Swimming Upstream: Importing a Car Into Japan

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer
swimming upstream importing a car into japan

Back in July, just days before my family boarded a Boeing 777 to wing our way to Japan, a truck arrived at my home to haul away my Chrysler Town & Country. In the ensuing weeks, while we struggled through lost luggage and looked for a place to live, the van was trucked to California, loaded into a container and placed aboard a ship. As the summer wore on, while we worked through the details of an overpriced lease and did our best to get the kids enrolled in their new school, the ship crossed the wide expanse of the Pacific and made port in Yokohama. While we were accepting delivery of our household goods, the ship was being unloaded and its containers sent to a customs warehouse. Finally, just as we were beginning to settle into our new lives, I was contacted by a Japanese customs broker. The Town & Country had finally and irrevocably arrived.

Those of us who love cars have likely imagined this same scenario dozens of times, but always in reverse. In our imaginations the car, usually an exotic (to us) grey market Nissan Skyline GT-R or something really interesting like a Mazda Cosmo Rotary, makes its containerized way from Japan to our own sunny shores where it becomes a regular feature at local Cars and Coffee events and drives the wannabe drift racers mad with envy. The scenario is always the same and we never think of it the other way, where a person ships a not-so-interesting car to Japan where it will sit outside in the rain and be put to daily use schlepping the kids to school and its owner to work.

One of the reasons for this is that importing a car into Japan is supposed to be fraught with hardship and additional expense. Just the thought of long forms, written in almost indecipherable kanji, and stone-faced Japanese bureaucrats with their tedious attention to detail and orange-colored stamp pads is enough to drive most people mad. Why then would yours truly undertake such a mission?

I’d like to say that it is for you, dear reader, but that’s not entirely true. The real reasons run more towards the fact that I am reluctant to throw away thousands of hard-earned dollars by selling my still fairly new van at a huge mark down. If I must spend thousands of dollars, I reckoned, then let that money be spent importing the vehicle into Japan where I could use it for the next several years and consume the remainder of its value myself.

Also, despite the transmission troubles it had last year, I still like the van. I like it a lot, actually. It looks, runs and rides good and, because Chrysler stopped selling its vans in Japan around 2010, they are seldom seen here which leads into my last line of reasoning: patriotism. Without being overly maudlin here, having lived much of my adult life overseas, I think it’s important to be a good representative of our country, its people and its products. When I roll up in an American vehicle, people notice and I think it’s important that I send that message.

Will my decision prove to be wise or fatally flawed? Time will tell. However, this I commit to you oh Best and Brightest, I will bring you along for the ride as I work my way through the process. It looks to be a long and arduous one and, as of this writing, the vehicle is here, in front of the house, wearing the temporary tags that will be required to drive it to the various inspection stations it must visit. Tomorrow, I will take it some 50 miles away to a location north of Tokyo for its first round of testing, the dreaded Japanese emissions and noise tests. I am told the test takes two days and I will have to leave the van with them overnight. What will the result be? Place your bets.

Thomas M. Kreutzer currently lives in Kanagawa, Japan with his wife and three children. He has spent most of his adult life overseas with more than nine years in Japan, two years in Jamaica and almost five years as a U.S. Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. Although originally from Snohomish, WA, he has also lived in several places around the United States including Buffalo, NY and Leavenworth, KS. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, Kreutzer 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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  • BobinPgh BobinPgh on Oct 08, 2015

    Thom, why did you call this series "swimming upstream"? I get this image of you on a beach in Japan swimming or worse yet, strutting on the beach in a Speedo and your wife and kids pretend they don't know you.

  • Luridshadow Luridshadow on Oct 19, 2015

    I actually shipped my FR-S to Japan which is a Gt86 here.The boat is here but I am waiting for it to get unloaded in Yokohama.My friend who registers cars told me since I have a similar car if I can get the emissions and brake check from the Toyota dealer in the states he can compare it with the gt86 here.If they match up I can skip the emission noise check.Also like me since you already owned the car do you mind divulging how much you paid to customs?Also if someone says why didn't I sale my car I am in the same boat as the OP.

    • See 2 previous
    • Thomas Kreutzer Thomas Kreutzer on Oct 21, 2015

      @luridshadow Try DNJ Japan 045-212-5607. My job handled the actual shipping and import, it's the registration that's on me, but this is the stamp that is on my customs form so I assume this is the company that prepared it.

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?