Japan’s Cars

Owning and driving a car in Japan is this crazy thing where, you don’t really need one, but lots of people have them. In the small community where I live, every family has at least one car, sometimes two, as in my family, and nearly everyone who commutes does so by car. They don’t have to. My children walk to the train station every day to go to school, and one neighbor of ours does too. Cars cost a lot; there are too many on the roads, and no one is getting anywhere fast.

So what are the driving conditions like? What do people drive? Japanese people do love their cars. The automobile industry in Japan is huge, not just in exports, but also in domestic consumption. Not only that, but automobile infrastructure is first class. The roads are well paved and safe, if only for cars sometimes. (Some are not pedestrian or bicycle friendly at all.)

Japanese people value their cars. They keep them clean, with a few exceptions, like my wife and I. There are very few cars on the rode dirty enough to write, “Wash me!” in the grime.

The cars are very well maintained. Every couple of years, depending on the age of the car, they have to be inspected, a process that costs somewhere around ¥100,00 or $1,000. These inspections are costly and ritualized, but the excellent service provided by dealerships make up for some of the unpleasantness. And thanks to the mechanics’ superb technical ability, the cars are better for the attention.

The most popular colors of car in Japan are white, black, and silver, in that order. I fit the mold there. I have one white car and one silver one. 28% of cars in 2009 were white, with 23% for both black and silver. That means 3/4 of all the cars in 2009 were one of three colors. According to DuPont, the company that did this survey in their 2011 Automotive Color Popularity Report, that isn’t true of all countries. The favorite colors of car owners in Europe were black, silver and gray, for example.

The five most popular car models in the first six months of 2013 according to Japan Automobile Dealers Association were Toyota, Prius; Toyota, Aqua; Nissan, Note; Honda, Fit; and the Nissan, Serena. I don’t drive any of those. In my family we drive Suzukis, which is a company that manufactures many “kei cars,” cars with a displacement of around 660 cubic centimeters.

But I still wonder why there seem to be so many cars on the road. There are 591 cars per 1,000 people in Japan. The US has 809 cars per 1,000 people, so there are almost 75% more cars per capita in the US than in Japan. Yet when I drive there just seems to be more congestion here, and I’m moving at a slower speed with more stops than when I drive in the US.

One reason for that may be that, according to the World Bank, Japan had 224, 223, and 222 vehicles per kilometer of road in 2009, 2010, and 2011 respectively. Compare that to 38 to 37 cars per kilometer of road in US.  Japan has the 5th most congested roads in the world behind Hong Kong and Macao among others.

And in all that congestion drivers continue to burn fuel, and fuel is expensive in Japan. By 2102 data Japan is ranked as having the 18th most expensive gasoline prices in the world as compared to 166 other countries. Japanese cars are very efficient, but on holidays when there are huge traffic jams or even in rush hour traffic drivers burn gasoline just to sit on the road. In fact, Japan has recorded one of the world’s largest traffic jams. On the return trip to Tokyo after the Obon Holidays on August 21, 1990, the jammed up highway stretched for 130 kilometers.

So how do drivers react to these factors, including congested roads and expensive gasoline? Well, they just don’t drive very much. According to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile, an average car in Japan travels only 9,300 kilometers (5,800 miles) a year, less than half the U.S. average of 19,100 kilometers (12,000 miles).

People use other forms of transportation. Rail systems in Japan are well developed. My children ride a train to and from school everyday. Many junior and senior high school students ride their bicycles to school. On average 24% of company workers and 6% of students use a car for their daily commute. The car is a much more common means of commuting for those who live in the country, like me, where it is the choice of 64% of the company workers, compared to 14% of company workers from the city. Americans, on the other hand, commute by car 86% of the time.

There are probably many cultural attributes that account for the difference in what people drive and how they do it. Japanese car owners take very good care of their cars, but don’t drive as much as Americans. Those who own cars spend more time and money on them than their American counterparts. Just based on appearance one can see the difference, for example with “itasha,” cars brightly decorated with manga characters and shiny accessories. While conditions may not be as favorable for the average Japanese driver when compared to those of American drivers, they still love their cars.



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