Japan probably has the world's most diverse and creative car culture. Some of their creations are just incredibly cool and have been a source of inspiration for car enthusiasts all over the world. But they also have vehicles that are truly bewildering and defies all logic. But what makes the Japanese car scene so different from anywhere else in the world?
Japan has something called Otaku culture, which can be translated into something like nerd culture. To them, it means total obsession with their hobby, and it's fairly certain that this cultural trait has been of great help when it comes to Japan's car scene - both for the car enthusiasts and the thriving aftermarket parts industry.
Other cultural aspects that can be factored in are that they are always encouraged to blend in, be respectful and polite and to embrace their role in society. This led to cars and motorcycles being used as a counter-culture, an opportunity to rebel against society.
These days, car modifications are mostly about style and personal expression and not so much about rebellion, but a customized ride will always be about making a statement.
Of course, there's the fact that they've always had easy access to affordable performance cars which has certainly helped make the modified car scene what it is. As the car manufacturers competed with each other, they pushed boundaries and developed new technologies, with the end result being some of the most iconic enthusiast cars ever made.
25 Parking Lots Are The Places To Be
Rest areas and parking lots by day, a mecca for car enthusiasts by night. The Japanese parking areas are known to attract some of the coolest cars around.
Perhaps the most famous of them all is Tatsumi, where meets have been taking place for years, offering a chance to take a closer look at the best cars in Japan before they head out for a sprint on the Wangan road.
Tatsumi isn't the only happening parking area, but they certainly are harder to come by these days. Sadly, big organized meets aren't as common as they used to be just a few years ago
24 Hashiriya And Social Stigma
There certainly is a social stigma when it comes to modifying cars in Japan. You might have heard of Hashiriya (street racer), which is what modified car owners there are often labeled.
Historically, the Bōsōzoku motorcycle gangs and the Kaido Racers were known to be bad boys pushing back against the culturally accepted norms, but most modified car owners these days are just people who are into a hobby.
There can be severe penalties for anyone caught racing on the streets, which also might lead to falling out with family members, employers, or school management. In Japan's culture, bad behavior will reflect poorly on anyone you are related to or associated with, so most try to avoid those situations.
23 The Police Are Ruining The Fun
Since the height of the tuning scene back in the 90s and early 2000s, an anti-street racing legislation has been passed and the police have cracked down on street racing. There are also way more police patrols now, passing by the known meet-up spots every ten to fifteen minutes.
There is still racing going on, but nothing like it used to be. Most drivers are being careful and the car scene has become even more tight-lipped than it used to be, which is probably wise considering the consequences if caught; driver's licenses can be revoked for a considerable amount of time, large fines, and possibly jail time. Due to the social stigma, there's also the risk of losing their jobs or being expelled from school.
22 Midnight Club
Midnight Club was the most notorious street racing club Japan has ever seen. Formed in 1987, the club shot to worldwide fame with their crazy speed and aggressive driving, but also due to their strict code of ethics which dictated that members were not to put any innocent bystanders or fellow racers in danger.
It wasn't easy to become a member of the Midnight Club. Only 1/10 of the prospects would qualify for full membership, and anyone who posed a danger to the public was told to leave. The absolute minimum requirement was to own a car that was capable of going at least 160mph, and in order to be competitive drivers had to be able to reach speeds of more than 200mph on Tokyo’s public highways. After an accident in 1999, the Midnight Club disbanded.
The Kanjozoku race their Honda Civics on the roads of Osaka. Stripped out Civics with eardrum-shatteringly loud exhausts and liveries inspired by the old one-make Honda Civic racing series is the norm.
Back in the day, the liveries were used to confuse and deter the police. If someone had been chased by the law, it would get a completely new design for the following night's escapades.
These days the liveries are mostly used to keep the tradition alive, there are even cars that race without them, but the underground street racing scene of Osaka is still filled with mystery and culture, as well as some of the coolest Civics you'll ever see.
Bōsōzoku literally means 'violent speed tribes,' which is a fitting description seeing as these motorcycle riders are known to be reckless on the streets of Japan as well as starting fights that may include weapons. The word bōsōzoku is also applied to the motorcycle customizing subculture.
Some of the mischiefs of the Bōsōzoku include; speeding, running toll booths without stopping, running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, and riding very slowly through suburbs while revving their engines - all while ignoring the police's attempts to detain them.
Zokusha and Kaido Racer car modifications are often confused with the term bōsōzoku, although they can be seen on the highways of Japan together, they are two different things.
19 Zokusha And Kaido Racers
Zokusha is definitely one of the weirdest styles of car modifying to ever see the light of day.
The Zokusha style cars are built purely to attract attention and offend the general public, with bodywork consisting of huge exaggerated wings and fins covered in wild paint schemes. The exhaust reaches into the air, and the wheel camber has been altered to get the "stanced" look.
Kaido Racers are similar to the Zokusha style cars but much tamer. Whereas Kaido Racers can be legally driven on the streets of Japan (Kaido meaning highway), a Zokusha will need special plates in order to avoid being pulled over by the police. Both styles take their inspiration from the 70s and 80s Fuji Grand Championship Series race cars.
18 Kei Cars
Kei cars came about after WWII when people needed transportation but couldn't afford normal cars. Kei cars proved to be popular back then, and still are to this day as they offer a lot of benefits - the taxes and road tolls are cheaper, they're easier to park in tight spaces, and the tiny 660cc engines are cheap to run.
This being Japan, they are of course often modified and customized, and people do tend to get really creative with these things. The Kei cars aren't all microvans, there are some cool little two-seaters available as well, like the turbocharged Honda S660 and Suzuki Cappuccino.
17 Dekotora - Modified Trucks
Dekotora is an abbreviation of the Japanese term for “decorated truck” and started back in the 70s after the Torakku Yaro - Truck Guys - movie was released. It was a huge hit, featuring a trucker driving his decorated truck around Japan. Actual truckers were, of course, inspired to start decorating their trucks as well.
When the Gundam series were popular back in the 90s, the truckers found another inspiration to satisfy their need for modifying their vehicles. The huge mecha robots had a massive influence on the scene, taking the Dekotora to a whole new level. You might have figured by now that the Japanese think anything worth doing is worth over-doing, and the results can be seen driving around on the roads of Japan.
16 Onikyan - Stance
Onikyan actually means Demon Camber and was originally a used on drift cars. Once the drifters realized that more power was a safer way to get their cars sideways it turned into a purely visual modification. Basically, it was the origins of what we now know as the Stance scene.
The idea is to get the top of the rims to sit with the top of the wheel arch, then use whatever means necessary to get the negative camber as extreme as possible. The most popular car to modify in this manner are the tiny Kei cars and the luxury Bippu vehicles.
15 Itasha - Anime Inspired
Itasha literally means painful car, whether that refers to being embarrassing to drive or painful on the wallet I don't know. Itasha are cars that have been covered in cute anime cartoon graphics. Anime is absolutely huge in Japan, so Itasha cars have become rather successful as far as mainstream goes in car culture - there are even dedicated Itasha shops that create them.
In general, the Itasha liveries will be themed around a cute female anime/manga character and the car will usually have a race inspired body kit. The last few years Itasha has grown in popularity on a global scale as well, so there's a chance you'll see one in your neighborhood soon.
14 Bippu - VIP Cars
Bippu style is what we know as VIP style. Its origins are unclear, but most likely it evolved from the Yakuza who started driving big sedans as they were less conspicuous than the European luxury cars. Later on, the street racers started using them for the same reason - to avoid being targeted by the police.
These days it's all about style though, with large diameter deep-dished wheels, the body slammed to the ground, lots of negative camber, and really fancy interiors. Whereas hydraulics or air suspension is commonly used in the western VIP scene to get the car as low as possible, some of the more hardcore guys in Japan consider that to be cheating.
13 Kyusha - Classics
Kyusha simply means 'old car' in Japan, so Kyusha can, in reality, refer to any car that can be classified as a classic or nostalgic car. While Kyusha technically doesn't have anything to do with modifications, the Kyusha enthusiasts do tend to modify and customize their cars in some way or another.
There are no set rules or guidelines for Kyusha modifications so the customizations can be anything from small, subtle personal touches, to more easily recognized ones - like a small wing, small fender flares and a change of wheels, usually some period correct race-inspired wheels. However, some do go all out when modifying their Kyusha cars, which can result in transformations so severe it's hard to recognize what car it started out as.
12 Shakotan - Lowered Cars
The term Shakotan simply means ‘lowered car’ but is often referred to as a style of Zokusha (gang car). Shakotan cars are usually differentiated from other Zokusha cars by having much cleaner styling.
Whereas other Zokusha cars will always have extreme modifications, like massive fender flares, really wide small diameter wheels and front mounted oil coolers, the Shakotan focuses mostly on extremely lowered cars with lots of negative camber, and stretched tires. However, there are Shakotan cars that feature widebody styling and big wings, but it's a softer, toned down version of the Zokusha. Confused yet? That's the Japanese car scene for you.
11 Euro Scene
That came as a surprise, didn't it? People in the Land Of The Rising Sun are into European cars - Just like European car fanatics dream about owning a cool JDM machine, there are people in Japan that drool over the Euro cars, which, by the way, are referred to as imports.
The Japanese Euro scene has different branches of style; Some are into the older classics, like Alfas, Jaguars, and Lancias - and quite a few even drive them on the track. Others are into the VAG scene, with slammed Vee-Dubs and clean Audis. And then, of course, there are those who prefer the more exotic stuff, like Lambos and Ferraris, some of them covered in wild vinyl wraps and LED lights.
Tokyo is the place to go for the best opportunity to see some unusual supercars, with a lot of wealthy and successful businessmen who don't seem to be afraid of modifying their expensive machines. There are plenty of both body shops and parts manufacturers around that specialize in modifying high-end sports- and supercars.
Most people have seen the videos with Lamborghinis covered in LED lights driving around the streets with their scissor doors open. That's part of the new car scene in Japan, a very 21st-century new-wave type of counterculture that modifies their fancy cars for maximum Instagram appeal. These cars can have anything from super-loud exhausts and aftermarket wheels to widebody kits, big wings, reflective decals, and LED lights.
If you're into wide-bodied cars you definitely need to visit Japan, it's like the home of the wide arches. I don't think they invented it, but they certainly have perfected the art of making wide body kits.
There are the old-school Granchan Kaido Racers with their wide and boxy bodies, a style that has been around for ages. Anyone who hasn't lived in a cave these last few years will probably have heard of brands such as Liberty Walk. In case you've never heard of them; they've created some wild and crazy wide-body kits for exotic supercars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris, as well as for some more normal cars. Then there is Nakai-san's Rauh Welt Begriff who build some incredible wide-body Porsches with huge wings.
8 JDM Vs USDM
Over the years something funny happened. JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) parts became a huge craze in the west. Basically, you were shunned and/or laughed at if you used parts that didn't have Japanese origins on your Japanese car.
The Japanese liked the look of these machines, so they re-adopted it. But now some of the older guys in the Japanese car scene find that hard to swallow, claiming that's not true JDM-style, it's a JDM/USDM/EDM hybrid. Apparently, that's a bad thing
Car modifying trends will always evolve, these days it just happens faster since we're all connected to the internet. If the "proper JDM" crowd in Japan think about it, several of their original styles actually came about from copying what the Americans were currently doing.
Pretty much everyone knows what drifting is, so let's take a look at where it originated from and how it evolved. Kunimitsu Takahashi is credited as the father of drifting, using it when he was a Formula 1 driver back in the 70s. Street racers noticed and started practicing in the Japanese touge mountain passes.
One of those racers was Keiichi Tsuchiya who is now known as the 'Drift King'. Basically, Tsuchiya took drifting to a whole new level, and in 1987 a video of him drifting the touge in an AE86 was released. The following year Japan saw its first organized drifting competition on a track. Since then drifting has taken the world by storm and there are now professional drifting series in most civilized countries.
Just like drifting, time attack racing started in Japan and has since gained a massive following across the world. Time attack racing is pretty straightforward; drive around the track and get the quickest possible lap time. If you think this sounds boring, let me remind you it originated in Japan, so it's pretty entertaining - there are plenty of different modified cars competing, and it can get very heated with records being broken by only fractions of a second.
There are Time Attack events on both Fuji International Speedway and Tsukuba Circuit, with different competitions and series for both tuning shops and privateer teams.
Two of the most anticipated events are the annual HKS Premium Day at Fuji, and the Battle Evome series at Tsukuba.
5 The Future Of The Car Scene
Something you'll hear over and over when talking to young Japanese car enthusiasts is that their car used to belong to his or her dad - who raced it on the highways or in the mountains. That tells us the younger generation is still being recruited and the Japanese car scene won't die anytime soon.
Then there are all the new-ish affordable, yet exciting, cars that have been launched in the last few years. Toyota's GT86, Mazda's new MX-5, and Honda's S660 are highly tunable and helped revitalize the relatively stagnant scene.
While there has been a lot of changes I think we can safely say the Japanese will keep creating some crazy cars in the future. Only time can tell how crazy it will be.
4 Car Enthusiasts Are Aging
Due to insane parking costs, and the considerable expense of actually getting a driver's license, along with various other factors, there has been a huge decline in Japan's car enthusiasts. These days folks in their twenties only account for 12-13% of all license holders, compared to 26% just thirty years ago.
While the elders embrace those who want to enter the world of modified cars in Japan in order to keep the tradition alive, there seem to be too many obstacles for the car scene to ever get back to the same level as it once was. The youth of today seem to be happier with their gadgets than behind the wheel of a car.
3 Weird Is Wonderful
From exotic supercars with LEDs and shark-nosed classics with strange exhaust to cute little Kei cars with manga characters, the car scene in Japan really does embrace a lot of weird vehicles that look nothing similar to what we're used to seeing in our parts of the world.
The most amazing part of their car culture is the level of creativity and effort the car enthusiasts put into their vehicles. While we come from an approval-seeking society, asking others if it's ok to put a part on our car, the Japan approach modifying from a different angle. Rather than "should I do this?" it's more like "now, what else can I do to it?" Even more incredible is the fact that everyone respects each other's rides.
2 Rules Of Engagement
So, you've decided to attend one of the legendary car meets or speed sessions in Japan, but what would be the correct way to approach someone? The first rule is to listen more than you talk. Whatever the car or modifications may be, respect it and don't start an argument. Keeping your mouth shut about any racing activities is also vital in a country where such activities are frowned upon.
Respect is everything. If you win a race, be graceful about it - the same thing if you lose.
Don't embarrass yourself or others, losing face is a major thing in most of Asia's countries, Japan is no exception.
1 Sacrifice Is Needed
Owning a modified car in Japan isn't easy. Cities are cramped and lack space, rent is expensive, constant police clampdowns, driving licenses don't come cheap, there are plenty of toll-roads, and then to top it all off there are the very stringent and restrictive bi-annual shaken vehicle inspections.
It takes money to own a cool car, and even more so if you have to pay someone else to work on it for you. There are car enthusiasts who have been known to tinker on their cars under bridges and in parking lots due to lacking a garage. Some live in tiny, little, rented apartments in order to afford to spend money on their cars. Still, some people clearly think it's totally worth it.
Sources: Speed Hunters, Autoevolution, Jalopnik, Drive Tribe