On Car Shopping in Japan

Given that my wife and I have no real intention of buying a house or having a kid, last weekend’s trip to the Honda dealership to buy a car is easily the most “adult” thing we’ve done in quite some time.

Perhaps I should start a little earlier in the story. Our previous1 car, a 2003 Fit Aria, was absolutely starting to get a bit long in the tooth — leaving aside its generally unfortunate-looking condition after a number of harsh Hokuriku winters, the radiator was cracked and in need of outright replacement, and between the price of that and the fact that we’d be looking at a substantial outlay this June for the shaken car inspection (easily ¥200,000 or more, because there is a minimum fee of something like ¥60,000 or ¥70,000 simply for the two years of compulsory insurance, plus a huge amount to get that car up to code), we figured, hey, it sounds like time to consider simply replacing our car.

It actually looked even worse on the inside.

The car-buying experience in Japan is, as has no doubt been written about countless times on the internet, rather alien to Americans.2 While there is certainly a degree of upselling of optional luxuries,3 there is a refreshing straightforwardness about a lot of the process: there are certain packages that include certain features, and you simply pick one of them as a baseline to work from.4

The interesting thing, from an American perspective, is how much paperwork there is involved: the dealership will generally require official proof of a parking space (to be obtained from one’s landlord), an officially registered seal and a certification of its validity from the local government office, etc. The payment, if going with a single lump-sum payment rather than credit, is also quintessentially Japanese: the buyer simply transfers the money from their own bank account to the bank account of the dealership, and the dealership looks at the name on the transfer to confirm who it came from.5

And then, if absolutely everything goes right, you may have your new car in as little as a week.

That’s right: unlike in the US, where it is largely safe to assume that you will drive your new car home that very same day, in Japan, your new car won’t be delivered to the dealer for you to drive home for a week or longer, depending on the configuration you’ve requested, because of the fact that they more or less build the car to order. If nothing else, hey, that’s actually pretty neat that the car companies still operate that way. It was certainly a novel surprise to us, at least.

Incidentally, for the curious, the car we went with is another Honda: the N-Box.6

Hot New Squareness

It falls into a legal category known as kei cars, a special type of small, light vehicles with restrictions on engine displacement and wheel size. The upsides include significant tax breaks, absurdly good gas mileage (the official mileage estimates are something like 28 km/l, or well over 68 MPG, which is good but by no means breathtaking among kei cars), and ready availability of some parts (given that the wheel size is standardized, everyone has the right tires available), but with minor downsides like being too narrow to seat five. To be perfectly honest, I’d love to see kei cars make it big overseas, but odds are that there’d be some pretty significant hurdles to that actually happening.7 Still, though, it’s not hard to imagine that there’d likely be a market for a small, efficient car that gets 60+ MPG, with a price tag in the mid $10,000s.

In the meanwhile, we’ll have to simply enjoy our new car here, in the market it was designed for. With any luck, this one will hopefully last another fifteen years, like the one it replaced.


  1. Or technically, at the time of this writing (but not posting), current. Feel free to allow this to recontextualize everything written above, as technically being in the future tense. Alternately, feel free to ignore this fact. 
  2. With the interesting exception of Saturn, a GM brand based on how car sales work in Japan. 
  3. Such as floor mats. 
  4. Though the initial price estimate included a whole bunch of optional features added in, which we then had to ask to remove, one by one. It says a lot about car sales, universally, that this came as a surprise to neither of us. 
  5. A fun thing I learned when trying to pay for our car: unless you tell the Japan Post bank folks otherwise, there is a limit of ¥500,000 per day that you can send as bank account transfers in a single day from an ATM, which is not enough to purchase a brand new car. Obviously, it makes sense that there are safeguards against transferring frankly enormous amounts of money without prior notice, but it’s still inconvenient when I know I’m good for it and that I’m doing it on purpose. 
  6. I don’t have anywhere else to add this, so I’ll just put it in here: when we later went to pick up the car, a week after purchasing it, the manager of the dealership came out to thank us personally, and gave us a little pot of flowers. It was a really nice little gesture, even if he does it for every customer. 
  7. For one, the mere fact that these are cars built specifically to meet guidelines for a single specific country, for reduced tax purposes, is a major benefit domestically that obviously wouldn’t apply overseas. On the other hand, given that they generally get mileage in the same realm as hybrids, perhaps a few countries would be willing to give them a chance. There’s also a major built-in first mover disadvantage — the standardized wheel size in Japan is great, because there’s a whole industry of vehicles that use the comparatively tiny tires that kei cars call for, but if you were to try to sell one overseas, the exact opposite would apply: you’d have a new model of car that would need a size of tire that would be small enough to be vanishingly rare in, say, the US. This is presumably part of why kei cars haven’t really made it overseas, though it feels like they have a lot of potential in urban markets, where being compact but with lots of interior space would be key. Incidentally, speaking of small cars meant for urban markets, only a single foreign-made car has ever achieved kei status in Japan, and not even fully across the board: certain versions of the Smart Fortwo happen to be meet these legal restrictions. 

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