Car enthusiasts use the term JDM to describe cars manufactured in Japan, but there’s a lot more to it than just country of origin. Read more about JDM here.
If you’ve ever run across an awesome Japanese car like a Nissan Skyline GT-R, Honda NSX, or even just a quirky little kei car in the United States, you may have heard the term “JDM” thrown around. JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Market. In other words, a JDM car is a specific model of vehicle that was offered exclusively for sale to the Japanese public. Some popular brands that are considered JDM include Honda, Lexus, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Suzuki, Subaru, and Toyota. That may sound like a bunch of well-known manufacturers seen here in the US, but there is a missing chunk of automotive history from these manufacturers locked away on the shores of Japan.
Whether it was emissions regulations, safety regulations, or market research driven, a lot of cool JDM cars never make it over to the American market. Luckily, that’s slowly starting to change. A lot of JDM cars are slowly making their way across the Pacific and onto American roads. But how? Let’s find out more about JDM cars, how they’re starting to be imported to the states, and learn about the Japanese car culture that makes these models so great.
The largest thing to get straight when talking about JDM cars is this – just because a Japanese brand makes a car, doesn’t mean that it is JDM car. That may anger some local tuners that slapped kanji stickers onto their Honda Civics, but it’s the truth. While some Japanese models are sold in Japan as well as the United States of America, the ones purchased over here in the states aren’t JDM. Instead, these are USDM (United States Domestic Market) vehicles that have been specifically designed to meet US regulations and then sold in the US. The Toyota Corolla for instance is available in both regions, but a model purchased in America isn’t considered JDM. That Corolla will also carry some slight variations between the JDM and USDM versions of the car that further separate them than just purchase origin.
The most obvious difference for JDM cars is that they’re almost exclusively sold as right-hand drive since Japanese drivers drive on the left side of the road. The USDM variant on the other hand is left-hand drive since we drive on the right side of the road. JDM cars also feature the use of kilometers-per-hour on the speedometer and the Japanese lettering system for labeling throughout the car. Japanese manufacturers further the regional differences by providing different badging, different available trims, and even uniquely engineering the cars to meet different regulations or regional market trends. Mechanically, a USDM version of a JDM car, like the Honda S2000, will sometimes be tuned to have more low-end torque than its Japanese variant as that is what the American audience is used to from domestic auto manufacturers.
There is also the case where some Japanese branded models are built and sold exclusively for a specific country or global region. The Toyota Tundra for example is built here in San Antonio, Texas and for sale exclusively in Canada, Mexica, and the USA. So, any Toyota Tundra you see locally would be considered a USDM vehicle even though it is from a Japanese based company.
Any vehicle being imported into America that is newer than 25 years old must conform to regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT). This entails that any vehicle being imported permanently to the US must comply with all federal motor vehicle safety standards. The vehicle must also meet EPA emission standards and requirements set by the Clean Air Act (exempt if older than 21 years). While it isn’t impossible to modify an import vehicle to the extent that it meets these standards and be conditionally admitted into the US, it’d cost way too much and lose much of its JDM originality in the process. Luckily, JDM cars that are older than 25 years are exempt from EPA and DOT regulations according to the Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988, allowing them to be legally imported and owned in America.
Once a JDM car is at least 25 years old, it is available for import to the US. Importing a car can come with a lot of paperwork, uncertainty about condition, and a bit of tiptoeing around government regulations for certain models. Thankfully, there are dealerships in the US that have made JDM importation their thing. Going through one of these importers can cost a bit more than doing it yourself, but you can be sure everything was done correctly. These importers are also less likely to have the car stuck in Customs or lost to the shipping container maze since they’ve dealt with this process hundreds of times.
There’s even a chance that the JDM car you’re interested in may already be for sale on one of these JDM specific lots right here in the United States. They bring in a significant number of JDM cars themselves and handle all the importing and paperwork just to resell like a used car dealership. This leaves you to just hand over the cash and head to the registration office like a typical car sale. Now, the registration process can be a whole other headache since the VIN won’t be in the DMV database and most clerks will take extra time to handle an imported vehicle.
You may be thinking, “but I’ve seen JDM cars that are newer than 25 years old here?” These unique cases where JDM cars that are newer than 25 years old appear at car shows or driving on American roads could have happened legally temporarily or legally at the state level but not federally. The first way this JDM car could be here is that it was driven from a different country into the US. Canadians only have to wait 15 years for government regulations to not take hold on imported cars. Then, as long as this JDM car is registered in Canada and has plates, the US Border Patrol or any other state law enforcement could care less about the owner driving it into America. The owner cannot sell the car to an American technically or register it within the US without jumping through the same hurdles as importing it from Japan, but it’s able to be driven essentially anywhere in the US with little issue.
There are some states with registration laws that will let just about anything be registered regardless of federal legality, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. Suppose that someone got their hands on a Nissan Silvia S15 that had gotten into the US without any intervention from federal entities. They could register it in states like Florida or Vermont and it’s technically “legal” to drive on the road. However, should a federal agency that enforces importation guidelines catch wind of this car in the US, they’ll be forced to take the vehicle and crush it as well as fine or even jail the owner.
Recently there have also been a few instances of newer Suzuki Jimny models appearing at American dealerships too. These JDM off-roaders were apparently imported to Mexico and brought into the US for sale, although their availability to be taken onto the road legally is up in the air. If they are on the up-and-up with federal compliance, then the car should have no trouble getting registered and heading out on the highway. I wouldn’t mind Suzuki cars making a comeback in the US, but the nearly $20,000 markups on these imported Jimny models were a bit much.
So, what exactly makes these Japanese cars so alluring? Sure, true JDM cars are rare to us in the States, but why are people clamoring to get their hands on them? Here’s a look through the JDM crowd and a few different reasons why enthusiasts are snagging up JDM cars as soon as they can.
Like in the US, owning a car in Japan connotes social status. Having the newest and cleanest looking car shows others that you’re successful, while having a used disheveled-looking car is frowned upon. Because Japanese cars basically show off your economic and social standing to others, people tend to keep them clean inside and out. Plus, the typical car owner in Japan rarely actually drives. People in Japan choose to walk, bike, or take the train to get where they need to go, rather than drive themselves. That is why so many of the 25-year-old cars coming from Japan have far less than 100,000 miles on them.
Japanese car owners also endure Japan’s shaken. The shaken is a shortened term for Japan’s stringent automobile inspection registration system. The mandatory inspection takes place every two years for car owners. This inspection ensures that the car meets strict requirements on emission, safety, maintenance, and checks that illegal modifications haven’t been performed on the car. If the car cannot meet these standards, then a red sticker is applied and it is thus labled illegal to drive. If the car passes, then the owner has to pay a paperwork fee, inspection fee, compulsory vehicle insurance, and a vehicle weight tax – the last of these is why Japan has an affinity for tiny cars.
So, what does all this mean for people looking to import? Well, the shaken encourages Japanese car owners to purchase newer cars rather than continue to pay for upkeep and fees on their used cars. This leaves a ton of used cars for sale ready to export with exteriors and interiors in good condition, low mileage in comparison with the US used market, and regular maintenance performed in order to allow it to drive in Japan. Now, that doesn’t mean every single Japanese import won’t have any flaws or issues, but it should keep potential buyers’ minds at ease.
Another big part of the JDM lifestyle is tuning. While America was obsessed with getting the best straight-line performance out of their Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Corvettes at the drag strip, Japan was modifying their Toyota Corollas and Nissan Fairlady Zs to compete on winding roads. Lowered aftermarket suspensions, aftermarket exhausts, big spoilers, widebody kits, and tuned engines both under the hood and on the computer. These Japanese tuners do everything to give their cars the fastest acceleration and best handling. They show off their efforts at meets or take their cars to the track and drift their projects sideways through the turns.
If you’ve ever seen the early Fast and Furious movies, like Tokyo Drift, then you know it isn’t just about performance, these tuners make their cars really stand out. While some keep the exterior rather simplistic, others let their imaginations run wild. Colorful graphics, intensive vinyl wraps, custom paint jobs, neon under glow, high-end rims, sticker bombed body parts, stanced wheels; the list customizations of just goes on and on. This culture isn’t limited to only well-known sports cars, either. There are some interesting kei cars, like the Daihatsu Hijet, that have been modified into real pieces of art.
The eccentric tuner culture didn’t contain itself to Japan however. Popular media like the Midnight Club video games, the Initial D anime series, and the aforementioned Fast and Furious series picked up on the tuner lifestyle, further promoting the phenomenon of JDM outside of Japan. Nowadays it’s hard to not see (or hear) a Subaru or Toyota driving down the street in the States with the same Japanese tuner inspired designs. Although, they are much cooler when the car is truly a Japanese Domestic Market import, rather than an American Domestic Market Honda Civic with a “brapping” exhaust mounted to it.
The Japanese Domestic Market is waiting and open to you. Feel free to pick your next project car that’s imported straight from Japan, with certain exceptions I previously stated, and customize it to your heart’s content. So, what will it be? The Toyota Corolla AE86, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Toyota Supra, Honda Civic Type-R, Mazda RX-7, or do you have something else in mind? I know I’m more in the market for a Nissan Silvia S12 personally. Whatever JDM it is, you’ll be welcome with open arms to a community that loves to talk to you about your imported car and what you’ve had done under the hood.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in August 2020 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
I learned a lot