Let’s be frank for a moment. Owning and driving a car in Japan is a
pain in the ***. Coming from an American background where taking a long
road trip and driving to high school is a rite of passage for many, I
was in for a world of change when I moved to Japan last year. Japanese
car owners have deal with pricey and strict biannual “shaken”
inspections, roads that make my Honda Fit feel like an Expedition, and
highway tolls that are some of the highest in the world. Yet despite
these all these factors against owning a car, Japan has one of the
biggest and most diverse car cultures in the world.
Even though Japan is only about the size of California, the whole
country is littered with racing circuits of all sizes, and one look at
the magazine rack at any Japanese book store will show the diversity
and volume of Japan’s car fetish. In my own strange view, I think the
difficulty of owning a car here is
a big reason why you find such cool car stuff all over the place. If
people are going to go through the troubles of owning, restoring, and
modifying their cars, it only makes sense to do it as best as they
possibly can. My goal as a Speedhunter is to expose the vibrant world
Japanese car life. While there is no shortage of coverage the Japanese
“tuning” world, Japan’s love affair with the automobile spans much
further than that alone, and I hope to demonstrate this through my
Speaking of the tuning world, you must first realize that in Japan,
the modification of Japanese cars is not really a subculture like it is
in other countries. There is no “import tuning movement” in Japan, and
in their homeland, cars like the Silvia and the GT-R hold a status
similar to that of the Mustang in the USA or the Porsche 911 in Europe.
A common misconception about cars in Japan is that everyone drives
cars that are only a couple years old at the most. After living here
for a little while, I have found that is definitley not the case. While
it’s true that the expensive inspections can make owning an old car
more troublesome than owning a newer one, that doesn’t keep Japanese
enthusiasts from enjoying cars of all ages. You do get the feeling,
however, that the people who are running older cars are doing so not
because they couldn’t afford something newer, but because they have a
special attraction to that particular model. AE86’s, like the ones
pictured above are a great example of this. Despite the fact the some
of them are now 25 years old, AE86’s are still a common sight both on
the tracks and on the streets of Japan.
Now that you have a very basic outlook on Japanese car and some of
my feelings about it, let’s take quick look at some of different
aspects of car culture in Japan. Some will be very familiar and others
may not be.
If you have ever done any reading on the Japan, you may have heard that
the Japanese people value tradition and conformity, thus the saying
“the nail that sticks up, gets hammered down”. I guess someone forgot
to tell that to tuners like Smokey Nagata of Top Secret, who is known
for building outraegous, unorthohodox machines like the V12-powered
Toyota Supra pictured above. Not only does he build cars capable of
immense speed, but he also proves it by traveling around the world
breaking speed records, sometimes in a less than legal manner.
Next up, you have the time attack junkies. You will be hearing a lot
about these guys on Speedhunters. They will do whatever it takes to
shave fractions of a second off their lap time and some of them use
tuning methods and data gathering that looks like a NASA operation.
Tsukuba Circuit is the center of the time attack culture in Japan, and
fortunately I only live a short distance from the famous track. Like
drifting, the time attack movement started in Japan before taking the
world by storm. The Cyber Evo above, has always been one of the front
running cars in the time attack scene.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, you will find the VIP/Dress up
cars. They may not be the fastest cars around, but who cares? They look
so cool. Spiritually, this is the Japanese answer to the chopped ’49
Mercury in the states. Inside these cars you won’t find roll cages or
bucket seats, but custom interior work and mind blowing in-car
entertainment systems. While you may think these are the same thing as
the bling-mobiles you see in rap videos, they have an attention to
detail and unique look that gives them an aura all their own.
Drifting is probably the most well known part of Japanese car life and
it doesn’t need much explaniation. With Speedhunters, you have found a
new source for drifting content from around the world. Like it did
elsewhere, drifting in Japan grew from humble roots into a full scale
pro motorsport. Whether at the pro or amateur level, drifting is still
a crowd favorite in Japan and the Japanese drivers will always be the
pioneers of the sport.
Don’t think for a moment that the Japanese only enjoy their domestic
cars. While a lot of the imported cars in Japan are built to perfectly
replicate those in their place of origin, the Japanese are also known
for bringing their own style to foreign things and adapting them to fit
their needs and tastes. RAUH-Welt Porche tuning is a perfect example of
this. The cars may be German in origin, but their tuning style has an
unmistakable Japanese flavor.
In addition, you will also see Japanese cars that have been modified in
non-Japanese ways. These Japanese classics are done in a way that would
make them look right at home at any SoCal drive-in. Japan has a very
big hot rod scene that includes both Japanese and American cars. I knew
they had their hot rod style down when I was walking through a car show
and having hard time figuring out whether some cars were American or
Japanese before looking up close.
Lastly, there is the vintage Japanese car scene. Before there were
massive turbos and carbon fiber seats, there were sidedraft carbs and
low-back buckets. When looking at these nostalgic machines, you are
seeing the roots of the modern tuning scene in Japan. Many of the big
names in the industry first got their taste of speed in cars like the
“Hakosuka” Skyline and “San-maru” 240Z. Know your roots.
That gives you a brief overview of just a few of the many parts of
Japanese car culture. Stay tuned for much more as we dig deeper into
the wild world of car life in Japan and around the world.