Why is car culture in Japan so awesome? And why do you need to experience it in person to 'get it'?
Car culture in Japan is exciting, unique and most definitely something special – but why?
At a glance, the most obvious reason seems to be that the Japanese have always had easy access to affordable performance cars to play with, thanks to their home country being the birthplace of manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi. As these automakers have competed with each other over the years, boundaries have been pushed and new technologies developed, resulting in the creation of some of the coolest and most iconic enthusiast cars (like the Skyline, Supra and RX-7), that we continue to lust over today.
Another reason is perhaps Japan’s otaku culture. This is a word that you might’ve heard before, and although it translates to ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’, it really refers to someone who is extremely enthusiastic about something. Somebody who’s an otaku isn’t just passionate about their hobby, they also have in-depth knowledge of it to the point of obsession – they get really, really into it! Perhaps it’s this cultural trait that’s helped Japan’s car scene thrive, and not to mention help the aftermarket parts industry flourish too.
Famous for taking customisation to crazy-extreme levels, one of the most fascinating aspects of Japanese car culture has to be style. But why are Japanese car enthusiasts so talented when it comes to setting trends and having such a good eye for what looks cool? Again, the reason for this could also stem from traditional culture traits…
The thing with Japanese culture is that people have always been encouraged to blend in, to be polite and respectful and to fall into their role in society without objection or complaint. Because of this, many Japanese people aren’t really the type to ever ‘act out’ or make any type of scene, instead they’re generally quite shy and will sometimes possess more of a reserved, stoic demeanour. So standing out with a bright, outlandish car with a big noisy exhaust soon became a pretty cool (and not to mention fun) way to give society the middle finger and rebel against the social pressures to conform.
Today, car style is more about creative expression than hardcore rebellion, but this history has definitely helped shape the mentality of car enthusiasts today. Although the scene is maybe not as big as it once was, a lot of people still want to make a statement and stand out by injecting their own personal style into their car, and influences from American and European cultures seem to be playing a bigger role in this with time. Thanks to the internet, it’s now easier than ever for Japanese car enthusiasts to draw fresh inspiration from around the world, and this only seems to be making Japan’s weird and wonderful car culture more diverse and unique.
Along with Japan’s fairly relaxed regulations for modified vehicles, these are just some of the reasons we have to thank for Japan having a car scene for pretty much every automotive subculture imaginable, and that’s not even an exaggeration! Just like how travel in general broadens the mind, first-hand exposure to Japanese car culture will almost certainly alter your perspective on cars and perhaps even change your own personal tastes.
If you’re not all that familiar with car culture in Japan and you’re interested in learning more, keep reading as we take a look at some of the different automotive subcultures, how they came to be and what they’re all about!
We’re all somewhat familiar with the concept of drifting – the art of controlled and sustained oversteer – but perhaps not everyone’s familiar with where it originated from and how it’s evolved to become the popular hobby and professional motorsport that it is today. This wild style of driving was often used by a well-known Japanese motorcycle racer turned Formula car driver named Kunimitsu Takahashi, who is credited as the first person to have actively used and honed the technique of ‘drifting’ in his racing back in the ’70s. The Japanese street racers of the time took notice and began to emulate Takahashi’s driving style, practicing late at night on touge mountain passes (of which there are no shortage in Japan as there are a LOT of mountains there!).
Among these racers was Keiichi Tsuchiya, the now famous driver known commonly known as the ‘Drift King’, who took Takahashi’s techniques to the next level. Tsuchiya took on the challenge of mastering drifting in his racing, but he also recognised how this made racing much more of an exciting spectacle for those watching. In 1987, a video was released featuring Tsuchiya’s touge driving skills in his AE86 Toyota Levin, inspiring car enthusiasts and racers throughout Japan and making drifting more well-known. Japan’s first organised drift competition on a race track took place the following year. The main character of the famous Japanese manga Initial D (which, no doubt, also did its part in the popularisation of drifting), was inspired by Tsuchiya, who helped as an editorial consultant.
Since then, the phenomenon of drifting has taken the world by storm, with new national series’ and competitions popping up regularly all over the world. Many professional competitions are still held throughout Japan, including the D1GP (Grand Prix), Formula D Japan, The Drift Muscle, D1 Street Legal and Ladies League, and the more casual ‘grassroots’ scene still flourishes. Japan has many small, low-speed tracks which are ideal for learner drifters, and although driving in the mountains and street drifting is less popular than what it once was, it definitely still happens. Watching a drifting competition in Japan is definitely a must – the crazy atmosphere simply can’t be beaten!
Kyusha? Shakotan? Say what?
Have you ever seen any of these words used before and thought, “What the heck is that?”. Well, Kyusha in Japanese simply means ‘old car’, so really this can refer to any nostalgic or classic car – modified or not. More than often however, kyusha enthusiasts enjoy some level of customisation, and this can range from adding a few more subtle personalised touches like small fender flares and slightly more aggressive, period correct wheels, to absurd, full-blown can’t-even-recognise-what-kind-of-car-that-is-anymore-type transformations.
The term Shakotan simply means ‘lowered car’, but it’s often associated with styling cues such as massive overfenders, super-wide wheels in smaller sizes (usually 14-inches but sometimes smaller) and a front-mounted oil cooler, like on the Fairlady Z pictured below. This particular Z is a tribute car to the popular manga series ‘Shakotan Boogie’, a story about the adventures of two car-obsessed teens who loved Shakotan-style – one of their friends drove a blue (later on it was painted yellow) Z with ‘Yanky Mate!’ written across the bonnet.
The term Yankii (or Yanky) in Japan isn’t the same as the American word ‘Yankee’ – instead it refers to a USA-influenced style or fashion adopted by gangs of chain-smoking, motorbike-loving teen delinquents in the 70s and 80s. Think pompadour-style hair dos, hilarious sunglasses, long slogan-emblazoned jackets and baggy workman pants. These youngsters (who were both male and female) often joined bike gangs, known as Bosozoku, riding around on loud, flashy motorbikes, revving their engines and causing general trouble. Nowadays, all of these styles are still around, but they’re not so much associated with crime and violence like they once were. It’s more just about the cars and camaraderie, and making sure this unique sub-genre stays alive. And maybe still giving the middle finger to society, just a bit…
Kaido racers and ‘Granchan’ style.
So what about those colourful cars with the long exhaust pipes and wild, boxy body kits – aren’t they Bosozoku? Well, not necessarily… although they were once more closely associated with bike gangs. These cars are more commonly known as Kaido racers – ‘kaido’ meaning highway. This crazy style was partially inspired by the Super Silhouette racers from the Fuji Grand Championship Series back in the late ‘70s to early ’80s (which is why this style is often called Granchan or Grachan), and of course, just for the sake of creating something outlandish that would offend general public. The more air horns, crushed velvet trim and glitter, the better!
Supercars and exotics.
There are many luxury sports cars to lust over in Japan, and with so many wealthy businessmen residing in Tokyo, this is generally the best place to be if you enjoy a bit of supercar spotting – especially the inner city area of Roppongi.
The coolest part about this scene though, is that people generally aren’t afraid to modify their expensive toys, no matter how much they cost! Brands such as Liberty Walk have become well-known in recent years for their wild wide-bodied Lamborghinis and Ferraris, but there are many Japanese body shops and parts manufacturers that specialise in exotics, and many different luxury car clubs. These cars can have anything from an extra-loud exhaust and aftermarket wheels, to bolt-on overfenders, big wings, bright decals and neon lights – the sky’s the limit!
Hot rodding, customs and lowriders – really?
American culture and style has always fascinated the Japanese – car culture included. Still, you might be surprised to learn that some of the most talented custom car builders in the world call Japan home. Despite already having easy access to all of the cool cars manufactured in their own country, select enthusiasts have been importing American cars into Japan for years now, and just like with so many other things, when the Japanese put their own twist on American classics and hot rods, they get it so, so right.
From old Chevy pick-ups to slammed and roof-chopped Ford Mercurys, rusty rat rods and rainbow pinstriped lowriders, Japan has it all! The city of Nagoya is most famous for its
customs and rods scene, but these cars and their builders can be found all throughout Japan, usually residing in more rural or industrial areas.
What’s VIP all about? VIP or bippu style was born in Osaka at some point in the ‘80s, but exactly how it came about is a bit unclear. It’s thought that Yakuza (Japanese mafia) members began driving these big-bodied JDM sedans because they looked less suspicious than luxury European cars, and local street racers began to follow suit in an effort to avoid being targeted by the police in their not-so-inconspicuous race cars. Although it may have once been associated with gangs and dodging the authorities, VIP style today is really just about that – style.
Cars commonly given the VIP treatment include the Toyota Celsior, Crown and Aristo and the Nissan President, Cima, Cedric, Gloria and Fuga. Styling cues usually include dark tints, big deep-dished wheels, sometimes with excessive camber (known as onikyan or ‘demon camber’), fancy interiors with curtains, and a road-scraping ride height – generally not achieved by hydraulics or air suspension as this is considered by some to be cheating!
Distinguished by their yellow license pates and minuscule size, kei cars first came about after World War II, as many people needed transportation but couldn’t afford full-sized cars. Today, kei cars or ‘K cars’ are still cheap and come with a bunch of benefits – their compact size comes in handy for squeezing into tight spaces, their small engines (which have to be less than 660cc) make them extremely fuel efficient, and not to mention road tolls and taxes are cheaper. And just like with every other type of car in Japan, people love customising them.
Kei microvans are converted into mini VW Kombi vans, there are even kei off-roaders; people get really creative, as you can only imagine! Although generally not designed with speed in mind, some awesome sports-orientated kei cars like the turbocharged Suzuki Cappuccino and Autozam AZ-1 (both made in the ‘90s) do exist, and the new manual, turbo Honda S660 is pretty damn cool too!
Drag racing, or zero-yon (a reference to 0-400m or a quarter mile) as it’s called in Japan, sadly isn’t as popular as it once was back in the ‘90s, when everyone in Japan seemed to be completely and utterly obsessed with it. Despite the lack of interest in recent times, there are still some serious drag builds being created and many events taking place all over the country.
Unfortunately Japan’s only proper drag strip at Sendai Hi-Land had to close following the devastating Tōhoku earthquake back in 2011, leaving drag enthusiasts with fairly limited
options in terms of suitable locations for racing. Sometimes airfields or the main straights at different race tracks are used for special events, but these surfaces are still not ideal.
Despite these obstacles, Japan still has a scene for petrolheads interested in zero-yon – you’ll find front-wheel-drive drag racers, American V8 muscle cars, nostalgic Japanese classics and some especially cool rotary-powered machines going at it whenever and wherever they can!
Like drifting, time attack racing began in Japan and has since become hugely popular elsewhere in the world. It’s all about nailing the quickest possible lap time, and the Japanese sure know how to make it a thrilling event for the spectators – a huge variety of different modified machines take part, and things can get seriously heated.
Both Fuji International Speedway and Tsukuba Circuit play host to a number of important events on the Japanese time attack calendar, with different competitions and series existing for both tuning shops and privateer teams. Arguably the most anticipated events include the annual time attack battle at the HKS Premium Day at Fuji, and the Battle Evome series at Tsukuba. With records being broken by only fractions of a second, the suspense makes it incredibly exciting!
Street racing in Japan. From the mid 1980s and throughout the ’90s, street racing was perhaps the highlight of Japanese car culture. Perhaps the most well-known group of racers were the Mid Night Club, who became infamous for their illegal top speed races on the Wangan – the Bayshore Route of the Shuto Expressway running between Tokyo and Yokohama.
The club had around 30 members and was active for over a decade, until some of its drivers, as well as members of the public were involved in a bad accident. Seeing as it was the club’s policy to refrain from endangering or harming anyone else on the road, this resulted in the club’s immediate disbandment – its members went back to their normal lives and never raced on the expressway again. The famous manga series Wangan Midnight was inspired by two real Mid Night Club members – ongoing rivals who drove the Porsche 930 turbo known as ‘Blackbird’ and the twin-turbo Fairlady ‘Devil Z’.
The Kanjo racers.
You might’ve seen photos of race-prepped Honda Civics with window nets and drivers hiding behind white ‘Jason’ masks – these illegal racers are known as Kanjozoku. Kanjo refers to the Kanjo Loop – an elevated section of the Hanshin Expressway that runs around the very center of Osaka city. But while the Wangan boasts long straights – ideal for big power and maximum speed – the Kanjo Loop is pretty much the opposite…
When the third-gen Honda Civic came out in the early ’80s, it was an instant hit among the car enthusiasts of the time, and the Kanjo Loop quickly became their new playground. Various racing clubs were formed, with cars often sporting race-inspired liveries – although these were often changed regularly in an effort to avoid recognition. The lightweight, well-handling Civics were ideal for tackling the Loop’s tight corners at speed – not to mention their small size came in handy when trying to evade the police! Eventually crackdowns in law enforcement saw the end of the Kanjozoku’s glory days, but the tradition does still continue, with some active racers remaining.
If you’re less into grassroots car culture and more into professional racing, it’s likely that you’ll already have a good idea of what top level motorsport series and events take place on Japanese shores. But if not, here’s a quick summary.
Japan obviously has a rich motorsports history with many racing series having come and gone over the years. The first two Japanese Grand Prix races took place at Fuji International Speedway in 1976 and 1977, although it wasn’t until ten years later that it returned to Suzuka Circuit. Since then, Formula One races have essentially alternated between the two circuits, although Suzuka has hosted it every year now since 2009. Other notable racing series include Super GT and Super Taiyku; there’s also the 6 hours of Fuji race as part of the FIA World Endurance Championship, WTCC and the list goes on!
Aside from these two venues, Twin Ring Motegi in Tochigi, Okayama International Circuit, Sportsland Sugo in Miyagi and Autopolis Circuit in Ōita are generally where all the ‘big’ races are held in Japan.
Just like car enthusiasts in Europe find themselves lusting over ‘rare’ right-hand drive JDM rides, most people in Japan feel the same about European cars and LHD, which they refer to as imports! Because of this, the car scene for modified Euros branches off in various directions. There are many ‘traditional’ classic car enthusiasts who are into their old Alfa Romeos, Fiats, Porsches, Jaguars and Lancias (the list goes on!) and it’s not rare for them to be taking these cars to track days either.
Then there are the hardcore builds like RWB Porsches – these wide body monsters aren’t just built for looks – they’re made to race. There’s also a big VAG scene in Japan; new and old Volkswagens are very popular with this crowd, as are slammed Audi wagons.
You’ve probably seen cars covered in cute cartoon graphics like this before – this style in Japan is known as Itasha. Anime is such a huge thing in Japan and itasha is closely associated with otaku culture, but in recent years itasha has become more popular in mainstream global car culture too. Generally itasha liveries are themed around a cute female character, and there are even itasha design shops dedicated to creating them!
The weird, the wonderful and everything in between!
This is really just a very brief overview of some of the main genres and styles of Japan’s crazy-big and extremely diverse car scene. It’s rich in history, it’s mysterious and not to mention confusing, and it truly contains something fascinating for everyone. From modified vans to blinged-out trikes and decorated trucks – there’s even a Toyota Probox racing series – you name it, it exists in Japan!
If there’s a particular element of Japanese car culture that interests you and want to know more, you might be surprised what you can find out there on the internet. So get researching and while you’re at it, don’t miss our BONUS Beginner Guide: Fun Facts About Cars In Japan And More! for some need-to-know info about cars in Japan.