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Buying a used car in Japan -- what to keep in mind

By William Bonds

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).

© Japan Today

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Why buy when you can lease a car? It takes care of all the hassle. Lease Japan is gaijin owned and will accept you unlike Japanese car dealers who hide under their desk when you walk in the showroom.

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Very informative article. And good advice too maryhinge.

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There's really no useful information in this article. Most of this is just pure common knowledge if you've lived in Japan for more than a week. I bought my cars from dealers. No hassle and the salespeople really suck up to you.

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I find that cars are very easy to steal, here in the countryside. Doors are usually unlocked and the keys are tucked into the sun visor. There's one guy in my building who never uses his car and hasn't noticed that I've been using his for the last six months. The downside is that I have to buy the petrol.

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"Dealers will usually arrange “shaken” so that potential buyers have two years to go" ...

Yes, but most dealers show the price without this necessary shaken. So, it is always necessary to ask for the "total price". Some dealers really give the total price (ready to drive) in the advertisements, but this is rare. Well, for more info, check "carsensor".

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The whole auto purchasing gig in Japan just plain sucks! How many trips do I have to take to the police station and the auto tax office?!?! And if you're junking a car, well... you might as well double the amount of time and trips you're going to be taking. Not to mention all the "shaken" fees!!! It's almost too big of a hassel to keep a car here.

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Ha, tracking down and buying a used car is the least of your worries. You can get them dirt cheap from foreigners leaving Japan (as long as you just want something that will run).

The real work comes when you have to run around getting all the forms taken care of...including certification to show you have a place to park it, even in the freakin' inaka. Transfer of ownership forms, trips to the license centre...

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After all that the poor guy ended up getting a second-hand Nissan March!!

I thought this article was going to end up with him scoring a sweet deal on a Skyline or a MarkX.

Maybe he could try to "pimp his ride" but, with a Nissan March, it's a bit of a tall order...

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Funny that the "Mick Lay" company also happens to be a big advertiser to the site that posted the article.

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Here's a tip for anyone out there buying a used car privately, as opposed to through a dealer. To transfer the name of the title and registration of the car into your name, a dealer will charge about 200,000 yen to do it "for" you. If you do it yourself at an actual Ministry of Transportation and Infastructure office in your prefecture, it costs . . . 40 yen. I kid you not.

As for leasing, if you're planning to only stay in Japan for, say, 5 years, i.e., as a JET Program participant, leasing is a great option. The benefits: A) No shaken hassle to deal with every two years. The leasing company handles it. B) No taxes to pay on the car, C) Your car is always new or near-new, and you can just swap it out for a newer model at the end of your contract.

The small print: If you go the lease option, be aware that there are two basic types out there: Maintenance Included and Maintenence Not Included. Whereas the one results in a higher per month cost, the other involves lower monthly payments, but you are ultimately responsible for anything that breaks outside of warrantied parts (drive train, for example). In some cases, you can also be held responsible for shaken. Again, the obvious beenfit is lower monthly payments. The way I look at this type is is your going to pay for shaken, then why not just go ahead and buy a new car?

Also, the longer the term of the lease, the cheaper the monthly payments. A 5-year lease can result in payments as low as 200,000 yen a month. A 1-year lease will see payments of 400,000 yen a month or more.

Sure, it seems like it ultimately costs the same to buy new, but when you do the math, after taxes and shaken are figured in, leasing costs about the same, minus many of the hassles owning a car in Japan can involve, including getting rid of the car when you're done.

Last I checked, one of the best lease deals in Japan right now is offered by Diahatsu. For a 5-year contract, you can get a new Mira, maintenance included, for 198,000 yen per month.

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Check your zeros..

I'm in the middle of purchasing my 7th vehicle here in Japan. Three of the most recent have been brand new and the dealers always treat me in the same manner as any other customer. As for the rigors of registration.....it's not really that bad. Sure it's a bit of run around but I find the two week wait and anticipation harder to deal with.

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The whole Shaken thing is absurd. If you sell your car to avoid the payment, the estimated shaken cost will be deducted from the sale price - and you'll still be paying it on the new car anyway (albeit after 3 years for a new car.)

Buying a new car does nothing to "avoid" Shaken - I wish the media, public, etc, would stop taking this as received wisdom. If anything, your average cost of owning a car goes up since you are replacing a sunk cost item with a new, more expensive version.

Let's just all agree that Japanese like shiny new cars (don't we all?), can afford to pay for them, and leave it at that.

One last thing - domestic cars depreciate far faster than imported models - unless the writer of the article is tracking Lada's or Fords.

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Cripes! Thanks! Err... Knock a zero off of those prices I quoted above:

The price a dealer will charge to register your car for you: 20,000円

The price the Ministry of Transport will charge for same: 40円

A lease from Daihatsu: 19,000円 per month.

Five-year lease average cost per month for a kei: 20,000円

One-year lease average cost per month for a kei: 40,000円

Checking figures before pressing the "submit" button: Priceless . . .

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"unlike Japanese car dealers who hide under their desk when you walk into the room"

Ha ha ha! One day I walked into a BMW showroom to take a closer look ( and look was all I was planning to do ) and the salesman jumped up and ran out of the room!

"The reliability of Japanese cars is legendary bit not infallible."

No, not infallible, just less infallible than the other makers.

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"Ha ha ha! One day I walked into a BMW showroom to take a closer look ( and look was all I was planning to do ) and the salesman jumped up and ran out of the room!"

Interesting Sarge. I must admit that I do always get that initial moment of apprehension in the sales person as they aren't sure of my Japanese ability. But, after a few minutes it's business as usual. Also, how you are dressed plays a big part. If I'm in "kick the tires" mode it's shorts and tee shirt...lol.

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Owning cars in Japan is very different to the west. It's actually difficult to find secondhand cars in bad condition due to the abundance of newer cars. If a secondhand car is deemed to be a shocker it is either scrapped or shipped OS. Buying a new car in Japan is a con. If you pay 4,000,000yen for a new car, by the time you have driven it around the block a few times it has devalued by at least 25%. Keep it for five years and it is worth around 15% of its original value. Buying secondhand cars is dangerous unless you are sure what you are doing. For example, you could buy a nice economical 9 year diesel van with low klm's for around 250,000yen only to find out you can't get shaken for it in the area you live. There is also a fairly large proportion of 'cut and shut' secondhand cars for sale. This used to be popular in Oz during the 70's, but it was banned, although it is still done in Japan by less scrupulous dealers. Then there is parking, which can be a killer! Before you even consider buying a car check into parking in your area. Not only for the price, but also for the availability. My friend had to park his car one station from his house and pay an extremely large monthly rate for his trouble.

In my opinion, unless you really need to own a car in Japan don't. It's not worth it. Renting cars is a much more economical way to go. Leasing can be good also, although, you are virtually paying the car off for the time you have it and unless you are self employed there are no real tax breaks to gain, so your money just goes down the drain.

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If you squirrel up in Tokyo or Osaka or any other really major city in Japan, owning a car is tatamount to renting two apartments: one for you and one for the car. If you feel the need to get out of the city for a road trip, rent a car for a week or less.

However, if you live outside the major cities, where subways don't exist and buses only go one way: into town and then out of town, you need a car to go around town. But, if you live outside the major cities, parking is much, much cheaper. I pay 0 for my spot because it's in front of my house. The most expensive I've heard of here is about 10,000 yen a month but if you live in an apartment building, chances are it comes with a spot for a nominal fee of 2,000 or 3,000.

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And it’s a whole lot better than carrying your golf clubs on the train.

Ha, that's funny. In all my time here, I've never met someone who is a regular golfer that is out to find a "bargain" on a car.

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Borscht, you are right. Actually I have 2 cars, one station wagon for the whole family and one K-car for wife and the kids during the week. If asking Japanese colleagues, there is a good chance to get shaken or repair for a reasonable price. At least this is my impression. And paperwork etc. - is done by the car dealers. Might cost 10000 Yen or so, but it is worth, if you have a decent job. The only thing, which starts annoying me is the rise of the gasoline prices. But even in this respect, Japan is more reasonable than Western Europe, e.g. D / NL / B.

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Foreign cars depreciate more because their purchase price is usaully double what it would be in other markets (i.e. the US) The real rub in purchasing a foreign car is the absurd amount of money for maintainence and parts. I have a Saab and not that they are cheap to keep back home either but in Japan just double the cost of everything. I also laugh at his 100,000 yen shaken, for a kei car maybe but you better double that figure as well.

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Good catch! But taking the train does mean you get to enjoy the 19th hole more than if you drove... : )

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I am currently in the process of buying a car here. The parking isn't so bad at 13,000 a month it's just the red tape that is annoying. You have to draw and measure your parking space and that's a joke in this day and age. It will be worth it in the end though I am sure though shaken will pee me off in a couple of years no doubt. Shaken of course is just a tool for the auto industry and govt to shift more cars. Nothing more.

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Shaken is cheap! It costs around $1,000 for two years. It costs around $6-700 per year to register a car in Oz although, there is no road tax on top of the registration. And, of course, no parking fees.

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I bought my car on Yahoo auction, that's where the best prices seem to be. Caveat emptor, as always. Did shaken myself at Samezu. Cost only 76,000 yen (2.4 liter motor), including paying them to fill out my forms, and took just 45 minutes from start to finish. Very simple procedure even if you speak little Japanese.

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why bother with all the hassles to save a few measily yen by doing the paperwork yrself, I have bought 3cars & I dont even know where the offices for doing the paperwork are, I let the dealer do it for me & at dealers great deals can easily be had.

Screw new cars total waste of yen, there are tons of great vehicles that can be had in the Y400,000-Y700,000 range. The dealers I have dealt with have always been easy to work with, great after service & shaken(which I hate) has never cost me more than around Y140,000 & that time I had a couple tires which needed replacing so its really always around Y100,000, not unreasonable.

And I always trade my cars in so no hassles with that either, my last trade in on a Rav4 which needed 4 new tires desprately I ended up getting Y150,000 on trade in so add Y100,000 for 4 tires & the Y100,000 I wud have paid for another shaken & I ended up Y350,000 to play with & then even got the car I ended up buying down some as the dealer knew I wud be buying soon somewhere else if not there(where I just bought the Mrs a car), all in all very sweet, hassle free & now 2 great cars sitting outside the house

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I'm on my 6th car in 7 years in Japan, the last one being a new vehicle. I have never had any serious problems with any of them. On the times that I did have some concerns, I simply went back to the dealership. They were more than willing to bend over backwards to take care of any problems.

However...BUYER BEWARE! of some dealerships that will SHAKEN your car at one of their "own" garages. I bought an MR2 from one dealership and I decided to change the muffler a few months later. During the installation of the new muffler the mechanic proceeded to tell me that my car had no emissions control installed in the exhaust system.(Required by law) "WHAT?! But I just bought this car 6 months ago and they gave me a 2 year shaken to go with it!" To say the least the mechanic was as much dumbfounded as I was. I immediately went back to the dealership, told them that I just caught them with their pants down and...to make a not so long story even shorter...they installed a new emissions at no cost followed by a barrel full of "sumimasens" and boot lickings.

I was not a happy camper.


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However...BUYER BEWARE! of some dealerships that will SHAKEN your car at one of their "own" garages.

Toyopet for example...I just bought a Land Cruiser with no shaken. I had some tires from another 4x4 that I knew wouldn't pass shaken but they said it was "no problem" to put them on BEFORE the shaken test. So, like anything else....due diligence.

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What you need to keep in mind is that it's death on a stick out there mate. Narrow, poorly maintained roads crowded to the extreme with mindless pedestrians and drivers who can't remember which is the accelerator and which is the brake.

Japan Inc. really stands for Japan Incompetent.

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Best websites for buying used cars in Tokyo Metro Area??

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Why buy online? I prefer to check the vehicle myself before buying it(ie taking it for a ride, etc).

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Guys I'm so curious about this Shaken mean? Nice article by the way.

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I think that they are talking about 車検 (shaken), so it's the examination process for your car. Generally speaking, it can be expensive to buy a car in Japan, but I think a Kei-car is OK. The main problem remain the parking (駐車場) fee each month. Well, nowadays, you can just rent a car with "Orix" or even do some long distance rideshare/carpool with "Noritomosan" as well.

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I know it's been ages since you posted but where might I find info on a lease from Daihatsu Leases? I am paying far too much for a rental right now and the prices you mentioned are dreamy. Any help would be appreciated!

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