By on January 28, 2013


Yesterday, I took you on a visit to Tokyo, to the Japan Classic Car Association’s New Year Meeting, and on a tour of imported cars in Japan. If you believe the propaganda, there aren’t any imported cars in Japan. But it is not true.

The history of car imports to Japan is a history of Yanase, Japan’s premiere car importer. Yanase was founded in 1915 as an importer of Buicks and Cadillacs to Japan. One of his big customers was the Imperial Navy which “had nothing but Buicks,” as Jiro Yanase told a reporter. The Japanese Navy also put Yanase nearly out of business, in December of 1941.

During the war, Yanase kept the Buick and Cadillac signs up to attract service business. After the war, Yanase became GM’s sole importer to Japan. Soon, he became the world’s go-to man for car imports to Japan.

When Japanese post-war economic growth spurred demand for cars, Yanase turned to former ally Germany and started to import Mercedes cars in 1952 and Volkswagen in 1954.

The Volkswagen Bug became an early hit in Japan. It was small, reliable, and relatively cheap.

The Volkswagen Bus inspired many a Japanese panel van.

This Käfer Cabrio is a rarity in Japan, because it is a left hand drive. Without making a fuss, Volkswagen shipped right hand drive cars to countries that drive on the left. They like it that way. There still are people who think a steering wheel is a barrier to entry. It isn’t. If you plan for it, a RHD wheel goes easier and faster into a car during production than a moon roof. One third of the world’s population lives in countries with left hand traffic. If this is a problem for your car export business, better sell Tupperware.

Some cars could be imported to Japan without concern for the steering position.

While we are at it: It is a myth that the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller used surplus canopies of the Me-109 fighter. By the end of the war, there was no such thing as surplus on the German side, especially not bubbles made from expensive Plexiglass.

This car, the Isetta, also did not need its steering to be adjusted for the Japanese market.

In this case, the steering adjusted itself and got out of the way when the driver opened the door.

Amazing: This little thing put BMW back on its feet after the war. 161,728 were built when production stopped in 1962, A few even made it to Japan.

Soon, BMWs became bigger, and a successful import to Japan.

In 1963 Yanase met Japan’s Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida. According to lore, Yoshida talked Yanase out of importing small and cheap cars to help the Japanese industry. Or as Automotive News writes:

“Henceforth, he would import small numbers of luxury cars and sell them at high markups. He had no interest in building volume sales of popularly priced models.”


The story is only half true. Yanase imported big Mercedes and sold them at inflated prices to loaded Japanese. This 300SEL for instance (which seems to be an oil burner while running on gasoline) …

… or this kawaii 280SL …

… which even has its original Becker Radio. But the bulk of the imports remained Volkswagens. Since I can remember, and that’s a long time, Volkswagen has been the number one import brand to Japan. Last year, a quarter of the 316,000 cars imported to Japan were Volkswagen Group cars. In 1992, Volkswagen left Yanase, oddly enough, it went to Toyota, which sold Volkswagen through its dealer network. That not widely known alliance lasted successfully through 2009. Also little known: Toyota offered GM the same deal, guaranteeing GM 5,000 units a year. GM declined. Not a smart move. 20 years later, in 2012, GM sold 3,064 cars in all of Japan.

After VW left, Yanase tried importing Opels. He failed. Nobody wanted them. Yanase offered GM to sell its Japan fighter Saturn to Japan. In 1992, Yanase told a reporter of the New York Times:

“If G.M. would be willing to export Saturn to Japan, I believe we could sell 30,000 cars in Japan.”

GM declined.

The story of the closed Japanese market is a myth. It’s wide open. In 1992, the New York Times reporter told about a meeting with Yanase:

“Despite his long history butting heads with Japan’s bureaucracy, or maybe because of that, Mr. Yanase now maintains that there are no more trade barriers in Japan. The last of the import tariffs and luxury taxes that once made foreign cars so expensive was eliminated in 1989, he said.

The market is “completely open — no jacket, no blouse, no brassiere,” he said, flinging his arms out as if to rip off his clothes. “Everything is completely open.”

In 2009, Volkswagen started its own import business in Japan. Today, most major carmakers who sell in Japan do it without an importer. Writes Automotive News:

“Few carmakers strive to get into Japan anymore. Brands with established dealer networks there — including VW, Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Peugeot and Volvo — can make good profits. But others look at the cost of setting up a Japan network and turn instead to China, where the potential for profits today and volume tomorrow is greater.”

Today, Yanase is part of Itochu, the company better known for its C. Itoh printers.

Then why is there still a Free Market story, appearing in the catalog of Sunday’s Classic Auto Show? It’s not a story, it’s a misprint. Ls and Rs, a Japanese problem. The article is about the Flea Market at the show. Where you could buy anything from carbs …


… to blowers.

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14 Comments on “Reporting From The Concoures D’eregance In Tokyo: The Germans In Japan...”

  • avatar

    Congratulations–didn’t see the Flea Market coming even with your foreshadowing. Well done, sir.

  • avatar

    The only time I’ve ever seen a 300SL Gullwing was on the streets of Tokyo. Gold, luminous. It took my breath away.

    Afterwards I felt as if I had seen Marilyn Monroe in a white dress standing over a subway grate.

  • avatar

    Is the last picture a 2 door Cressida-type variant? I won’t pretend to know the model name, but the front looks Cressida-era to me.

    • 0 avatar

      Pretty sure that is a late 80s, early 90s 4 door Crown or Mark II.

      The closest you could get to that in a two door would be a Toyota Soarer in the same vintage. That’s a pretty good looking coupe, if you ask me.

      • 0 avatar

        That is hot. I would rock that around Ohio. I love the lettering and it’s blatant late-80s styling.

      • 0 avatar

        The Soarer would be known to us as the Lexus SC, btw.

        The Crown is related to the Lexus GS in that it uses the same chassis. The GS is known as the Toyota Aristo.

        Incidentally, the Toyota Crown is often used stripped down as a taxi or police car in Japan, and it’s also used as a black car. You might call it the Toyota Panther.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a 4-door, you can see a part of a rear door handle and a cutout around a wheel.

  • avatar

    Is that last shot a picture of a Japanese vehicle air bag? If they sold those in the US, every teenage male driver would be wrecking dad’s car.

  • avatar

    I didn’t see a mention of the Japanese preference of Western import cars in LHD configuration. All of the classic, well-kept Japanese Mercedeses from the 1980s, for example, being shipped back to Europe are LHD. It appears they like to emphasise the car’s Westernness by ordering them in LHD, despite driving on the left. Same goes for Golfs, I believe.

    • 0 avatar

      Because there is no “preference of Western import cars in LHD configuration.” Carmakers who are serious about importing to Japan all deliver RHD cars. Golf, Polo, the new Up!, all RHD, because this is what people prefer. GM is not serious and offers its Camaro in LHD only: .

      Most LHD cars are private or grey imports. Bringing a car into Japan is quite easy. Try that in the U.S.

  • avatar

    I visited Japan for the first time in December and was also surprised by the number of imports on the road. Mostly Euros–VWs, Peugeots, BMWs, Mercs. The only Americans I saw were classics, except for a couple blinged-out Navigators and Escalades in front of what appeared to be ‘gentlemen’s entertainment facilities’.

    For anyone about to go, Toyota’s Mega Web (also in Odaiba, where these shots were taken) is a must-see for car enthusiasts and only a ~20 minute train ride from downtown.

    There’s a classic car museum with all kinds of delicious vintage JDM stuff (Mazda Cosmo, KPGC10 Skyline, Toyota 2000GT, etc) plus an enormous showroom of all of Toyota’s current products. You can sit in and poke around all of the latter, which is more interesting than it sounds; the modern-Brougham Century and local micro-cars are great stuff.

    • 0 avatar

      Anyone heading to Nagoya should also take the time to go to the Toyota museum in Toyota City. It is one of the most impressive car museums in the world and has a great many significant cars from many different makers. It is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    THE mercedes with the dropped nose is a 300SEl W109 chassis with air suspension. it could be a 3.5,4.5 or 6.3. Diesels were never offered in the W109 Chassis. The 3.0 liter diesel First came out in the W115 Chassis .A compact version similar to the W109. Japan has been the happy hunting ground for Australian and New Zealand car enthusiasts for decades. The country is RHD but the later desirable mercedes such as AMG 6.0 DOHC W126’s etc etc are LHD. LHD is a status symbol in japan and I even saw a 3-0-0 Adenaur sold new in Japan in 1959, in LHD. lately US guys have discovered the rich pickings to be found in Japan and have unfortunately driven prices up.
    Previously cars could be bought in bulk and the price on the total weight of the cars. Thatis, the cars are loaded onto a transporter and weighed at say 10 tonnes and the price paid per tonne.
    it worked very well for all concerned.
    yahoo auctions run a car sales in japan which can accessed in English .
    To give an idea of just what is laying about in japan,check this guys youtube channel;

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