Week 8 – The automotive climate of Japan: An examinational study

The experience of car ownership is one that is vastly different across the globe. From the ‘Yank Tank’ legislation in Cuba which made the purchasing and reselling of vehicles manufactured later than 1959 impossible by law, to the severe costs of car ownership in Singapore, to the open speed limits of the German Autobahn – the legislative, economic and social environments have a fundamental effect on the characteristics of national car ownership. Whilst over the last two decades, mainstream media productions such as the British Top Gear series and movies like the Fast and the Furious franchise have only intensified global automotive interests, these national environments play an absolutely dominant role in the fostering of national car culture.

As has been alluded to for much of this ethnographic study, Japanese car culture has affirmed itself as the most profuse and alluring of its type globally. With such a celebration of this automotive culture occurring every day beyond the borders of the Asian continent, one must question the type of environment that has come to foster such a culture? How can a national culture develop to a point whereby it becomes celebrated in other societies across the globe?

For the purpose of this study, this discussion will examine the Japanese automotive climate, comparing it to that of Australia’s when possible. With the general lack of conclusive comparison data, any claims made are purely based on my own ethnographic scope.

Japan Australia
Country Size (km2 ) 347 944 (21st) 7 692 024 km2 (5th)
Population 128 650 000 (10th) 23 632 100 (51st)
Median Age (years) 44.6 37.4
GDP (Billion, $USD) 4.85 1.64
Earnings per household ($USD) 25 066 31 197
Vehicles on the road 76 032 150 1 694 414
Vehicles per 1000 people 591 717
National Automotive Manufacturers 10 1
Automotive companies manufacturing within country 11 3

When examining the figures above, the geographic difference between the two nations is immediately apparent. The boarders of the Japanese nation fit snuggly within the Australian continent 22 times. Japan has the 10th largest population in the world, with a ratio of 370 people per square kilometre, whilst Australia just 4. From an automotive perspective, this means a huge amount of motorists, and a huge amount of vehicles on Japanese roads. Japan’s roads are known for being some of the most astounding pieces of engineering in the world, and with 76 million cars on the road, it is no wonder why. As well as this, eleven of the world’s leading automotive companies are Japanese. Each of these companies makes use of local production, producing in excess of eight million vehicles for Japanese roads in 2013. From an automotive climate perspective, such a strong industry has direct implications on creating a nationalistic automotive culture.

Figures indicate there are almost 6 automotive vehicles for every 10 people in Japan. Whilst Australia has a higher figure of approx. 7 cars for every 10 people, this is due to the vast size of the Australian continent. The sheer disparity between the two environments is perhaps better visualised when examining how many cars reside with each square kilometre. In Australia, there are approximately 4.5 vehicles per square kilometre; in Japan, a staggering 219. But even more staggering, is the figure revealed when examining the amount of Japanese vehicles that would reside within each square kilometre of Australia, when scaling the Japanese automotive population to that of the size of Australia. If the Japanese automotive population is scaled to the size of Australia’s size, 218 Japanese vehicles would reside within each and every Australia square kilometre; approximately 48 times greater than Australia’s current figure. Evidently, these figures indicate the colossal magnitude of the Japanese automotive population. For a country so small in terms of geographic size, Japan possess possibly the most dynamic, and tremendous automotive environment in the world.

The sheer volume of vehicles on Japanese roads perhaps is further influenced by the national automotive manufacturing sector, which is the world’s leading industry. Over 4 million new vehicles are exported from Japan to foreign markets each year. Considering this vast environment, it should come to no surprise the market saturation of vehicles available to motorists. At this time, Toyota offers 37 different cars to Japanese motorists. In contrast, Toyota Australia offers Australian motorists a total of 24. This saturation also results in a huge used car market. The amount of cars available to motorists, in combination with the strict and problematic ‘Shaken’ Japanese registration system, makes keeping cars three years and older on the road for the average Japanese motorist an expensive investment.

Keeping classic Japanese performance vehicles like this Subaru Legacy GT (Released only in sedan form, as the ‘Liberty B4’ in Australia) on Japanese roads becomes increasingly costly at the end of each ‘shaken’ period. Owners instead pass on vehicles, leaving most to be exported to foreign markets as ‘Grey Imports’.

Japan’s ‘Shaken’ is the bureaucratic system of determining the worthiness of a cars registration. Each ‘Shaken’ can cost up to ¥100 000 ( $1000 AUD), but costs associated with ensuring vehicles pass Shaken laws increase for every registration renewal, makes selling vehicles at the end of a registration period more viable for Japanese owners. Consequently, Japanese motorists are been noted for regularly updating cars maintaining ownership for approximately the first five years of their life – half of the period an American motorist maintains their ownership. Whilst the disparity of registration costs in Japan and Australia is not overly vast, considering the Japanese households earn on average 20% less than their Australian counterparts, high-registration costs are indicative of purposeful legislation to guarantee a constant high standard of automotive vehicles on Japanese roads. For the individual motorist, updating vehicles every five years, demonstrates a cultural, and financial acceptance of such policies.

As a consequence of regularly updating Japanese motorists, a burgeoning export industry has emerged whereby up to a million used Japanese vehicles are shipped to foreign shores each year. Countries like Russia and New Zealand have developed an appetite for Japanese imports as they can be compiled and registered for local roads at prices competitive with locally delivered vehicles. In markets like Australia international model imports are limited to strict intakes per financial year, as JDM vehicles often differ greatly from the cars that Japanese manufacturers build for export and vehicles derived from the same platforms built in other countries. Niche imports, such as vehicles only sold in Japan like the cult classic Toyota AE86 Trueno (below), and powerful Toyota Chaser JZX100, offer enthusiasts unique options of vehicles that are not readily unavailable in local markets. These vehicles often carry with them a higher value, derived from their specific appreciations within automotive cultural groups. Cars not originally sold in local markets but are later imported and sold are referred to as ‘grey imports’. Deregulatory motor industries, such as that in New Zealand, have seen Japanese imports flood the market and dramatically alter the shape of the local vehicle industry.

Toyota AE86 Trueno: A cult classic that can fetch up to $20 000 dollars in Australia

Whilst Japanese car enthusiasts tend to buck these ownership trends, the process of selling on late model vehicles is extremely beneficial for their behaviour. With reference to the images below, an identical Subaru Impreza is available to Japanese motorists second hand at almost a third of the price for the same model in Australia.

A comparative study reveals the resale value of a 2012 Subaru Impreza is vastly less in Japan than in Australia. These price differences are driven by Japan's 'shaken' registration and a ownership culture focused on updating the motorists vehicle.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 11.10.07 PM A comparative study reveals the resale value of a 2012 Subaru Impreza is vastly less in Japan than in Australia. These price differences are driven by Japan’s ‘shaken’ registration and a ownership culture focused on updating vehicles every couple of years.

Even factoring possible ‘Shaken’ costs, used cars in Japan are far less expensive than in Australia, thus making cars more affordable and as well accessible for the enthusiast. Interestingly, when examining pricing of European vehicles, it is evident European cars from brands such as the BMW or Volkswagen are more marginally more expensive within Japan than Australia. From an auto-ethnographic scope, I would argue such pricing mechanisms again reflect an attitude to maintaining update to date motoring. For the motoring enthusiast, second hand vehicles are more cost effective within Japanese markets. Consequently, Japanese automotive enthusiasts who modify domestic vehicles, such as the Nissan Silvia, Honda Civic and Toyota GT86, are encouraged by the sheer volume of vehicles available within the automotive environment. For those willing to pay ‘shaken’ costs, cars are readily available, at cheap prices. Contrastingly, Australian vehicles that generally maintain a higher value have a direct influence on the automotive enthusiast. Those discouraged by pricing are less likely to invest further in their vehicle into their vehicles, and higher purchase prices suggest the Australian motorist is less likely to change cars frequently.

As well as having a huge wealth of second hand vehicles available, the excess of cars in Japan makes automotive parts more accessible to enthusiasts. Such is the demand for specific parts, that a entire industry has emerged that specialises in stripping cars of these parts of value and selling them on to enthusiasts. Yahoo Auctions, Japan’s answer to eBay, serves as the main gateway for these transactions. The readily available nature of automotive parts drives companies to keep competitive prices, which are affordable to the average enthusiast. This affordability fuels an environment whereby the average Japanese individual can engage with their passion in modifying vehicles.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 10.50.51 PM

Yahoo Japan: An ocean of automotive parts enthusiasts can bid on for their car

To conclude, the colossal nature of the Japanese automotive climate has initiated a cultural environment whereby cars are such a dominant element within society. The sheer amount of cars on Japanese roads each day remains unmatched by another nation in terms of scale, and in itself has given birth to an entire industrial sector to which Japanese manufacturers lead the way. For car enthusiasts, the saturation of vehicles has seen cars progressively become a cultural icon. Japanese motoring has given birth to an automotive legacy that is individual to the Japanese nation and celebrated by car enthusiasts across the globe. Japanese car culture is self-feeding: The sheer volume of the Japanese car industry fuels an appreciation of the individual’s vehicle, which fuels a demand for high volume of vehicles and parts used by car enthusiasts.

Figures obtained from following websites:







  1. It’s actually so depressing thinking about how expensive cars are in Australia in comparison to Japan. Just doing a quick auction search I found this http://www.j-spec.com.au/auction/all/2004-Subaru-Forester-5116882.html
    A 2004 Forester STI in good condition with 144,000km with a starting bid of 30,000 Yen, Thats just over $300 Australian! That car in Australia would sell for close to $20,000 to the right person.
    Moral of the story, Import more cars =)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s