Does anyone in Japan drive a car that’s not spotlessly clean?
The TV presenter and petrolhead was there for three months filming his new show for Amazon and he reckons every vehicle looked immaculate.
“In the end I asked: ‘Is having a dirty car here illegal?’
“They said: ‘No, of course not. It’s just it would be so embarrassing. It would be like having poo on your face.’
“I quite like that. It means the place looks sparkly and shiny. And the Japanese also drive incredibly politely.”
What, like James’ alter-ego Captain Slow?
“No, I wouldn’t say slowly. Just, dare I say it, efficiently.”
James May 'Our Man in Japan'
A Japanese travelogue is something James has fancied making for years. James May says Jeremy Clarkson is 'threatened' by Greta Thunberg after explosive rant
That “dare I say it” is significant here, because one thing James has been keen to avoid in James May: Our Man In Japan, his six-part travelogue available today, is trotting out clichés about the Japanese people. Theirs, he acknowledges, is “quite a conformist society”.
But the 56-year-old added: “We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s a minefield for the Western visitor, that you’ll do everything wrong and offend your host. You won’t.
“They’re very accommodating. It’s a very pleasant, safe, benign place to visit. I’d recommend it to anybody.” James believes Japanese society is 'quite conformist'
A Japanese travelogue is something James has fancied making for years. And when, as part of the deal to make The Grand Tour specials with old mates Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond, Amazon offered him a series of his own, it meant his chance had finally arrived.
So would they have let him make a show about anything he liked?
“I don’t think so,” he says. “If I’d said: ‘I want to do a six-part series on making a sideboard, I think they’d have said: ‘No’.
No. (but from James I will watch six part of the grand cupboard)
“Foolishly, mind you, because that would be a ratings winner…”
Travelling around without his pals, says James, is like “making a solo album after years of being in King Crimson or something – there’s a slight risk you’ll reveal your shortcomings, that it won’t be as good as working with the others.”
On the other hand, the shackles are off.
He said: “Yes, it meant, for example, I could spend a day with a monk, climbing a holy mountain. That simply wouldn’t be admitted, working with those two. There wouldn’t be the patience.”
But, come on, they’re way more cultured than they pretend, right? He said: “What, Hammond and Clarkson? No, not really.”
James’ show, I should stress, is still tremendously funny. But the butt of the joke is consistently him. Laughing at funny foreigners is a trap he has carefully avoided. “It’s difficult,” he concedes, “I really didn’t want to be the patronising foreigner or entitled Westerner.”
Nor, mind you, did he just want to play the clueless clown abroad.
“I didn’t want to walk around going: ‘Oh, no, it’s all caught fire! I’ve fallen over!
“I’ve poked this man in the eye with these chopsticks!’
“That would be 70s slapstick. I don’t think anyone wants that anymore.”
So after such an enlightening visit, can James think of anything we Brits could teach them?
“Maybe something about bins,” he suggested. “Some years ago, when they were particularly worried about terrorism, they took all theirs away.”