Saturday, June 26, 2010

Buying a car in Japan

The following is based on my personal experiences with purchasing cars in Japan. In two years I've had to go through the process twice: once when I first arrived and again about a year and a half later after my first car accident. I was also a presenter for the "Driving in Japan" seminar at the 2009 JET Tokyo Orientation.

To Buy or Not To Buy?

For incoming JETs, I highly recommend that you speak to your predecessor and find out whether or not you'll need a car. For JETs coming to Aomori Prefecture, unless you're living in a large city with a reasonably decent transit system like Aomori City or Hirosaki, I highly recommend getting a car for the sake of an improved quality of life.

A lot of great/interesting places are not easily/cheaply accessible by public transit (like Lake Towada, for example), so you really need a car to be able to enjoy all the Prefecture has to offer. (Although I guess if you don't mind being an eternal mooch you can do without...)

It also does snow in Aomori, and depending on where you are, it can snow a LOT, so you don't really want to be walking everywhere during the winter.

Types of Cars

The most important thing you need to know before purchasing a car in Japan is that there are two main types: regular cars (futsusha 普通車) and light cars (keijidosha 軽自動車), commonly referred to as "K-cars." Below is a chart breaking down some of the key differences, and pros & cons between regular cars and K's.

License PlateWhiteYellow
Engine Size1000cc+Max. 660cc
HorsepowerVariableMax. 63hp
SizeVariableMax. 3.4m x 2m x 1.48m (LxWxH)
Annual Automobile Tax*30,000-60,000yen7,200-12,900yen
Bi-Annual Inspection**80,000+ yen60,000-100,000yen
Monthly "Optional" Insurance***6,000-12,500+ yen4,000-10,000+ yen
Monthly Fuel Costs****~8000yen~6000yen
  • more fuel efficient for long distance, high-speed driving (over 60km/h--highway driving)
  • accelerates well/quickly
  • more powerful engine so generally better for mountain/off-road driving
  • generally fairly sturdy & withstand damage well in accidents
  • more fuel efficient for short distance, slower speed driving (under 60km/h--city driving)
  • responsive brakes (because they're lighter cars, they come to a stop faster than regular cars)
  • cheaper tax, insurance and fuel costs (even toll road fees are cheaper!)
  • higher re-sale value
  • less fuel efficient for short distance, slower speed driving (under 60km/h--city driving)
  • higher tax, insurance and fuel costs (even toll road fees are higher!)
  • lower re-sale value
  • less fuel efficient for long distance, high-speed driving (over 60km/h--highway driving)
  • accelerates slowly and struggles up mountains, etc.(due to smaller engine size)
  • easily damaged in accidents (due to lighter build)

* The cost of the Annual Automobile Tax (jidosha zei 自動車税) is determined by car size/weight for regular cars and by age/purchase date for k-cars

** Bi-Annual Inspection (jidosha kensa 自動車検査) is more commonly known as shaken (車検) for short

*** Only "optional" in the purest of technical terms; mandatory insurance won't pay very much if you ever get into an accident, so you really do need to get "optional" insurance (nini hoken 任意保険)

**** These are my actual approx. past fuel costs; I do mainly city driving (40-60km/h) and I mostly use my car for getting to and from work, running errands, etc.--I rarely do road trips or even drive outside of my own city

  • What type of driving do I mostly plan on doing? City driving? Road trips? Off-road adventuring?
  • How long am I planning on staying in Japan/using the car? (If you're only staying for a year or two, the difference in tax/insurance, etc. costs for a regular car won't matter as much, but for over two years, it can really add up!)
  • How much do I think I can I re-sell it for if/when I leave?

  • Does it have shaken? When does the shaken expire? (Since shaken is a bi-annual inspection fee, the closer to two full years, the better!)
  • How old is the car and how many kilometres does it have on it? (Seems obvious, but I sometimes forgot to check when I was shopping around for my first car)
  • Does it have 4WD? (Highly recommended for Aomori Prefecture, which has a lot of snow and mountains)
  • Does it have ABS? (You'll probably get a bit of a discount on your insurance if it does)
  • Does it come with winter tires? (Again, this is specific to Aomori and other Prefectures with snowy winters--winter windshield wipers are also a nice bonus!)
  • Has the car had regular maintenance? Oil changes? Transmission fluid changes, etc.?
  • Has the car been in any accidents?
  • Does the price include the transfer of ownership fees? (more applicable for person-to-person sales since dealerships usually include it in the sticker price)
  • How's the fuel consumption? 
  • How much can I re-sell it for? (If you're looking at a higher cost car from a dealership, they may give you a figure for how much they'd buy it back for after 1 year, 2 years, etc.)
  • Is there any parts and/or maintenance coverage included in the cost? (Again, only if you're buying from a dealership)

  • If price is your biggest concern, I also recommend buying a car from an ALT. Find out if there's a Facebook Group/mailing list or something for your prefecture and join it now! Some ALTs have already started putting up their cars for sale and many more will do so as July rolls around and their departure date draws nearer.
  • If you're thinking about sticking around for 3+ years, you might want to consider paying a little more in the beginning and getting a slightly nicer used car from a dealership. The nice thing about buying from a dealership is that if you have any problems with the car (or get into an accident) you can always take it back to the dealership to get looked at. With a personal sale you'd have to find a mechanic on your own.
  • I personally wouldn't spend more than 200,000yen ($2000) on a car from an ALT--and I would only pay that much if it was a kei car in good condition with shaken; I'd probably look to spend around 100,000yen (~$1000) if it was a white plate (regular) car
  • it *is* possibly to get a car for 200,000yen ($2000) or less from a dealership, but your choices will be very limited and it's mostly a matter of luck/timing
  • if you decide to go the dealership route, it's nice if the dealership has a repair shop on premises; car fairs are also a great place to get good deals--you may even get a case of instant ramen or something thrown in as a thank you gift! =P
  • remember to consider initial insurance costs when budgeting how much you're going to spend on the car itself--not much point in getting a car if you have to wait until you have enough money to pay for the insurance (you may need to pay the costs for 2 months' insurance at the beginning) 
  • it can be a nice bonus if the car has a CD player, ETC card reader, or even a GPS unit already installed (if I'd known at the beginning that I'd end up staying 4 years I would've definitely bought a GPS unit/system--I've got a terrible sense of direction, and Japan roads usually don't have signs/names!)
  • you can bargain at car fairs, with dealerships, etc. (I'm a terrible bargainer but when I was buying my first car, after I asked about the price I simply told them that I liked the car but unfortunately it wasn't within my budget and they dropped the price of the car down to match my budget amount!) 
And this isn't directly related to buying a car, but I highly highly HIGHLY recommend getting a Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) membership if you're going to be driving in Japan. It's the Japanese equivalent to AAA or CAA. It's really not that expensive--2000yen (~$20)joining fee plus a 4000yen (~$40) annual membership fee--for the peace of mind you get. And speaking from personal experience, if you ever are in an accident and need a tow, you'll be extremely grateful that you joined! (You can also get discounts at some museums, restaurants, etc. with your JAF card.)

Hope this information is at least somewhat helpful! If you have any questions/comments, as always, feel free to leave a comment on the post! ^_^ Happy driving!

    1 comment:

    Unknown said...

    Agreed on that. It would be less hassle if you know on what type of car that you are looking. It's important that it's clear to you on what's your goal in finding a car. And I'll say Japanese cars are quite reliable and efficient.