Why I Love Japan's Car Culture

Dan Ilika
by Dan Ilika

Start a conversation about JDM culture and you’ll invariably end up with equal parts cheers and jeers from petrolheads with an opinion on the matter.

For some, it’s the reason they strap burbling exhaust kits on their Honda Civics and parade around town with shoshinsha badges in the back windows. For others, it’s the bane of car culture, with negative camber and stretched tires leaving a perceived black mark on enthusiasts everywhere. And they’d both be doing a disservice to the most influential automotive scene since the glory days of the muscle car in the 1960s. Because so much about the country’s car culture has been lost in translation on the journey to these shores. And all it takes is a trip to Japan to prove it.

Like so many other car-obsessed kids in this part of the world, I fell hard for Japanese car culture right around the turn of this century. But it wasn’t the Fast and Furious franchise that had me hooked. (To this day, I’ve still only ever watched the first two movies.) Instead, it was stuff like the Tokyo Xtreme Racer video game series — TXR3 was by far the best installment — that did it, quickly convincing my adolescent mind that the Japanese capital was some sort of treasure trove of the coolest cars on the planet.

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A friend and I used to fantasize about setting up lawn chairs on the side of the road somewhere in Tokyo to watch all the awesome cars that were sure to go by. Of course, we were only half serious and knew better than to think the streets of Tokyo would be home to some sort of live-action recreation of an Initial D issue. It turns out we were wrong.

My first trip to Japan was an amazing and eye-opening experience. Everywhere I went there was something that caught my eye. From a first-gen Honda NSX to a fistful of modified Toyota Hiaces, everything I thought I knew and loved about Japan’s car culture was on full display. And the more time I spent on the streets, the more I saw and loved. But best of all, everything was done so tastefully and people weren’t afraid to daily drive these JDM treasures.

Forget stretched tires on tiny wheels; we’re talking Bridgestone Potenza RE tires wrapped around Volk TE37 wheels. The only shoshinsha marks to be found were the ones stuck to cars driven by actual beginner drivers. In short, Japan’s car scene is everything I thought it would be and then some. You should check it out sometime.

Dan Ilika
Dan Ilika

Dan is AutoGuide.com's Road Test Editor, a long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan, and a car guy since childhood. He enjoys long walks on the beach and long drives just about anywhere the road, track or trail will take him. You'll see him driving around evaluating cars and in front of a camera talking about them. Dan is a member of the World Car of the Year jury.

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  • Duke Woolworth Duke Woolworth on Jul 20, 2017

    A trip to France will expose you to some pretty weird vehicles. I think they're designed so that they'll either say "distinctive" or "French." As I said: Weird. See the Citroen Cactus, or Citroen almost anything.