By on March 4, 2013

My 1986 JDM Twin Turbo Supra

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.

Don’t leave home without it

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.

My 1986 JDM Twin Turbo Supra

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.

Another shot of my 1986 JDM Twin Turbo Supra

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.

Simply follow the easy instructions

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.

Mr. Hanaoka at one of our school parties. Even though he was older than every other student, he never missed a single party.

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.

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31 Comments on “Shakken Up: How A Little American Persistance And One Little, Old Japanese Man Beat The System...”

  • avatar

    This seems to be quite similar to the Swiss system:

    It often pays to go with minimum preparation and then only fix the points that did not pass.

    It also often pays to send your gf or wife to the inspection…

  • avatar

    Sounds like Pennsylvania system my sister dreads knowing it’s going to cost her close to $500 each time. Ohio used to have a road side inspection back in the 80’s/90’s but must find a ticket easier way to generate revenue today.

    The scare tactics to conform like “1984” might explain why the Japanese all drive a Prius. Sheeple!

    • 0 avatar

      The Pennsylvania system? Your sister is doing it wrong. I don’t know a single PA native who doesn’t have a mechanic “friend” that they simply slip $20 each year to pass the inspection.

      Honestly, I thought that’s the way PA’s system was SUPPOSED to work.

      • 0 avatar

        I know several people with mechanic friends like that. They may sail through inspections, but their cars spend an inordinate amount of time in the shop the rest of the year, because, seriously, anything that can’t pass a PA state inspection fair and square really is a poorly maintained heap.

        • 0 avatar

          I have to agree with this. I would rather get my Jeep fixed when I have made arrangements to have a spare car around for a day or 2. If it is tax season, my car broke down is not a good enough excuse for not making it into work.

          P.s. I am a PA resident who just had their car inspected to the tune of $850 and as much as it sucks to shell that out at once, it’s better than waiting for a tow truck on the side of the road

  • avatar

    Another wonderful piece, Thomas. Really good stuff.

    I really characteristic style that emphasizes the theme of the piece.

  • avatar

    Excellent tale!

  • avatar

    You couldn’t rent a twin turbo sports car for $600 for a week. I don’t see why everyone got their knickers in a twist about it. Even if you hadn’t passed the inspection you would have rolled a bad-ass MkIII for eight months.

  • avatar
    Jeff Weimer

    If you were US military you didn’t have to do the inspections, just buy the insurance. That’s why you saw a lot of clapped-out beaters around Yokohama and Yokosuka with “Y” plates. I bought a ’78 Skyline (for $75) in ’92 that would never have passed that inspection.

    You also see a lot of folks buying cars like you did and reselling them at a tidy profit on base.

  • avatar

    Why cheat the system? Replacing a pair of shocks isn’t that hard [edit: with the right tools], isn’t especially expensive and would make a difference to you in your in day to day driving. Plus, you’d not be risking a failed inspection which would probably cost you money too.

    • 0 avatar

      To do a job like that you need to have the right tools and a place to work. I had a ratchet set that I bough specifically to work on my motorcycle and nothing else.

      Who knows what else might have been under there, too. There were never any spots under the car and it was in great shape, but I didn’t want to chance it. Waiting for a rainy day was the way to go, IMO.

      Of course, after I went through it, I think now that the guys at the inspection station could have cared less. They just wanted to roll the cars through.

    • 0 avatar

      I saw that the State was half-witted, that it was timid as a lone woman with her silver spoons, and that it did not know its friends from its foes, and I lost all my remaining respect for it, and pitied it. Thus the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses. It is not armed with superior wit or honesty, but with superior physical strength. I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion. Let us see who is the strongest. What force has a multitude? They only can force me who obey a higher law than I. They force me to become like themselves. I do not hear of men being forced to have this way or that by masses of men.

  • avatar

    North Carolina has an inspection system, 30 bucks and if your dealership installed window tint, that’s another 10 dollars to “check” the legality of that. It’s a crock of shit, I took my daughter’s car to be inspected and they didn’t want to pass it cause of the window tint, finally the manager passed it after first telling me what a big favor he was doing me and that next year, the tint would be darker and would not pass. Well, this year, I went to a tire store that does inspections, told the guy (owner) up front about my trouble last year. He smiled, took out the guage and showed me the tint was well within the acceptable range. I guess that other guy thought I was stupid or something, anyway, he lost my business and I made sure to let family and friends know about him too.

    • 0 avatar

      We have BS inspections here also (Mississippi). Cheaper though, $5 for inspection and an additional $5 for the yearly tint inspection. It takes about a minute to calibrate the tint gauge yet most of the places I checked said the tint wouldn’t pass. It was professionally installed, to state tint spec. I finally found a tire store that keeps their gauge calibrated after going about a year without current inspection stickers. The manager at the first place may have just been ignorant of the calibration process.

  • avatar

    FL used have this system, then we switched to the emission only state inspection and now its all gone. If it runs (sort of) its allowed on the road! I know it was a pain but the process kept most of the true beaters off the road. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve nearly rear-ended due to non functional brake lights. And bald tires? Forget about it… one out of ten vehicles I see (especially trucks/SUVs) are running on what appear to be slicks.

  • avatar

    Lived in Yokosuka for about three years. Too poor to own a car. My first two Navy years didn’t even count for social security due to insufficient income. Times have changed and some of them for the better.

    Live in Texas now and they also do the smog stuff. Really, the safety inspection is easy and the smog inspection sometimes fairly demanding. Another three years and the truck is exempt and always have a fairly new car for mama.

    Good story.

  • avatar

    I am really enjoying these articles by Thomas. They are so entertaining and so real.

    Interesting to get a first hand story on the Shakken. Here in Ireland a lot of Japanese second hand cars were imported over the last twenty five years or so in the same way as they were sent to Australia etc.

    I hope Thomas can keep the standard and volume of stories up as they certainly keep me interested.

    Great Work

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks to you and everyone else for the words of encouragement. I really appreciate all the kind words, it makes me want to write even more.

      • 0 avatar

        Just came across this and would like to echo Richard’s words, an entertaining insight into something I have only heard about.

        I don’t think the number of cars going to Australia now would be that high in the scheme of things as they have to be specialist type vehicles and a model not officially imported here, eg I don’t think any Corollas would qualify.

  • avatar

    This reminds me of the Texas state inspection a friend once got for an old (early 70s) Mustang. We went to a shop close to my friends house.

    I remember the shop owner/lead mechanic was a very old, thin man with leathery skin. His “inspection” consisted of asking the following questions in heavy southern drawl, while sitting in a lawn chair set up in the service bay as he drank a beer: “How are the brakes, good? Wipers work? Let me see your lights. Yup. I can see you got enough tread on the tires from here. Seat belts works? Alright, go see Jerry up front and he will take care of ya.” $30 later, all was done. Never mind that the exhaust system was half rusted, the passenger side floor board was partially missing and the ball joints had long ago reached the end of their life. Ahhh, fond memories.

  • avatar
    Piston Slap Yo Momma

    I’m in your corner TK. Back in ’99 I taught Engrish in Odawara Japan then later in Tsukuba. I had a pal in Kozu (Tokaido line in Kanagawa pref) who liked to drive absurdly fast on the well maintained twisty mountain roads in and around Hakone National Park. Kondo’s whip was a Renault Alpine A310 and riding with him was a blast for an American who has been denied such unusual European fare. One evening he abruptly pulls over and offers, pointedly, for me to drive. I consider for a moment how much I want to, and I also consider how many times that I, a creature of habit, nearly got mowed down as a pedestrian crossing the road because I was programmed to first look left, then right – which always meant that I was stepping off the curb in front of speeding cars thanks to their wrong-side-of-the-road tradition. Behind the wheel – on the wrong (right) side with the gear shift in my left hand, I slipped the clutch and scooted out into the evening traffic where I immediately encountered a roundabout. Perspiration kicked in, and a little voice in my head shouted “don’t fuck this up!” and I made it through.
    Unlike you, I wasn’t paid enough to own a car and my school bought me an unlimited train pass so I got around just fine. Weather permitting I rode one of the ubiquitous granny bikes everyone there owns and generally tried to enjoy myself. My quick spin in the Alpine cured me of further automotive adventures. Years later I mastered the art of wrong seat / side of the road driving in Spain in a rented Ford Ka, but that wasn’t someone’s beloved exotic car thus no anxiety.
    I hope I brought similar American values to Japan as you aspired to. I’d meet the occasional American tourist or serviceman and feel somewhat ashamed at how oblivious they were to Japanese social protocol. The Australian, Canadian and British etiquette was much better. Luckily very few Americans travel so it didn’t happen often.
    Keep the stories coming. I hope you’ve lead a life rich in constant adventure, if only to keep me coming back to TTAC.

  • avatar

    New Zealand accepts second hand car imports, Australia does not.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for the insight. I wish the USA accepted them, I would have loved to brought this home.

      It seems like I heard Australia gets second hand bikes though, true?

      • 0 avatar

        cars can be imported in to australia, as long as they meet one of the import criteria;

      • 0 avatar

        Who told you the USA doesn’t accept second-hand imports?
        An individual can import any car into the US without regard to the relevant FMVSS regulations (i.e., no DOT or EPA problems) so long as it is 25 years or older (as measured from its date of manufacture).
        Hence, this particular car is eligible for import as of now; granted, not when you left …
        I should ad, this is only for 25 year-old cars and older; There are ways to get newer cars in, but if it’s not on the DOT list of “Show and display” models, it’s a practical impossibility to do so.

  • avatar

    You have a very good writing style , please keep posting Thomas .

    SWEET Toyota !! .


  • avatar

    The nippon customs were to follow orders even if the superior is evidently wong.
    Is a bit like us saying Blind leading the blind.
    All the best to Thomas which u have fought the impossible system,
    most nippon folks would have junked the car instead of fixing them.
    Even in Canada we have steering on the wong side, we still have a fair amount of RHD that got trickled in here. And many of them might have been condemned in their own country nonetheless are humming beautifully here.
    Or if it werent blind leading the blind we could very well be speaking japanese by now since 1945.

  • avatar

    We have strict and annoying inspections here in Quebec that are done on any vehicle that is imported from out-of-province, or any vehicle that has been “stored” (not registered) for more than 12 months.

    I have personally witnessed instant failure due to check engine light on, and my own Ducati failed because the rear reflector was the wrong shade of red and the tires had moderate (but not excessive) wear.

    I have a rebuilt title on my bike as well. When I moved to another province and then returned I needed to do the salvage inspection from scratch – despite the fact it had been rebuilt and inspected in Quebec in the first place. It cost me over 400$ for the inspection, and I failed due to the aforementioned reflector issue. Had to put the bike on a trailer, take it away to a dealer for a tire change, swap the offending reflector, then return the next day to get the approval.

    It used to be pretty lax but the government started cracking down on lenient inspection agencies. The agent who failed me and forced me to do the salvage inspection was one such place – the first time I went 8 years ago they let me through despite having an obnoxiously loud exhaust and no emissions control equipment… I went in expecting the same attitude and ended up facing a gang of miserable anal retentive bureaucrats.

    Thank God it’s not a regular inspection. Though there is talk of making annual emissions testing mandatory for anything over 8 years old. Huzzah.

  • avatar

    In Connecticut we have no vehicle inspections. It’s odd considering all the other states around us have vehicle inspections.

    Good thing because my truck would never pass. It did pass New York inspection in 2011 but they let tons of crap through.

    We do have emissions test which are easy.

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