JDM Importing: Risk Versus Reward

Japanese idioms often translate comically, but on reflection they usually make good sense. This one is no exception, and has relevance for purveyors of rare Japanese vehicles.


or in our alphabet:

Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu


If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub.

We have a similar saying, although lacking the flowery metaphor: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

This is an especially appropriate sentiment when considering a vehicle from a foreign market.

The Risks

Any time you consider importing, it’s a good idea to look at comparables in your own market. If you suddenly need a windshield, and the nearest place to buy it is Japan, it takes a bit of the shine off your exclusive ride. And speaking of shine, headlights can also be an issue – RHD headlights are different from LHD headlights, so even if you need to check a different market, such as Europe, its good to have options that will match what you’re looking for.

As new models become eligible for import, someone has to be the guinea pig and rock that new engine that no one else has ever seen, let alone worked on. Sure, most parts are obtainable, although you should expect to wait, but what about service?  Do you have a shop that will step up and give it a go when your JDM engine needs a little TLC? Don’t count on it.

If you’re not willing to get your hands dirty, then you better have deep pockets to fund your exploits, as your “new best friend”, AKA your mechanic, learns the ins-and-outs of your heretofore never heard of new rig.

This of course, ignores the scary fact that you’re buying something 15-30 years old, depending on your market restrictions.

Are You Scared Off Yet?

I asked my friend Ken Newcombe what he felt the most concerned about before he bought his 95 Pajero diesel:

“I would say just working on a diesel, even though this was my 3rd diesel: this was one I was going to be doing the most work on… I prefer to do as much of my own work as possible, part of being cheap, but also (to) gain new knowledge and skills.
I was not concerned about parts availability, as I had already been in RHD’s for 6 years before I bought this, so I knew how to source and find what I needed.”

The acronym JDM has taken on a life of its own, especially in the import car scene, but at its core, it simply means JAPANESE DOMESTIC MARKET – cars that were made in and for the Japanese home market. Often this means they got the highest trim levels, best interior appointments, or special engines not exported to other markets.

The Rewards

What made it worth it for Ken?

“I have a beautiful truck that I have built up to what I want, it’s not something you see en masse on the road, [and] its unique and special.”

For the import consumer they represent good value for these reasons, but also because of Japan’s strict inspections (Shakyen), moderate climate (with exceptions), and well-groomed roadways. Beyond that though, there seems to be a cultural element to the way many vehicles are looked after in Japan. So that 25 year old import needn’t be as scary as the 7 year old domestic you just walked away from because it was ready to fall apart before it left the lot.

But first you have to enter the tiger’s cave…

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