When it comes to modifying vehicles, nobody is quite as outrageous and original as the Japanese. You just need to watch Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift to get some idea of what Japanese car lovers do to their vehicles, but even the cars in that movie pale in comparison to the real cars on the streets of Japan.
Japanese car culture started in the 1980s, when the Midnight Club was formed in Tokyo; a group of like-minded individuals who thought nothing of spending thousands of dollars on their vehicles. Some members would simply show off their mods, others would race each other through the city streets.
Osaka also has its own secret society, called the Kanjozoku who are devoted to their souped-up Honda Civics, while the Car Guy Crew are more about showing off their stunning mods than illegal street races through Tokyo.
In recent years, Japanese police have been cracking down hard on the country’s underground car culture, but that doesn’t stop fans of modified vehicles from coming up with ever weirder and wonderful innovations, to make their cars stand out from the crowd.
Some of these modifications are so outlandish that they would never work in America, whereas others might work on the streets in the US. Check out the lists below of ten mods that would never work in America – and ten mods that would be awesome in the States.
Some of the most iconic Japanese mods even have their own name, such as Bosozoku, ludicrously over-sized front and rear fenders. While it is now more closely associated with Japan’s street racing culture, Bosozoku’s roots actually lie in post-war motorcycle gangs, who modified their bikes with huge exhausts and rear seat backs. Bosozoku actually translates as “violent running tribe” and the term was first coined in the 1970s by the young bike gangs who were rebelling against conservative Japanese culture.
The culture then moved to four-wheeled vehicles, with fans of Bosozoku modifying their street racing cars to incorporate an ultra-low suspension, huge front fenders which stick out ahead of the car, and over-size rear fenders, often with multiple exhausts.
Bosozoku cars also tend to be colorful and very, very loud, and drivers still embrace the ethos of the old motorcycle gangs which created the culture, including run-ins with the police who are trying to crack down on street racing and underground car culture in Japan; although modern Bosozoku are nowhere near as violent as their predecessors who would often get involved in violent confrontations with rival gangs. These days, Bosozoku are more likely to compete over who has the biggest fenders than who is the toughest!
19 Oni Kyan
Oni Kyan is another very peculiar Japanese modification, and one that was developed for drivers who wanted to perfect their drifting – the very cool racing technique which allows street racers to take corners smoothly and quickly. Drifting is definitely not for beginners, but experts can improve both their drifting technique and the look of their car by employing Oni Kyan. Oni Kyan literally translates as “demon camber” and involves realigning the wheels so that they point in at the top and out at the bottom at an almost impossible angle.
Most cars are to zero camber – where the tires are flat on the road – but Oni Kyan cars employ negative camber, with the wheels pointed in at the top so that the tires are also at an angle. It is supposed to make cornering easier while racing, and earliest examples of extreme camber was seen in early racing cars, like the 1960 Milliken MX1 Camber Car. While Oni Kyan is popular with drifters, and with car aficionados who just want their vehicles to look amazingly cool, it doesn’t do your car much good, wearing both wheels and tires much more quickly, as well as damaging the suspension and reducing fuel economy. Definitely one modification that is style over substance.
Vinyl wraps are becoming an increasingly popular way to modify your car all over the world. Even Justin Bieber splashed out on a chrome vinyl wrap for the Fisker Karma electric sports car that he got for his 18th birthday. As usually happens with new crazes, Japanese drivers have managed to find a way to make vinyl wraps a little more extreme and whole lot more eye-opening.
Itasha, which literally translates as “painful car,” sees motorists in Japan embrace the country’s other cultural phenomenon, anime and manga.
These adult comic strips, which feature doll-like girls, have been made into movies and TV shows, and now you can even decorate your vehicle with anime and mange images thanks to vinyl wraps, decals and, for the really hard-core fans, a whole new paint job. Owners of Itasha cars regularly meet up in the so-called anime districts of various cities, Akihibara in Tokyo, Nipponbashi in Osaka, and Ōsu in Nagoya, to show off their decorated cars and their love of anime and manga. The name Itasha came from the original nickname given to Italian sports cars in Japan, Itaria-sha, but now references this painfully expensive – could that be painfully embarrassing? – Japanese mod.
17 Sticker Bombing
If you don’t want to go the whole hog and get a vinyl wrap for your vehicle, but still want to give it your own personal touch, then you could copy another Japanese modification and sticker bomb your car. Yes, some vehicle owners have actually resorted to peppering the bodywork of their motor with kooky fun and colorful decals, referencing everything from favorite anime characters and Pokemon to street graffiti and Hello Kitty.
You would think that such a colorful and child-like car decoration would be the domain of young drivers, but a weird number of older men like to sticker bomb their cars in Japan – copying the younger fashion of sticker bombing everything from cell phones to school bags. Sticker bombing a whole car, however, would not only cost a lot of money, but would take a lot of time, which is why some people choose to only cover sections of their vehicle in stickers – an odd and unusual look, but one which has nevertheless really taken off in the Far East. Covering your car in stickers might seem like a fun idea, but given the amount of work involved, and the difficult in selling on decorated vehicles, means it’s unlikely to take off in a big way in the States.
Vehicle modifications are not just for cars in Japan. Even truck drivers can have some fun thanks to the Dekotora craze (literally “decorated trucks”). These pimped-up trucks are inspired by a cult 1970s Japanese movie series called "Torakku Yaro" (The Truck Guys) and some owners spend decades perfecting the look of their vehicles, decorating the exterior of the truck with chrome, LED lights and neon and kitting out the inside of their cab with lavish curtains, cushions and personal mementos.
Given that these truck drivers spend so much of their time in their vehicles, it is perhaps unsurprising that drivers have chosen to personalize their mobile homes/workplaces, but it is the level of devotion to Dekotora which makes Japanese truckers different to those in the rest of the world.
The big difference between Dekotora and decorated trucks elsewhere in the world, is that the Japanese vehicles are very much working vehicles, and have something of a cult following in the country. Unfortunately, such super-colorful trucks are unlikely to be allowed on US streets and highways because of rules about colored neon and LED lights, but if you’re ever visiting Japan, keep your eyes peeled for Dekotora while on your travels.
The Dekotora craze itself inspired another phenomenon in the 1970s; Dekochari. Kids who were fans of the "Torakku Yaro" movies, and who saw truckers starting to decorate their own vehicles, didn’t want to feel left out, and so they started to build plywood constructions around their bikes, which they would then decorate with flashing lights and chrome plating. While it started out as something for children, Dekochari has now become something of a cult phenomenon in Japan.
Modern Dekochari riders are far from the kids of the 1970s; they tend to be older teenagers and even young men and women in their 20s, who have jazzed up their innocent bicycles until they are barely recognizable.
Not only do they feature elaborate light displays and tons of chrome plating, but they even have stereo systems installed. While the Dekochari craze may be losing some of its popularity in Japan, there are still plenty of fans of the unique styling, and there are even Dekochari bike gangs such as the All Japan Hishyomaru fleet, the All Japan DC Club Ryumaki and the All Japan Kyokugenmaru Gang. Dekochari bikes are great to look at, but are definitely not suitable for your everyday commute.
14 Front-Mounted Intercooler
Intercoolers are an important part of any internal combustion engine, a vital component which keep engines running smoothly and which can also improve fuel efficiency. Adding an upgraded intercooler to your engine is a pretty common way for drivers around the world to boost the performance of their cars, but Japanese car aficionados have found a way to take this particular modification one step beyond – as usual!
Usually, when someone decides to add a more powerful intercooler to their car, they mount the new device on top of the engine, under the hood, but in Japan front-mounted intercoolers have become the next big thing among street racers and fans of car culture. In order to make room for these large front-mounted intercoolers, you actually need to remove the front fender of the vehicle, replacing it with your expensive new piece of kit. Not everyone needs fancy intercooler, however. If your vehicle isn’t turbocharged, then a front-mounted intercooler just ends up being an over-priced fender decoration. There is no mechanical advantage to be gained over having a front-mounted intercooler over an engine-mounted intercooler, but it does make your car look pretty slick to have all those pipes and machinery on view.
13 Toge Racers
Toge is a popular – though still illegal – form of street racing, which takes place on the steep narrow paths of Japan’s mountains. In fact, the name toge itself comes from the Japanese word for “pass” as in mountain pass. The phenomenon has spread to some other parts of the world, but it is far more popular in Japan than anywhere else, and fans of the sport spend thousands of dollars upgrading their cars to make sure they have the best advantage possible when it comes to races. A strong suspension, tight cornering, racing seats and excellent brakes, of course, are all integral components to a great toge racing car.
When it comes to the races themselves, there are two types of so-called “toge battles.” Cat and mouse races usually take place on mountain roads which are too narrow for overtaking, and see two cars race each other down the hill, with one in front of the other. If the front car maintains its gap over the pursuing vehicle, then they are winner. In the unlikely event that the pursuing car does overtake the one in front, then they win. Timed races see cars travel the same course one at a time, with the fastest time winning.
For a country that has made an industry out of making things smaller – cell phones, computers, games consoles – it does seem that Japanese motorists like to make at least some things on their cars to be big. Ridiculously big, in fact. Known in Japan as Takeyeri, these exhaust pipes can often be a few feet in length, rising up vertically from the back of the car well above the height of the vehicle’s roof. Takeyeri is actually connected to the Bosozoku craze, but there are lots of drivers who just go for the over-size exhausts as mods for their vehicles, rather than embracing the whole look.
These super-size exhausts are pretty much only for show, and comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. Most of the Takeyeri exhausts are cut obliquely at the top, which is what has earned them the nickname “bamboo spears.”
The creativity of Takeyeri and Bosozoku are celebrated throughout Japan in festivals and meets, and is considered by some to be part of the ricer culture – Race Inspired Cosmetic Enhancement – although no racer worth their salt would have such a large exhaust on their vehicle, as it would be much more of a hindrance than a help.
11 Retuned Kei Cars
Kei cars are peculiarly Japanese small cars which have been made for the country’s domestic market since 1949. These vehicles are subject to government restrictions which limit their size and capacity, and they have their roots in post-war Japanese economy, when most people didn’t have the cash to buy a normal motor car. The companies which first manufactured kei cars based them on motorcycle engines; not as powerful, obviously, but more than enough to get from A to B.
Kei cars have never really taken off anywhere outside of Japan, and most manufacturers have never even tried to export the vehicles to the European or US markets. They still sell well in Japan, and older Kei models from the 1950s, 60s and 70s have a certain kitsch value among car lovers. In fact, retuning older Kei cars, by boosting their engines and giving them a makeover, is a beloved hobby of fans of this miniature motors. Some Kei cars are simply smaller versions of great cars, like the Honda Beat and the Suzuki Jimny jeep, whereas others have made some interesting design choices to comply with regulations, like the Daihatsu Midget, which has just one and a half seats in the front!
10 Neon Lights
While the previous mods may be big in Japan, most are just a bit too weird to work in the United States. We like to modify our vehicles over here but not at the expense of its performance, and many of the most extreme Japanese mods are more of a hindrance to efficient and enjoyable driving. However, some of the mods which are popular among the street racers of Tokyo would go down very well in the US – although some, like the use of lots of neon lights on a car, are curtailed by state laws.
Neon is a must for any self-respecting Japanese street racer; underbody lights are the most popular, along with LED headlights, while some drivers have even installed flashy light shows in their trunk to go along with their hugely expensive in-car entertainment systems.
If you fancy emulating the colorful Japanese street racers, however, it is worth checking out the local laws on what neon lights are allowed on vehicles in your area, before you fall foul of the law. For example, in New York you are only allowed to add white neon or LED lights to your car, while in California there are rules about how close aftermarket lights can be located to headlamps.
9 Lamborghini Doors
Scissor doors, car doors which lift vertically rather than opening horizontally, are such a staple of sports cars that they are often referred to as Lamborghini doors, after the famous Italian car maker which first pioneered them. The first production car to feature scissor doors was the 1974 Lamborghini Countach, although technically the Italian motoring legends had been beaten to the punch by Alfa Romeo, whose 1968 concept car the Carabo was the very first time scissor doors had been seen on a car.
Both vehicles were designed by Martello Gandini, a true visionary of vehicular design, although he would no doubt be horrified at the thought of what some people are doing with his ground-breaking invention. Japanese drivers especially have taken to installing scissor doors on vehicles which really were never meant to have them. It’s one thing to drive an actual Lamborghini sports car with scissor doors; quite another to get your Honda, Nissan or Toyota fitted retrospectively with them! Unlike neon lights, there are no legal restrictions on having Lambo doors fitted to your vehicle in the States. The only thing you have to worry about is whether or not you can pull off such an ostentatious modification!
8 Racing Seats
If you really want to embrace Japanese street racing culture without actually getting into trouble with the cops for taking part in illegal street races, then the easiest way to modify your vehicle is to install a couple of bucket seats for the front of your car. Bucket seats are the standard seats used in rally cars and NASCAR, and are a must-have if you’re getting your vehicle modified in Japan.
In fact, if you’re looking to modify your vehicle but don’t have a lot of cash to spend, a couple of racing seats is a much cheaper option than neon lights, scissor doors or many of the other mods on this list.
For a few extra dollars, you can get proper racing car seats, with a harness seatbelt rather than the standard across the body version you get in ordinary cars. Although that may seem like overkill if you’re only driving your car to and from the office every day! This is one mod which has taken off in a big way in both Japan and the US, as well as countries across Europe where so-called boy racers fit them into their Volkswagen Golfs, Ford Fiestas and even Mini Coopers.
7 Oversized Gear Sticks
While there are similarities between the Japanese and American auto markets, there are also some significant differences too. For example, Japan’s motorists have much more in common with their European counterparts when it comes to the choice between a manual transmission and an automatic transmission. In the US, manual transmissions are a rarity, the domain of classic car lovers and motorists who want to experience more control over their driving experience.
While 80% of cars sold in Japan are sold with a manual transmission, around the same number as in Europe, most of the Japanese cars which are imported to the US or made in American factories are built with an automatic transmission as standard. Fans of street racing and street racing cars tend to prefer manual transmissions as it gives them greater control and adds to the driving experience. If you have bought a manual transmission vehicle or are thinking of converting your own car, one possible mod you could copy from Japan is to install a customized gear stick; over-sized gear sticks are particularly popular in Japan, though it probably isn’t a good idea to fit anything too unusual until you have got the hang of driving stick!
6 In-Car Entertainment
Most new cars are sold with some pretty impressive in-car entertainment systems – or infotainment systems as they are often known, because they couple systems like satellite navigation and cell phone connectivity with the ability to play music from your electronic devices. You can even get TV sets installed in the rear of the car to help keep the kids entertained, although that isn’t a cool look if you’re trying to copy Japanese street racer modifications!
That doesn’t mean that Japanese drivers haven’t also embraced the possibilities offered by in-car entertainment. As well as including some seriously upgraded stereo equipment inside the vehicle – loud enough to drown out their souped-up engines in some cases – many drivers have even added video screens in their trunks, complete with neon light shows, to draw attention to their vehicle when they attend meets with other like-minded drivers. And there is one particular entertainment system that is so big in Japan, that drivers have even installed systems in their cars; computer gaming, Yes, many fans of car modifications have installed computer gaming systems and screens in their vehicles so that they can play their favorite games while they’re parked up.
5 Multiple Exhausts
So drivers in the United States are unlikely to embrace the extreme Japanese art of Takeyeri, the super-sized exhausts associated with the Bosozoku trend. However, given that Takeyeri is considered too far even by some Japanese drivers, there is an alternative exhaust modification at your disposal should you have your heart set on some changes in that department. Some of the most powerful sports cars out there can actually benefit from having multiple exhausts fitted; more powerful engines create more exhaust gases which need to be shifted in order for the car to work as efficiently as possible.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a super powerful engine, but think that multiple exhausts look pretty cool on the back of your car, then you could always install two exhaust pipes with smaller diameters rather than the standard size. However, some of the more extreme Japanese drivers install not just two but four, eight or even 16 exhausts – as many as they can physically fir on the back of their vehicle. There is no practical reason to have so many exhausts, only an aesthetic one – in fact having too many exhausts on your car can actually reduce the performance of your vehicle.
4 Oversized Rear Wings
Oversized rear wings and spoilers is one modification which has made a pretty successful transition from the streets of Tokyo to the United States; although as with many of these mods, the Japanese do seem to manage to do it bigger and better! Spoilers and wings are often mistakenly thought to be the same thing; spoilers are designed to "spoil" turbulence or drag across the body of a vehicle in motion while rear wings are designed to generate downforce as air passes around it, actually creating extra drag.
Both over-sized rear spoilers and wings both look good, but if you are planning on modifying your car to improve its performance, it is worth figuring out which one of the two you need!
Ridiculously large rear wings and spoilers may look cool, but there is an optimum size for every car, and when you go over that size, then your amazing mod is only going to slow you down. Plus, there are too many people out there who try and make do-it-yourself rear wings and spoilers, thinking it’s a simple matter of building one in your garage and tacking it onto the trunk of your car. Take a leaf out of Japan’s book, and make sure you get a professional to do all your mods.
3 Tow Hooks
Tow hooks are a standard – and very important – piece of kit on racing cars, used to help tow cars out of trouble if they’re involved in a crash during a race. Japanese street racers have taken this particular racing car feature and made it into a mod of their very own, adding tow hooks to their vehicles regardless of whether they ever intend taking part in a race or not.
While it may look the part, there isn’t any practical reason for cars which are only ever going to run on the road to have tow hooks, but it does kind of complete the look if you want your modified vehicle to look like a racing car. Best of all, this is a pretty simple and inexpensive modification to choose, so even if money is tight, you can still give your car a little personalized touch! Of course, some off-road vehicles come with to hooks as standard, given the fact that they are more likely to get stuck in inaccessible areas – although fitting a tow truck to a vehicle that isn’t going off road or the racetrack is just likely to make onlookers think that your car breaks down a lot…
2 Cartoon Wraps
As we have already seen, Itasha – vinyl wraps and decals inspired by anime and manga characters – are hugely popular in Japan, though their adult content means that covering your car in Itasha in the US could land you in trouble with the local cops, especially if you live in a particularly conservative small town! That doesn’t mean that you have to forego Japanese-inspired decoration for your vehicle; it just means that you have to choose the content matter carefully. Rather than choosing saucy manga figures for your vinyl wrap decoration, you could always choose a more wholesome motif, such as popular Japanese cartoons like Pokemon and Hello Kitty.
Cartoon figures from Japan tend to be brightly colored and eye-catching – great fun if you’re a young girl looking to personalize your own car, not so appropriate for older men, though that doesn’t stop guys from sticking Hello Kitty decals on their vehicles! The art of colorful wraps has been perfected in Japan, and while patterned and single-color wraps are becoming increasingly common in the US, a Pokemon-decorated car is still rare enough to cause heads to turn. And why else would you modify your car if not to get attention from fellow car lovers?
1 Colored Rims
Wheels and tires have long been a favorite way for vehicle owners to modify their cars. Everything from racing tires to stylish alloy rims have become a common sight on the streets of the United States. One particular wheel modification which has already taken of in Japan, but which has yet to become really big in America, is the use of colored rims on your wheels.
These colored rims are just jazzed up versions of the more standard alloys, but they can really make your vehicle stand out from the crowd – and they are a great way to personalize your car to suit your own style.
You can choose from a whole range of colors and even multi-colored rims if you are particularly flamboyant, and while most people choose to match their rims with the color of their vehicle, there is nothing to say you can’t pick a color that contrasts with your vehicle’s bodywork. Match your bright red sports car with bright red rims and you are sure to catch people’s attention, or if you want to be a bit subtler, you can always go for plain black rims with just a hint of color around the edge.
Sources: carkeys.co.uk, jalopnik.com, topgear.com, autoevolution.com, carthrottle.com