Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kar Inspection, Kei Cars and Kamikaze! A Totally "Only in Japan" Relationship

The title of this article might give most foreigners pause. The original title was Car Inspection, Light Cars, and  Japanese World War Two Airplane Manufacturers. It took me a while to figure out a "funnier" name to what this article should be titled and this was the best I could do. There is a definite relation between car (kar) inspections, Light cars (called "Kei" in Japanese) and World War II airplane manufacturers (Kamikaze). Read on.

Gideon Freudmann - Japanese Car

After being here now for over 27 years and having a car for most of that time (I figure that is a bit of a rarity for a foreigner in Japan) I have gone through the car inspection ritual frustration so many times that I thought I'd better put it down on paper. I am going through that frustration now. It's called "sha ken" (車検). It literally means "car inspection." And the nanny state makes us go through this every few years. 

Yes. Car Inspection. Every year I have to do this, I scratch my head and wonder why in the world do we have to put up with this nonsense? In fact, I've forgotten, but I gather that, when it comes around, I have complained about it so much and so often, that my Japanese wife has now completely taken over that duty and just tells me what to do and where to be. It's better that way. I don't have to think. Because if I do have to think about this "sha ken" nonsense, it will drive me crazy.

What happens is that as the owner of a car in Japan, you have to pay over a thousand dollars every couple of years to get approval from the authorities that your car is road worthy. This is a long and exhaustive deal so I'll let Wikipedia explain it:

Reason for existence

The inspection system is in place to ensure that vehicles on Japanese roads are properly maintained and are safe to be on the road. Another reason is to determine if a vehicle has been illegally modified. Illegally modified vehicles and vehicles deemed unsafe by police will have a red sticker with the following: fuseikaizousha (不正改造車) (Illegal Vehicle) in yellow and the date the vehicle was declared not fit to be on the street.

[edit]Registration and Cost

Before a test can be administered on a vehicle the owner of the vehicle must call up a shaken center and make an appointment by phone after which the owner must fill out paper work at the center. The cost for the shaken is broken up as follows:
  • ¥1,400 for paperwork and processing,
  • ¥25,200 for the testing,
  • ¥29,780 for 24 months of validity and
  • ¥8,090 for the "Recycling Department" with fees being added depending on the vehicle and its intended use (business, personal, commercial, etc.).
These variables can result in a cost from ¥100,000 to ¥150,000 or more. In comparison to the costs of the shaken a full diagnostic inspection of the very same Japanese models in the U.S. may cost less than US$100 (¥9,400).
If the vehicle is in good condition with no mechanical problems, the shaken only costs about ¥60,000 and includes 2 years of compulsory auto insurance. The high cost quoted above only occur when the car requires repair, or when extra fees are paid to third party companies to take the car in for the inspection.

If you want to roll your eyes some more, click here to see the rest of that Wikipedia page

I will say, though, that since there is the "sha ken" system in Japan, you never see the rolling piles of junk and clunkers on the streets that you see in the USA. Take a drive on any day of the week in the USA, especially in Los Angeles, and you can see hunks of junk clanging down the street with things like their doors hanging on by duct tape or mufflers bouncing off the pavement being precariously close to completely falling off id it were for the clothes hanger bent into a stabilizing device. 

Light Van

Nope. You never see stuff like that in Japan. You never see cars on the road that look like they are going to fall apart any second. Having a car in Japan is expensive. Having the patience to have a car in Japan and put up with all the rigormaroll the government makes you go through teaches you patience. Driving and putting up with the narrow streets in Japan is a religious experience.

To be a good driver in Japan and to navigate these narrow alleyways is to understand a good portion of zen.

Classic Honda Light Car

This morning the "sha ken" folks came and took my car away. They left me with a loaner. It is one of those tiny cars that are only popular in Japan called "Kei jidousha" (軽自動車). Keijidousha means "light car." Light cars are tiny little cars that, from what I understand, are not only popular in Japan but they are so small they are not popular for export overseas at all. Here's what Wikipedia says about Light Cars:

Kei carsK-cars, or keijidōsha (軽自動車), lit. "light automobile") (pronounced [keːdʑidoːɕa]), are a Japanese category of small vehicles, including passenger cars, vans, and pickup trucks. They are designed to exploit local tax and insurance regulations, and in most rural areas are exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for the vehicle. This especially advantaged class of cars was developed to promote popular motorization in the post war era. While successful at home, the genre is generally too specialized and too small to be profitable in export markets.

Until today, I had never driven one of these tiny Light Cars. Wow! Compared to my regular economy class Toyota, this car is half sized, but, suddenly the Tokyo streets seemed twice as wide. It was quite easy to drive around the city in this little bugger and to navigate even the tight hairpins turns up the hill from my home.

Very Popular Light Car, Suzuki Alto

I found that the Kei Class, Light Cars, were a nice surprise. The Suzuki I drove was a much nicer drive than the Fiat 500cc I've driven before and felt much more stable and secure than the Mini I've ridden in that made me fear for my life.

World War II Nakajima Manufactured aircraft

As a history buff and well-read on the subject, I've always been fascinated with World War Two. Riding in a Kei Car, Light Car, had me thinking that this vehicle, with its Spartan interior but well designed and solid chassis, and smooth ride, was something like an airplane out of the 1950's. I have flown in old planes before too. Something about the interior of that Light car reminded me and old propeller driven Cessna class airplane.

Well, I checked and I found out that there is a relationship there. 

These standards originated in the times following the end of the Second World War, when most Japanese could not afford a full-sized car yet had enough to buy a motorcycle. To promote the growth of the car industry, as well as to offer an alternative delivery method to small business and shop owners, kei car standards were created. Originally limited to a mere 150 cc (100 cc for two-strokes) in 1949, dimensions and engine size limitations were gradually increased (in 1950, 1951, and 1955) to tempt more manufacturers to produce kei cars. It wasn't until the 1955 change to 360 cc as the upper limit for two-strokes as well as four-strokes that the class really began taking off, with cars from Suzuki (Suzulight) and then Subaru finally able to fill people's need for basic transportation without being too severely compromised.
The class then went through a period of ever increasing sophistication, with an automatic transmission appearing in the Honda N360 in August 1968, with front disc brakes becoming available on a number of sporting kei cars, beginning with the Honda Z GS of January 1970. Power outputs also kept climbing, reaching a peak in the 40 PS (29 kW) Daihatsu Fellow Max SS of July 1970. Sales increased steadily, reaching a peak of 750,000 in 1970. Throughout the 1970s the government kept whittling away at the benefits offered to kei vehicles, which combined with ever stricter emissions standards to lower sales drastically through the first half of the decade. Honda and Mazda withdrew from the contracting passenger kei car market, in 1974 and 1976 respectively, although they both maintained an offering of commercial vehicles. 

The very first successful Kei Car was a Subaru 360. And, in that, is another fascinating story. The company that became the manufacturer of the Subaru 360 was a company that was founded in 1918 and was japan's first aircraft manufacturer called Nakajima Aircraft Company. Nakajima made many famous Japanese aircraft, mostly fighters and bombers in World War II.

The very first successful Kei Car was a Subaru 360

After World War II

After Japan's defeat in World War II the company had to close down since production and research of aircraft was prohibited by the Supreme Commander of Allied Powers. This had a severe impact on Nakajima because it was one of the two largest aircraft manufacturers, together with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI). Unlike MHI though, it was not diversified into shipbuilding and general machinery, and so, had to dissolve into a number of spin-off companies set up by former managers, engineers, and workers. As a result, leading aeronautical engineers from NAC, such as Nakagawa Ryoichi, helped transform Japan's automobile industry.
The company was reborn as Fuji Heavy Industries, maker of Fuji Rabbit scooters & Subaru automobiles.

I highly recommend a brief look at the rest of the Wikipedia page about Nakajima Aircraft Company. It will really blow your mind about just how much, even in this day, that war creates the face of modern Japan. Perhaps Japan's economy now is bad and some things don't look to good for the future, but perhaps it is Japanese companies that are steeped in the past that can help Japan overcome her economic difficulties.

I, for one, think that these manufacturers should think again about approaching the foreign sales and export market using these Light Cars and viewing them in a different light. I think, with gasoline prices going past $4 a gallon in the USA and heading for over $5 soon, many city dwellers might find a Kei Car class car or truck and very appealing and economic answer.

If Fiat can sell those 500cc cars they sell overseas (I've driven those before) then Japanese manufacturers can sell these Light Vehicles to urban dwellers in big cities all over the world.  Look at the designs of some of these Light Cars, they are more fashionable than the Fiat's, no? They can especially find a market for these cars as our fiat currencies collapse and oil and gasoline prices continue to climb.
I would consider buying one someday now after I have driven one. Especially if it is as cool as the one that is pictured above...

Perhaps this year's "sha ken" wasn't all bad for me. At least I learned something. Kei Cars are pretty cool and I like them. 

UPDATE: Poots adds this great comment: It's called "sha ken" (車検). It literally means "car inspection."<<< Here in Amerika it’s called “State Inspection” and it is usually required every year. Perhaps we should combine the two terms into something that more accurately describes our government’s real intentions and simply call it: Shake-Down (Defined as: extortion of money - as by blackmail)


Poots said...

>>>It's called "sha ken" (車検). It literally means "car inspection."<<<

Here in Amerika it’s called “State Inspection” and it is usually required every year.

Perhaps we should combine the two terms into something that more accurately describes our government’s real intentions and simply call it:


(Defined as: extortion of money - as by blackmail)

Andy "In Japan" said...

The true reason for Shaken is to transfer wealth from the people to friends of the government, namely the automobile manufacturers who benefit from increased sales of new cars and increased income in their service departments.

The older used cars are trashed or exported. It is typically the poor or elderly who can not afford a new car and who suffer the most from this system.

I have been driving a Kei for several years and it's somewhat underpowered, can only fit 4 people, but it mostly serves its purpose as basic transportation. I would hate to be in an accident while driving the Kei as it would probably be smashed into smithereens by a larger car or truck.

You can count on Kei cars never being available in America because the government prohibits their import as a way of protecting powerful domestic car manufacturers and unions from foreign competition.

Anonymous said...

since there is the "sha ken" system in Japan, you never see the rolling piles of junk and clunkers on the streets that you see in the USA.

But we have the same thing in the UK (M.O.T.) and yet there are way more old cars on the road there than in Japan. Surely the Japanese fascination with "shin-hatsu-bai", and its equation of "old" with "disgusting, embarrassing crap" explain this phenomenon better. (Plus the Shinto value of cleanliness/purity).

Nice bit of historical research, tho. Isn't it time the Wikipedia article on sha-ken got an edit? Along the lines of Andy's suggestion: "The true reason for Shaken is to transfer wealth from the people to friends of the government".

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Arjan said...

Overhere (the Netherlands) you need a checkup every year, but it sounds like the Japanese check up is one hell of a lot more work, frustration and costs a lot more.

Cool to see you featured my amateuristic video :)

mike in tokyo rogers said...

I thought your video was VERY COOL!

Unknown said...

Well, no doubt why the used cars from Japan market have bloomed recently..But I do love it because I got to own my won car though I have a limited budget.

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