Strange as it might seem, I had never actually owned a vehicle in Japan until December. I’d never needed to, as I lived in the middle of Tokyo, where parking spaces can cost upwards of 60,000 yen a month. But a move to the wild east of Chiba and the arrival of my first child meant that I no longer had a choice; there are no buses near my home and the nearest train station is 4 km away. I live near the sea, so wasn’t planning to splash out on anything expensive, as everything metal rusts away very, very quickly here. I set out to find a five-year-old car with less than 50,000 km on the clock for less than 500,000 yen.
Even though Japanese people now tend to hold on to their new cars for longer — for an average of seven years, versus five in the past — there are still plenty of secondhand cars out there. Part of the reason is that people don’t usually want to buy a car that’s old: they would rather downgrade, and buy a less expensive new car.
But there is another factor here that determines what you’re buying in the secondhand car market: the notorious “shaken.” This consists of all the bits of bureaucracy you need to keep your car on the road — weight tax, vehicle inspection and compulsory insurance (car tax and more comprehensive insurance coverage are separate). If you buy a new car, you have three years until you need to jump through the hoops and start forking over cash. After that, you have to do it every two years, and it can easily cost you over 100,000 yen each time.
The end result of this is that people tend to sell their cars when the “shaken” runs out. Dealers will usually arrange “shaken” so that potential buyers have two years to go — a big selling point in the secondhand market. The upshot of all this is that used cars will usually be available when they are 3, 5, 7, 9, or 11 years old. So the first thing you want to check is the length of “shaken” left.
At the same time, you want to check the paperwork of the vehicle you are looking at. Japanese car owners tend to be meticulous about maintenance, so most vehicles will come with a full service record that all but guarantees their history.
That’s not to say that cars come with guarantees. Owners might be selling a vehicle because they want a newer, bigger, better one — but they also might also be selling because of problems. The reliability of Japanese cars is legendary, but they are not infallible.
Foreign cars in Japan tend to lose their value much quicker than Japanese ones, and it’s often quite easy to pick up a bargain if you go down this road. And bargaining — not a standard practice in other arenas in Japan — is often an essential part of buying a secondhand car here, though it depends on where and how you’re buying.
Auctions, which tend to operate online nowadays, are like the modern equivalent of haggling. This is where you are likely to find the best bargains — and the biggest lemons. Most of the time you are buying on spec — the closest you’ll get to the car before you pay for it is a picture and a profile on your computer, but reputable auction houses scrutinize the cars well and grade them accurately. The auction houses will only sell to dealers, who will target certain vehicles for you and put in a bid on your behalf. The alternative is to use a web-based auction site such as Yahoo!
But Mick Lay of Tokyo’s Mick Lay Auto Leasing and Sales offers a warning: “Auctions are not perfect when it comes to grading cars, and if there is a problem, the supplier might not be willing or able to help you,” he says. “And beware of the fake auction scam where dealers charge a small fee but inflate the actual auction sale price.”
I was looking for a small station-wagon/hatchback and ended up chasing a number of Subaru Imprezas and Mazda Demios via a Nagano-based dealer (introduced by a friend), only to be thwarted by as little as 20,000 yen —the auctioneer will submit a top price via computer, so you can’t change your mind if you are outbid. In the end, I changed my specs and started looking at Nissan Marches and struck gold quickly, securing a 5.5-year-old, 1.4-liter March with 43,000 km on the clock for 485,000 yen.
Car Sensor and Goo are two massive publications (also check out their websites: www.carsensor.net and www.goo-net.com) that can give you an idea of prices, which vary quite a bit, and dealers in your area. Another easy way to find a car is privately. I have been offered old cars without a “shaken” for free, and in the countryside you can find good cars for sale by the side of the road for as little as 50,000 yen.
Buying a car is never without risk, but there are plenty of genuine bargains out there. And it’s a whole lot better than carrying your golf clubs on the train.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).