscript — and then either type it onto his computer himself or ask an assistant to do it. Today, newspaper or magazine staffers in their 20s think their job is oppressive. I think it’s time somebody told them they would have died of various stress-related diseases had they lived in those days when mail necessitated a postage stamp and a trip to the postbox.

The first Japanese car company to believe in my talents enough to invite me to TMS was Honda. But then, if I’m honest, I’m sure that invitation had been intended for my editor-in-chief, who, unfortunately, had committed to another Japanese auto firm.

Twenty years ago, I went to the Tokyo Motor Show with only a pen, a notebook and a Nikon FM10, a manual-focus camera that captured images with film. I also had four boxes of Kodachrome color slides, which I had to use sparingly because an out-of-focus shot couldn’t be remedied by Photoshop. And because my available shots were limited, I knew better than to waste any of them on scantily clad booth babes. Every slide counted, and each had to register a beautiful car if I wanted to keep my job.

I was overwhelmed by the expansive venue, the Makuhari Messe International Convention Complex in Chiba Prefecture just outside of Tokyo. There were journalists from around the globe, which gave me the sense that the work I was doing carried weight and meaning. For a college dropout who had been raised in the streets of Baclaran, this was kind of a big deal.

It was my first time to see futuristic-looking concept cars. And it was like being in a sci-fi movie, if sci-fi movies featured a character that lugged more than a dozen bags with voluminous press kits in them. Back then, there were no thumb drives to store digital files of text and images. There weren’t media Web sites from which to download said files. As I hopped from one booth to another, I was given physical press packs — each containing documents for the car information, and slides for the official photographs. There was an incentive to collect these bags: They came with souvenirs.

When the bags became too heavy to bear, I brought them to the press room, where a corporate sponsor (either Michelin or Bridgestone, I now forget) offered to courier the media kits to my office back home. It was free of charge. The problem was retrieving them in Manila, because the customs people would charge me a substantial amount for the package in spite of my protestations that the contents had no commercial value whatsoever.

The TMS press room in those days always looked packed. Mostly because a throng of journalists far outnumbered the desktop computers provided for those who needed to file their stories right away. Laptop computers weren’t so common then, and even the reporters who had them had to go to the press room to avail of a cable connection.

The press room also allowed me to place a long-distance call to my folks in New Jersey. It was also free. The telephone section was always a magnet for Filipino journalists; it was a good time to tell their US-based relatives they were in Japan just to see the latest cars. It made us sound important. Like we had made something of ourselves.

Honda displayed four concept cars at this show: the J-VX hybrid sports car, the J-MJ crossover, the J-MW minivan, and the J-WJ wagon (which would evolve into the production HR-V). At their presentation, I had to listen intently to the speaker and take notes, because there was neither Google nor Wikipedia to save my ass when time came to write my story.

As the cars progressed, so did the means of covering the Tokyo Motor Show. Not here to diss the latest technologies. I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t prefer the convenience of wireless connectivity and digital communications. It’s just that the old system, like a classic Japanese sedan, had more romance, and the vocation felt more special. It was impractical, grueling and time-consuming. But beer tasted better after work.


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