Why the Cars In Japan Look Just Like New
By ANDREW POLLACK,
Published: September 12, 1993
TOKYO, Sept. 11 One of the first things an American motorist might notice about Japan is that the automobiles here all seem so shiny and new, without smashed headlights, dents, rust or even dirt.
The reason is only partly that Japanese fastidiousness extends to the maintenance of cars. Rather, experts say, there really are relatively few old cars in Japan, because of an automobile inspection system that is so onerous and expensive that many people prefer to trade in a perfectly good three- or five-year-old car rather than spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars for the inspection.
The inspection system, critics say, is a case study of the regulations in Japan that benefit businesses at the expense of hard-pressed consumers. It is the type of regulation that Japan’s new Government is promising to relax as part of a major effort to improve living conditions. Consumer Group Complains
“The people who profit from this are maintenance shops and car makers,” said Fumio Matsuda, head of the Japan Automobile Consumers Union.
Japan’s 83,000 garages obtain 44 percent of their roughly $60 billion in annual revenues as a result of mandatory inspections. Automobile companies benefit because people replace their cars frequently.
Inspections are required when a car turns 3 years old, then every 2 years until the car turns 11, then every year. The inspections, which cover more than 100 items from brake function to headlight orientation, are done by a Government test center or by an authorized service station.
Other nations and many states in the United States also require inspections, either of emissions alone or also of the car’s functioning, but Japan also requires car owners to have certain items checked or serviced every 6 months, 12 months or 24 months.
Another big difference is that Japan’s Government asks the owner to have the car repaired before it is inspected, so that it will pass. Faced with this requirement, most owners give their car to the dealer or a service station to prepare it for inspection.
“You take it to the garage and they will just change everything, even if there is nothing wrong with the car,” Kenichi Ohmae, organizer of Heisei Reform, a movement that advocates less Government control over Japan’s economy. said. “If they keep fiddling with the car, there are more problems after the inspection.” Inspection Itself Costs $12
A typical bill for this pre-inspection inspection is $600. The actual inspection at a test center costs only about $12.
Government officials defend the inspection system as necessary to keep traffic flowing. In Japan, where congestion is horrendous and highways often have only two lanes in each direction, a vehicle breakdown is far more disruptive than in the spacious United States, they say.
“Inspection actually contributes to the situation where most of our automobiles run in good condition,” said Takashi Shimodaira, director of the maintenance service division of the Transport Ministry.
He said that only 1 in 2,000 car accidents in Japan were caused by mechanical failure, compared with between 1 in 200 and 1 in 20 in the United States and Europe.
In the United States, 64.1 percent of passenger cars in 1991 were at least five years old. In Japan, only 46.8 percent were. In the United States, 30.5 percent of cars were at least 10 years old, versus 9.6 percent in Japan.
With little demand for used cars, cars here lose their value quickly. “A car more than six years old and in very good condition you can easily see in a junkyard,” said Hiroshige Hanabusa, who makes a living helping people with the administrative chores associated with their cars.
Many of the used cars find their way to other nations, where they are considered bargains. In New Zealand, used Japanese cars are cutting so heavily into sales of new cars that auto dealers and assemblers have complained to the Government. And Russians can’t get enough of old Japanese cars. Taking Cars Home to Moscow
Last year, when a Russian circus returned to Moscow after a tour of Japan, 93 animals, including bears, leopards and parrots, were abandoned on the dock at Yokohama. There was no room for them because the ship was full of used cars bought by the crew.
In June an advisory committee to the Transport Ministry recommended several changes to the inspection system to be carried out in the next two years.
The periodic 6-month checks would be abolished and the number of items in the 12 and 24-month checks would be reduced. Cars more than 11 years old would need inspection every 2 years, instead of every year. And consumers would have the option of going for their inspection first and then doing the maintenance found to be necessary.
Even without the committee’s plan, things are changing. The recession is causing Japanese consumers to hold on to cars longer. And a growing number of people, though still only 1 percent of the car owners, are doing the pre-inspection inspections themselves rather than take their car to a garage.
“I started checking the items one month ago, so I did it gradually,” said Toyokazu Yamada, who had just run his Toyota pickup through the Government testing center in Tokyo.
The inspection showed his brakes to be a little loose, and he was told to have them repaired and come back. He left, drove around, came back and entered a different lane. This time, he passed.