Wherever I am in the world I will always be a typical American man. Despite a lot of the stereotypes that spring to mind when I say that, I learned a long time ago that it isn’t a bad thing. I was raised right and I have solid values. When seats are limited I will stand so my elders can sit. I always hold the door open for ladies, and I keep plugging away no matter how hopeless the situation might seem. There are a few things here and there that can cause problems once in a while, too. For example, I won’t be deliberately insulted, I need my personal space and, of course, I feel like I am loser if I don’t have my own set of wheels.
Owning a car in Japan is a bad idea for most people. To begin with, getting a driver’s license costs thousands of dollars and involves and extensive training program. Then there is the cost of the car, insurance, gasoline and tolls to consider. Also, unless you are fortunate to own a place to park, you will have to pay rent on a parking space and, of course, anywhere you go you will pay to park, too. Then there are the costs of oil, tires, repairs, even car washes to consider. Let’s not forget taxes and, of course, the great terror that is the vehicle inspection system known as the Shakken.
The Shakken system began in the post World War II era when the few cars remaining on the roads were generally old and unsafe. Shakken’s stated purpose has always been to ensure that all vehicles meet certain safety requirements, but it is also generally acknowledged that the policy has helped to ensure consistent sales of new vehicles as people seek to replace cars that they believe will fail the test. The guidelines are stringent, and without the correct inspection sticker affixed at the top of your windshield, where it is easily spotted, your car cannot be legally driven. There is little tolerance for lawbreakers.
Of course, when I purchased a 14 year old Toyota Supra, everyone thought I was nuts. In general, the Japanese do not buy used cars outside of a dealership, and person-to-person sales among strangers are almost unheard of. For the most part, the Japanese trade-in their cars when they purchase new ones or they sell them to companies like “Gulliver” that buy old cars for a pittance and then take them to auction. Cars that are worthy are bought by dealers, marked up considerably and then resold in-country. Cars that are unworthy are sold to exporters and eventually end up in places like Australia, Russia or parts of the third world. From my friends’ perspective, a car as old as my Supra was not worthy and should have been on its way to the southern hemisphere, preferably as scrap, instead of sitting in a Kyoto parking spot.
The whole thing was quite a scandal and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion. Two buddies, Matsuda and Taka, were especially critical of my purchase. Self styled car guys, they began to speak ill of the Supra the moment it arrived. Never mind the fact that it was a Toyota that had less than 50,000 kilometers on the clock. In their minds, simply because of its age, the car was in grave condition. Unfortunately for them, they made the mistake of spouting off and insulting my intelligence in front of my girlfriend, who, in typical Japanese fashion, believed everything they said. I, of course, in typical American fashion, ended our friendship right there on the street. So much for fair weather friends.
It wasn’t like I had paid a lot anyway. I had purchased the car from the Japanese wife of a New Zealander for roughly $600. The car didn’t have a mark on it, the engine was spotless, it sounded good, drove flawlessly and it even had about 8 months of shakken left on it. I figured that even if it somehow failed the dreaded inspection, I would have a cool car at my disposal for the better part of a year at nominal cost, and so it really didn’t matter. But then, of course, I got attached to my little car, and as the dreaded day drew nigh, I decided to ask around.
The women at my office were worse than useless, they were misinformed. They told horrible tales about the inspection process, about what would happen if the car couldn’t pass, and how certified repair shops would use the process against me. No matter how small the trouble, the women told me, the mechanics would insist upon costly repairs before releasing the car. They told me that there was no way a car that old would ever pass, and that I had been a fool for buying it in the first place. They even told me that I would end up paying to recycle it. There was the air of plausibility about what they said, but even so, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight.
In addition to my workmates, I also solicited the opinions of my students, some of whom, it turns out, were much better informed. For the most part, I learned, the average Japanese man took his car back to where he bought it for the shakken. Upon buying a brand new car, another inspection is not needed for three years. After that, inspections are required every two years, and a typical dealer, I was told, pretty much rubber stamps the next two inspections so long as they have had a hand in maintaining the car. Therefore, most cars are about 7 years old the first time they really go under the microscope and, like most Americans, the average Japanese person is ready for a new car after 7 years whether they actually need one or not. The car is traded in, and the process starts anew.
Once in a while, there are people like myself who have purchased a car outside of the dealer network. People in my situation usually end up taking their car to an independent shop and, as the women at my school had said, most of these shops will go over the car with a fine tooth comb. The result is usually a pretty stiff bill and, as a foreigner, I was especially ripe for the picking. But then, one of my oldest students, a Mr. Hanaoka, a retired engineer in his 70s who spent most of his free time drinking heavily and studying English, told me about another little known option, the “user shakken.” Amazingly, in a land where there isn’t much DIY, there is a DIY inspection.
Following Hanaoka-san’s instructions, I went to the Kyoto DMV and collected the paperwork. While I was there, the helpful clerk sat me down in front of a video that explained the entire process. Then I was sent home to complete my own inspection. Although it was all in Japanese, the documents were well illustrated, and I was able to go through it at my own pace. Although there were some parts of the form I did not fully understand, the inspection was not complicated. I measured tire tread depth, checked all the lights, looked for leaks, etc and found that, as expected, the car was in generally good condition.
I did, however, uncover a leaky shock absorber and a burned out driving light. The light was an easy fix, but the shock was more problematic, there was no real way to fix it myself and unless I was damn clever they were going to see the dark stain of shock oil under the car at the inspection station. Fortunately I am damn clever.
The day I took the car to the inspection station it was raining like hell. I rolled up to the main office and took my paperwork, as complete as I could get it, inside. After waiting in line I approached the counter hoping for a little help to complete some of the informational blocks at the top of the form and was pleasantly surprised to find that for a fee of around $5 that the clerk would actually do everything. I paid my money and ten minutes later took my car around back to the inspection station.
The inspection station was set up like an assembly line and I was required to drive the car from station to station. There was a brake test where I put the car up onto a set of rollers followed by speedometer test on the same machine where I was required to run the car up to 45 kmh. There was an underside inspection station where I sat in the car while a guy underneath tapped about ten spots with a hammer and, thanks to the wet weather, failed to notice my dripping shock absorber. There was a headlight test where a set of robotic cameras examined the front of my car to make sure everything was working within proper specs, a horn test, a brake light and blinker test and an emissions test. It was all quite efficient and I don’t think the entire process took more than 30 minutes.
As I recall, the total cost was around $450. Some of that was for the inspection fee, some for vehicle taxes, and another large part of it was for some kind of insurance that would pay for any public property I might damage in an accident. The whole thing was quick and painless and after weeks of consternation and worry, I was highly satisfied when I was awarded a new two-year sticker without a single hitch. I drove home in triumph.
Wherever I am in the world I will always be a typical American man and, despite a lot of the stereotypes that spring to mind when I say that, I learned a long time ago that it isn’t a bad thing. I was raised right and I have solid values. I keep plugging away no matter how hopeless the situation might seem and sometimes that can pay big dividends. I remember the people who helped me, too. Today, many years later, when I have the opportunity to raise a glass, I often find myself thinking about those days and of Mr. Hanaoka. He was a man who knew how to get things done, and when the whole system is stacked against you, you need a guy like that on your side.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.