The country has already kicked off global trends in fashion, gaming, and animation. We take a look at the cult cars the Japanese are collecting—including one surprising American export.
Like Czechoslovakian and French cars before them, Japanese cars are finally getting their due in the global collector market, with innovative limited production vehicles from the 1960s, like the Toyota 2000GT and Mazda Cosmo, now regularly fetching six- or seven-figure prices. Even seemingly humble trucks, like the $3,000 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ40 from the 1960s, have become $100,000 vehicles.
"We've seen a huge spike in certain great, collectible Japanese cars," says David Gooding, the CEO of the Los Angeles-based Gooding & Co. auction house. The data supports his observation. Analysis from classic vehicle valuation specialists Hagerty shows a rise of 57 percent in the prices paid for Japanese collectibles over the past three years alone.
With these increases, many collectors in Japan have been priced out of their own iconic history. Since Japanese trends have been predictive of global styles—such as the Fast & Furious "tuner" fad from the 2000s, where cars were customized with wildly colorful cosmetic and mechanical accessories—the Japanese collectible market makes a good source for analyzing incipient fads.
The top collectible cars in Japan may align with those that are popular globally, but there's an important distinction. While Ferraris from the 1960s and 70s are red hot in America and Europe, Japanese collectors are drawn to those from the 1990s and later. European and American collectors currently fetishize purist 1960s to 1980s Porsche 911s that look like they just rolled off the assembly line; the Japanese like their 911s customized.
"The Japanese have never been shy about modifying cars," says Ben Hsu, founder and editor-in-chief of Japanese Nostalgic Car, the most prominent English language publication about vintage Japanese vehicles. "Interest in Porsches in Japan has just skyrocketed in recent years, largely due to a tuner named Nakai, who grafts on flared fenders and giant rear spoilers—inspired by modifications done by the Japanese Bosozoku, which were the old local bike and car gangs. He runs a shop called Rauh Welt, which is German for rough world."
This penchant for modification is, among many Japanese collectors, rooted in a particular aspect of their culture. "There is this Japanese word, otaku, which means hardcore—obsessively enthusiastic about something," says Hsu. In Hsu's opinion, otaku is also the impetus behind local collectors' love of oddball and underappreciated vehicles.
"I see more Lotus Europas in Tokyo than anywhere else, including England and California," he says, referring to a spurned, British sports car that looks like the offspring of a flounder, a roller-skate, and a bread-van. "Same for Ginettas and Autobianchis, two more outcasts that are popular in Japan and have been for decades."
Not surprisingly, Japan's physical infrastructure has played a role in shaping regional preferences. "Small, lightweight cars are more suitable for Japanese roads, which are a lot tighter and curvier," says Hsu. And even the most obscure vehicles have a cult following: "There are niche books and magazines in Japan about every make and model you can possibly imagine," says Hsu.
As prices rise on blue-chip collectibles, Japanese car collectors have also become attracted to more pedestrian vehicles. "Recently, there's been growing interest in '80s-era Japanese cars, models that were overlooked in favor of their older, classic siblings or more technologically advanced contemporaries," says Carter Jung, prior editor-in-chief of Import Tuner magazine. These cars include sedans like the Nissan Skyline and coupes like the Toyota Supra that were sporty but not extreme or rare. "Enthusiasts who grew up during that era are attracted to these cars due to nostalgia, affordable prices, and their manual transmissions, which are rare in modern Japanese cars," Jung says.
Even these vehicles are difficult to come by in Japan, due to a shorter automotive lifecycle. Part of this is cultural. "Japanese people tend to want new stuff. They don't like to buy used," Hsu says. But it's also regulatory. Every car in Japan must pass rigorous biannual inspections, known as shaken. "If a vehicle fails, it has to be repaired and retested before it's allowed on public roads," Jung says. "So owning and maintaining cars becomes much more expensive with time." Hsu agrees: "Cars that would be legal in the US would be junked in Japan, because you cannot leak a drop of fluid in the tests."
Though American regulators don't approach this level of fastidiousness, some American collectors of Japanese vehicles do. There's an ongoing trend in the States where owners —using unique trim, mirrors, and wheels—convert their American-export Japanese cars to look more like the versions of these cars that were available in Japan. It is called JDM-style, short for Japanese Domestic Market. And now, the reverse is happening in Japan.
"A lot of the cars that were exported from Japan to America in the 1970s were fitted with ungainly bumpers to meet new American crash standards," Hsu says. "Now there's this trend of finding mint examples of these cars in the States and shipping them back to Japan and keeping the big bumpers. They even keep the weird decal packages and vinyl roofs that the dealers here added on to them back then. They call that U.S. Domestic Market-style." Hsu claims this trend exists, just as it does in America, to make cars stand out. "People in the know will know."
Another Japanese trend involves Vintage Kei vehicles—cars and trucks with tiny engines and proportions—which are poised on the verge of collectability, particularly the sporty and high-design versions from the 1990s. But perhaps the most intriguing up-and-coming Japanese collectible car trend involves vehicles that seem entirely out of scale in these densely populated islands: American vans.
About fifteen years ago, this subculture was organized around the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari, which were beloved by Japanese fans for their bubbly, almost anime-inspired appearance. Now, collectors have moved on to larger Dodge cargo vans. "In Japanese, when you write it out, it's Dajiban," Hsu says. "People take them racing."
Why big vans in such a compact place? Family vans have long been popular in Japan; every domestic manufacturer has a range available, from tiny to medium. But Hsu has another theory. "The interior of these customized Dodge vans is a lot nicer than a typical Tokyo apartment. And probably about as big."
Brett Berk is a writer-at-large for The Drive. Follow him on Twitter at @StickShift_VF.