Ever since I started to have some interest in Japan, about 10 years ago, when I first got to date my japanese girlfriend-now-wife, I learned about japanese culture but also about all the apparent difficulties that came with owning a car in a country that is known for having a certain lack of land space. Now, I live in Japan, own and even import cars here, and I can definitely say that not everything people “know” about the car owning experience in this country is true. So once and for all, let’s go over all those beliefs surrounding it, what is true and what is not.
“Japanese don’t have old cars because they are forced to change them after XX years or they have to pay lots of taxes if they keep them”
FALSE: Owning an older car in Japan is pretty much the same thing as owning a 3 year old car. 5 or 6 years ago, it was slightly different as cars older than 10 year old had to pass an extra test. What happened was that you had to pass the mandatory technical inspection (Shaken) every 2 years, but every 2 other years, you had some kind of a mini tech-inspection to pass in order to make sure your car was still in driving condition. It was cheap and took 30 minutes at worst. Now the secondary inspection doesn’t exist anymore and you only have to pass the main one every two years like all the other cars. Taxes are based on car and engine size. Cars over 13 years old have to pay an extra 10% on their annual taxes though , which is hardly a deal breaker (an extra 25 to 100 USD every 2 years).
“Japanese have so many tiny cars (kei-cars) because owning a big car is very expensive and taxed a lot”
PRETTY MUCH NOT TRUE BUT... : As I mentioned earlier, smaller cars are taxed less than bigger cars. This is not the reason why people stick with tiny kei-cars nowadays though. It’s been about 5 to 10 years that Japan and Japanese car manufacturers are trying to sort of “eliminate” or at least diminish the popularity of kei-cars in Japan, which they can’t seem to do. From their logical point of view, it’s expensive to develop cars solely for the japanese market... Cars that they won’t be able to export anywhere and that follow a strict and restrictive spec sheet. So the japanese government is taxing more and more tiny kei-cars, to the point which, today, owning a kei-car is (tax-wise only and running costs aside) almost as expensive as owning a regular car. As far as taxation goes, bigger cars are not that much more expensive to own either. Here are a few examples:
The annual tax costs 29500 yen (275 USD) for a car with an engine under 1L, 51000 yen (470 USD) for a car with an engine displacement of 2.5 to 3L or 88000 yen (815 USD) for anything between 4.5 and 6L. Kei-cars taxes are a bit harder to define as they are paid to cities and not to the prefectures and they vary depending on where you live. It’s usually about the same as taxes for engines under 1L. I personally pay about 700$ for my car and that includes the mandatory minimum insurance and the inspection fees.
So do japanese chose to buy small cars because owning a big one is taxed too much?? I don’t think so. For most japanese, driving a small car is just something practical. They rarely use their cars for long distances or to drive outside of cities and considering how small streets can be in Japan, a tiny car is just something they want and buy. A LOT. In spite of the raise in taxes on kei-cars, 44% of new cars sold in Japan last year were Keijidoshas. Also as we’ll see after, running costs for cars in Japan are not cheap, to the point that people might simply chose something as cheap and as reliable as possible. Taxes are not the problem here though.
“Japanese have to change their engines after a while, so they get rid of their cars instead”
TOTAL MYTH: I have no idea how this myth ended up being so popular that even Matt Farah mentions it in one of his one-take video. Maybe because of the enormous amount of engines being shipped overnight from Japan, everywhere in the US?? Honestly no idea. That would be a bonkers law! Imagine the mess of owning an XJS V12 or something ridiculously rare like a 250 GTO and having to change its engine every 5 years.
Also emission testings are very fair toward older cars which are allowed to pollute more than newer cars. Fair to the point that I have a 31 year old straight piped SA22C Turbo RX7 as a daily driver. I’d NEVER pass emissions with it anywhere else in the world.
“Using a car in Japan is very expensive, so they stick to cheap new-ish econo-boxes to minimize the costs”
PARTIALLY TRUE: When someone wants to buy a car in Japan, that person has to prove that he can park it, that he has a dedicated parking spot or a garage first. No proof of parking spot rental or ownership = no license plate for him. And unless you live in the middle of nowhere, parking can be expensive. In my 300k inhabitants city near Nagoya, I pay 9000 yen (83$) per month to park my car. If I were to live in Nagoya, I’d pay between 100 and 250$ per month. In Kyoto or Osaka, it would be between 150 and 400$. In Tokyo, the sky is pretty much the limit (200 to over 1000$). Parking for free on a side-street is also not something you can do in Japan, those types of spots simply do not exist and you HAVE to go in a pay-park. When thinking about it though, prices are not that different than other big cities everywhere else in the world. The main difference with the rest of the world, is how expensive it is to travel around. Freeways are VERY expensive in Japan. On average it will cost you about 25cts per kilometers on ANY freeway in the country. If you chose not to use freeways, your travelling time will double or triple in time. Quick example: Last Friday I went from Okazaki to Kyoto, one-day round trip. In total I drove 300km on toll roads and 100km on free slower roads. I paid 8860 yen (82$). Not even counting the 13 gallons of gas my car sucked on the way (4.2$ per gallon right now), you end up with massive costs when doing trips that would be considered as simple daily transits for some americans.
“Japanese take great care of their cars! Buying a JDM car sight unseen is a fairly safe process.”
SOMEWHAT TRUE BUT... : For many japanese, their cars are a bit like fashion accessories. New car = good, old car = bad. So, just like that expensive shirt you bought 20 years ago and that you only wear on “special occasions”, their cars, that are quite expensive to run, are a way to show off in society, show to the world the kind of person they are. If you own a crappy car that looks dirty, you are most likely a bit like that yourself: crappy and not clean. So japanese people, in general, take great care of the aesthetics of their cars. Of the aesthetics. When it comes to mechanical maintenance, most japanese people can’t be bothered (which is also why they get cheap, overly reliable cars). The amount of people who can wrench on their own in Japan will probably equal the amount of people who can speak anything else other than Japanese. An insanely small minority. So if you buy a JDM car, don’t think that, because the car looks perfect and clean, the mechanic has been maintained just as well. If you’re lucky, the absolute strict minimum has been done regularly, but don’t expect the car to be mechanically as good as it looks. This is also part of the reason why Japanese people don’t own older cars. As soon as something starts to go wrong, they get rid of it.
So what else have you heard and that may have struck you when it comes to owning a car in Japan? Anything in particular you may have in mind? If so, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments!