Importing a car from Japan seems pretty daunting and there is a lot of information to take in. The language is different and finding a good example can be difficult (depending on what you are looking for). You can get someone to do it for you, but that will cost extra money, so we have created a guide on everything you need to know about importing a car from Japan.
This guide will be focusing on the overall importation process from looking for a car, selecting the right one, making sure it is in good condition and finally bringing it into your own country.
We would like to give a big thank you to Tim over at jcars.co.nz. He has provided much of the information in this guide. Tim has extensive experience exporting cars from Japan and importing them into New Zealand. For those looking to import a car from Japan, Tim and the jcars team can not only help those located in New Zealand, but also in other markets such as the United States, Canada, Australia and more.
Why Import a Car from Japan?
If you are reading this, you probably already know the benefits of importing a car from Japan, but we will talk about them anyway. While Japanese cars are usually exported worldwide when they are new, it can become harder and harder to find good examples as they age. For example, the Mazda RX-7 FD is starting to become a classic and many examples in places like New Zealand and Australia have been poorly maintained or are simply overpriced.
Japan is home to many incredible cars and you can often find excellent prices on various ones. Importing a car will give you a much wider range of vehicles to choose from, which can be beneficial if you are looking for a particular model. Japan also received various models that weren’t available in other markets at the time of launch.
Why Does Japan Have So Many Used Cars?
When cars are first sold in Japan, they undergo and initial inspection on their first registration, which is then good for three years. Following this, they must undergo another inspection every two years regardless of age. These inspections (called Shaken in Japan) are incredibly thorough and can be expensive so many people sell their cars before they have to go through another one (around five years).
Due to these strict inspections, older cars are naturally forced off of Japanese roads. This causes an enormous amount of used cars to become available, but without a local population to buy them. As a result of this, Japan has developed a massive and sophisticated export industry that sends cars all over the world. Most buyers of second hand export Japanese cars have typically been from countries with more relaxed importation laws like New Zealand, Australia, UK and various other European nations.
More About Shaken (車検)
As we said above, Shaken is a biennial vehicle safety inspection that is required by law to drive a car on public roads in Japan. Quotes for this inspection can sometimes reach 200,000 yen (around 1,800USD at the time of writing), but they are usually around 70 to 80,000 yen. As you can see, Shaken inspections are not cheap and the cost is broken into a few different sections:
- Vehicle weight tax
- Compulsory insurance
- Processing fee
- Repair costs to pass the test
- Anything in addition to the test that is imposed by the garage or mechanic
In addition to checking the overall maintenance and safety of a vehicle, Shaken is also conducted to determine whether a car has been illegally modified. Illegally modified cars will be deemed unsafe and will have a red sticker on them, which declares they are not fit to be on the road.
What Happens To Modified Cars?
In Japan, there is actually another type of Shaken known as Kohin, which applies to modified vehicles that would normally be illegal for road use. Kohins are usually extremely expensive to obtain (200,000 yen plus), especially for highly modified vehicles.
The ability to get pretty much any modified car made road legal in Japan creates a problem for importers and buyers. While a modified car may have a Shaken in Japan, it may not comply with the road rules in another country. Tim has seen this problem happen lots to unsuspecting buyers over his many years in the industry.
When a buyer gets the car they find out that it doesn’t meet their country’s road rules and it is too expensive to bring it back to a road legal standard. This is why it is so common to see these freshly imported cars being sold for spares (the unlucky buyer is trying to recoup some of their losses).
It’s really important to have a highly skilled auction house buyer over a large volume based general export company when buying specialist cars to ensure they are checked correctly.
How to Buy a Car from Japan?
While it may seem like a bit of a nightmare to import a car from Japan, the process is not actually that hard. The easiest and most common route is to find a local importer or company that gives a buyer access to Japanese auction houses. You can then work with them to find a vehicle that is suitable for you.
Once you have done this, the process becomes relatively straightforward and easy. Decide what you are willing to pay, and the importer or company will put the bid in for you. If your bid wins, an export company will take ownership of the car and pay for it. They will then invoice you the bid amount and then add additional fees such as shipping and insurance. The company will also add their own processing fees and once you have paid them the car will be exported and shipped to you.
Take a look at the video below to see how the bid system works in Japan. We will be explaining the auction check sheet and grading system later in this article.
How Long Does It Take?
The total time for delivery is usually anywhere from a month or two, depending on where you live in the world. As you get closer to the date of delivery, the company you worked with will send all the relevant importation information to your broker. This many require you to pay any additional fees and taxes for importation into your country. You will also have to pay the broker as they do not work for free. A good broker will simply tell you everything they need and can make the process a lot easier.
Following this, you will probably get a package in the mail with extras, such as the owner’s manual, any extra keys, and so on, along with things like hard copies of the purchasing paperwork.
Once your car has arrived at the port and is ready for pickup, you will usually need to make an appointment to get it. However, each port is slightly different and some places may deliver a car to you or to an importer in your local area. As importation is done with a roll-on/roll-off system, the car you buy will arrive fully drivable with fuel in the tank and its battery connected.
More Information on Importing a Car from Japan
While simply going to an importer and finding a car through them is the most common route for importing a car from Japan, there is some other information you should know. This information will help you when it comes to finding the right car and not getting ripped off.
Check The Internet
Going to an importer and getting access to their auction houses in Japan is one of the best ways of finding a car, but you can also have a look on the internet for yourself. There is a vast array of websites that sell and export Japanese cars worldwide. You can search for your ideal vehicle based on anything from the price, year, type, make and even the condition.
While these websites and online auction houses are a great place to look, you should always err on the side of caution. Always check out the company and website to make sure they are safe to use. Try and find some reviews or feedback of other people who have used the service.
Here are some examples below:
It is important to note that the best exporters with high quality vehicles are dealer network only. This means that the general public has no access to them and the cars you find on websites such as above will usually be lower quality. You are far better to use a professional buyer with access to the dealer network or with their own systems in place in Japan.
Professional buyers will be able to get far cheaper shipping, customs, export prep, buying fees, insurance and more as they have the power of purchasing volume. It can often end up being much cheaper to use a professional buyer than doing it yourself because of these savings. Additionally, using a professional buyer reduces much of the risk associated with importing a car (unless they are looking to rip you off of course).
A Word on Goonet/Dealer Websites
Goonet was originally targeted for domestic buyers in Japan, but has now opened up. Unlike cars sold at auctions, the vehicles on Goonet/dealers are not graded (or they just don’t display it) and there is no requirement to disclose crash history, etc.
When these cars are inspected by somebody like Tim from jcars they often find heavy corrosion, serious faults or hidden accident damage. While it depends on the market, these cars are being exported so there is usually no consumer guarantee.
If you want to purchase a car through a dealer in Japan or through a website like Goonet it is incredibly important that you get a highly trained and trusted inspector to look at the vehicle/vehicles first. Sellers have no reason to worry about compliance, car reliability or customer satisfaction as you will likely only ever buy one vehicle from them.
How Are Japanese Cars Graded?
The main drawback with importing a car is that you can’t go and have a look at it first (unless you are over in Japan). You want to know the condition of the car and whether there is any work that needs to be done on it, as you don’t want to wind up with a lemon.
Almost every single auction house or exporter will get their cars in the same way. The difference between them is how the vehicles have been looked after and what information they will give you (condition, crash information, service history, etc.)
Japanese auction houses and websites have a well thought out grading system that lets you know the condition of the vehicle. They will provide what is called an ‘auction check sheet’ that gives you almost all of the information you need to know about a car.
The check sheet will typically be in Japanese, but the auction house or company should be able to provide a translated one on request. If they cannot or will not provide a translation of the check sheet, you should proceed with caution. This could be a sign they are trying to hide something about the car. Another option is to find someone who can speak Japanese and get them to translate it for you.
What Do I Need to Know About the Auction Check Sheet?
The auction check sheet contains quite a lot of information, however, the main thing you should look for is the grade. Grades are given to a vehicle by the car auction house’s own assessors and they give you a quick idea of the general condition of the vehicle. However, do not simply buy a car based on the grade alone as you could be walking into trouble.
There can be a range of different quality levels within each grade, so you need to watch out for that. A car that is classified as a grade 4 may nearly be a grade 4.5 in quality, or it could be only a grade 3.5. You should use the grading system as a means to narrow down the number of vehicles you want to bid on. Once you have worked out which ones look good, use the auction check sheet and car map to make the final decision.
In another twist, many domestic buyers pick up a grade 3.5 car at one auction and then ship it to another one where it is then given a higher grade (4.5 or something like that). They then resell the vehicle and cash in on the profit.
The car is then exported as a grade 4.5 to an unlucky buyer who will probably be disappointed with the condition of the vehicle upon delivery.
In some cases, the car may even be graded as an R (accident damage) and then resold as a grade 4 at another auction. When it arrives in the country of destination it may then be picked up by an inspector who flags it for a repair certification. If the buyer is really unlucky the vehicle may even be considered to be a write off and it could cost tens of thousands of dollars to get it back to road worth condition.
This is why it is recommended that you go with a professional buying team who can check the history and condition of the vehicle. While these types of exporters are rare and cost more they will save you a lot of problems down the track. They will also be able to work with you to find your dream vehicle.
What Do the Grades Mean?
When it comes to grading the car, assessors usually use two grades; one based on the exterior and overall condition of the car, and one for the interior. However, you may also have a spate one for the exterior Let’s look at what each grade means below:
Grade S – Is given to cars that have been registered within the last twelve months and essentially have delivery mileage on them. These cars can be considered as next to new.
Grade 6 – These cars have been driven for less than 30,000km and there is no need for any repairs. They will be slightly used, but still in almost perfect condition and will be less than 36 months old form the first registration.
Grade 5 – This grade is given to cars that have been well maintained and have less than 60,000km on the clock. They will not need any repairs but may have the odd scratch or scrape on them.
Grade 4.5 – These cars will have less than 100,000km on the clock. They are a very high grade and you can be confident they have been looked after well. You will probably find some minor imperfections in the body work, but they should not need major repairs. Grade 6, 5 and 4.5 are as high as you can go for a used car and they will be priced accordingly.
Grade 4 – The car will have been driven for less than 150,000km and should be in above average condition. There will be no crash history, but the exterior may have some scratches, scrapes and dents. Minor repair work may be needed and the interior may be slightly worn. Grade 4 cars are a good target to aim for and are popular exports. They will generally be in the top 30% pricewise.
Grade 3.5 – There will be some noticeable large scratches, scrapes or dents on the exterior of the car. Panel beating or painting may be required to fix these, but it should be relatively minor. Some repairs may be required and the interior will be fairly worn (tears, stains, etc.). Grade 3.5s are considered to be in average condition for their age and miles they have done.
Grade 3 – These cars will have noticeable large scratches, scrapes and dents. There may also be problems with the pain and major panel beating or painting may be required. The interior will be pretty poor and they will need repairs.
Grade 2 – While these cars are not write offs, they are in such a poor state that they will be a nightmare to own. They will often have significant corrosion problems and will require extensive repairs.
Grade 1 – These cars are in very poor condition and should be avoided. They may also have significant modifications such as an automatic to manual transmission conversion, and an aftermarket turbo. Additionally, these cars could also have flood or fire damage.
Grade RA – The car will have accident damage which can be graded as minor. They will have been repaired.
Grade R – These cars have had accident damage and have been repaired. They will have received accident damage to the following areas, which should have been replaced:
- Lower Tie Bar or Frame
- Windshield Pillar (A Pillar)
- Centre Pillar (B Pillar)
- Rear Pillar (C Pillar)
- Strut Housing
- Roof Panel
- Trunk Flooring Panel
- Floor Pan
Grade R cars can be fairly good buying and the repair work can be very well done. However, they should be thoroughly inspected as the repair work may be invisible, or it could be terrible.
Grade ??? – These are essentially ungraded write offs that may not start or move at all. Auction houses will provide no information about these cars on the check sheet. If the cars are drivable, there will be no additional transportation costs. However, if the car will not start or move, there can be problems getting it from the auction to the shipping port. This will make the shipping cost significantly more expensive.
Grade A – In excellent condition and there are no missing parts or repairs required.
Grade B -- The vehicle is in above average condition and does not require any repairs. There are no visible scratches or dents. This is the most popular grade for export.
Grade C – Some repairs are necessary and the car has some or all of the following; tears, cigarette burn marks, food spills, worn patches, dashboard warping, and dashboard tears. The interior may also need to be cleaned.
Grade D – This cars interior will be in below average condition and will have some or all of the following; several cigarette burns, major warping of the dashboard, wear and tear, dirty interior that needs major work.
Grade E – This grade is about as bad as it gets for the interior. The car’s interior will require significant repairs and will have the same problems as Grade C and D, but much worse. There may also be a significant odour in the interior.
Exterior Grading (can be part of the overall grade)
Grade A – The car has been well maintained and is in excellent condition.
Grade B – There may be the odd scratch or ding, but you would need to look closely. In above average condition.
Grade C – The vehicle will have some dents, cracks and scratches. Some minor repair work may be needed.
Grade D – Below average condition and the car will usually contain rust, corrosion, scratches and dents. Repair work will be necessary and there may be some panel damage.
Grade E – This car will have significant corrosion problems and will have lots of dents and scratches. It may require a respray and some of the bodywork may have to be replaced.
Along with the interior and overall grade, the auction check sheet also contains what is called a “Car Map”. The car map is usually located in the bottom right corner of the auction check sheet and lets you know where any damage is. On the car map, the number after the letter indicates the severity of the damage. 1 = light, 2 = moderate, 3 = significant, 4 = major.
Below we have listed what each letter indicates:
- A = Scratch
- B = Dent with scratch
- C = Corrosion (original metal is now flaking away)
- E = Dimple
- G = Stone chip on glass
- H = Paint fade
- P = Paint marked
- S = Rust (orange discolouration that has not progressed to flaking)
- U = Dent
- W = Wave or repaired area
- X = item that needs to be replaced
- XX = Replaced panel or item
The auction check sheet has a load more information on them, so check out this video below to see more about them.
Changes to the Grading System
There was a fairly recent change to the grading process at auction houses that has big ramifications for buyers. Cars that have been in an accident but have only had bolt on parts replaced can now get a grade 4.
This is a serious issue for those who just rely on the grade on the auction check sheet and don’t get the car physically inspected by a third party.
Additionally, many export agents/inspectors are not experienced enough or do not have the time to check a car properly. They spend one or two minutes inspecting a vehicle so they will never be able to pick up a warped chassis rail or inner guard, or a bent rear floor. This means now, more than ever, it is important to get an experienced professional inspector/buyer to look at the car first.
Who Grades the Cars?
You may be wondering who grades the vehicles that come out of Japan. Obviously the dealers/auction houses do this, but who is the person doing the physical inspection?
According to Tim, a lot of staff in the export industry are hired because they speak English and not because of their mechanical skills. He found one that was inspecting cars after only two weeks on the job and her previous work experience was an airline hostess.
Unfortunately, most of the inspectors doing the checking don’t have a passion for cars and only want to work in an international company as it holds status in Japan. The ones that are true professionals often struggle with English and can be hard to find. During his time in Japan Tim has built up a network of these highly skilled inspectors who know what they are looking for.
Another problem that inspectors face is that they are not paid very well. Their salaries have not increased in years despite the rise in the cost of living. This means that a lot of them only do the bare minimum checks on a vehicle (look under the car, make sure it starts, etc.)
Export Websites/Dealers vs Professional Buyers
Now that we have covered most of what you need to know about importing a car, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantageous of using export websites such as Goonet vs a professional buyer such as Tim.
Export Website/Dealer Advantages
- They carry a range of stock so you can go on a pick a vehicle quickly.
- The price of the vehicle often is cheaper due to the lower grade
- They speak English well so communication is easy
- They have good systems in place for getting the vehicle to you with out having to do much work.
- Some let you access the auctions to price yourself and they buy for you
- If your lucky they will cancel problem cars or be honest with telling you the issues noted on the sheet and give you an option to cancel you bid and try another.
Export Website/Dealer Disadvantages
- They make there money not on the car but by all the extra costs involved from getting the car from them to you where they ad a bigger margin on top. Meaning the car ends up more expensive even though the original price looked attractive.
- Their stock is lower quality and lower grade and often they are hiding issues from you. Any dealers they look after have had first option to pick through the stock and get the good buys first. Then whats left is offered up.
- They hide the auction sheet, chassis numbers and true condition.
- They focus on volume and often don’t check the cars at auction even if they claim to rather just rely on the inspection sheet.
- As your picking the car yourself you have not recourse verse using a professional buyer who when importing to your country must comply with the same laws and offer the same guarantees as you get when buying from a dealer. (NZ at least)
- Won’t tell you if they win the car cheaper than your bid and pass the saving on to you.
- Only get the car to you country in most cases, if your lucky they get it complied but charge extra above the costs for this.
- You can often end up paying more than just buying it right of a dealer at home who has just imported the same thing.
Professional Buyer Advantages
- Can have access to cheaper shipping and export related costs saving money. This money can cancel out the additional costs or end up cheaper.
- Has experience buying many cars so understands the auction market price and what is a good buy or not and how to interpret the data to determine if that model will work in your market in terms of been cheaper to buy and import that to buy locally.
- Will advise what models have issues and to avoid and will try to avoid buying cars with issues as they will have to repair at their cost if they get it wrong.
- Offer professional checking, translations and reports on the cars at auction if they have a good team on the ground.
- Will find a really good quality honest grade car to fit your budget.
- Experience with particular models or niche markets such as classics.
- Pros and bidding and manipulating the auction to get cheaper and then pass the savings on.
- Often find mistakes on the auction sheet when checking cars and go for a data change at the last minute. This causes large exporters who don’t have time to recheck the car to pull out of bidding for their customers. They then can buy the car cheaper.
- Will look after the whole process in some cases for stress free importing right the way through to driving it away.
Professional Buyer Disadvantages
- Takes time, often they wont have stock of what you want and will need to buy it. If they are fussy and want to get you the best car it can take months to secure it at the best price.
- Some are just as dodgy or worse than the large exporters and happy to cheat you so you need to check what are the warranties and guarantees they give. Make sure they are bound to the laws of fair trading in your country and can be held accountable. Check out their reviews.
- Can cost more depending on their fees or the type of car. Classics are time consuming and often volume exporters are not interested. A buyer may be able to help but they can charge a lot for the service as it takes them a lot of time to secure what you want.
Other Things to Think About
Check Your Country’s Importation Laws
There is no point in buying a car that you won’t be able to use (unless you intend on keeping it in the garage), so make sure you check that it will be compliant with your country’s laws. Most importers will help you do this, but we have listed some useful information below.
Importing a Car from Japan to the USA
If you are located in the United States, you can use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website to check that the car will conform to U.S standards for safety and emissions. You can read more about vehicle importation into the United States here.
If the car does not meet United States safety and emissions standards, you will need to import the vehicle through an ICI (independent commercial importer) to it EPA compliant, or a RI (registered importer) to make DOT-approved safety modifications. Once these modifications have been made, the car will be released to you. Read more about ICIs here.
In the USA, a motor vehicle that is at least 25 years old can be lawfully imported, whether it complies with all applicable DOT safety standards or not.
Importing a Car from Japan to New Zealand
For those in New Zealand, you should use an entry certifier to check that the car will be compliant. The process can take quite a long time and it is recommended that you get an entry certifier’s advice early on. If your car does not meet the standards when it arrives into New Zealand, it may be too late to do anything about it. An entry certifier will verify the following:
- That it meets the required safety emissions and frontal impact standards when manufactured
- Check that it is in good condition
- Decide whether the car needs any work to meet safety requirements
- Verify who owns the car
- Verify the vehicle identity and check the VIN
- Complete registration form MR2A
- Warrant of fitness
New Zealand has different rules that mean for some vehicles you do not need to prove they comply with frontal impact standards. They have to meet one of or all of the following criteria:
- Be more than 20 years old.
- Be a ‘special interest vehicle.
- If you are emigrating or returning to New Zealand and bringing your vehicle with you.
Importing a Car from Japan to Australia
Like New Zealand and the USA, Australian importers will need to check that the car they are looking at meets the appropriate safety and emissions standards. You must not import a vehicle without a vehicle import approval and the Department of Home Affairs will not release a car without one. You can read more about a vehicle import approval here.
The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development website has a good guide of how to import a car into Australia. You can view this here.
Australia has a 15-year rule for importing vehicles but this may be changing to 25 years in 2019. A special import system called SEVS (Specialist and Enthusiast Vehicle Scheme) lets you import various cars that were not originally sold new in Australia. This article has more information about it.
Importing a Car from Japan to the UK
Japanese cars that are imported into the United Kingdom must pass the Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA) or Single Vehicle Approval (SVA) test to ensure they meet all of the required safety standards for British roads. The tests will also check the car’s road-worthiness and there will be a compulsory inspection MOT. You can find out more about what you to import a car from Japan into the United Kingdom here.
One way you can show that your vehicle is compliant is by showing it is the same specification as another car that has been proved compliant. You can do this by using a model report and you may be able to use one for free if there is already one for the same model of car as yours. You can find a list of model reports and their owners here.
More information about importing a car from Japan into the UK can be found through this link.
Importing a Car from Japan to Canada
Importing a car from Japan into Canada is a fairly easy process. The main thing to watch out for is the age restriction. Cars must be older than 15 years and the age is determined by the month and year it was produced.
The age restriction can be waived if the vehicle that is being imported is for competition. An importer will need a letter issued by the manufacturer that states the car is for competition use only and the type of competition it will be used for. Read more about importing a car from Japan to Canada.
Import Taxes on Cars Imported from Japan
Each country will have slightly different taxes that need to be paid before the car can be imported. Your importer and/or broker should be able to help you with this, but you should always check with your local government before purchasing a car. The taxes can be quite large, which can make importing a car incredibly expensive. There may also be rules around who has to pay taxes on entry (people who are immigrating and brining their car with them), so make sure you check the rules first.
The Process at jcars.co.nz
Tim kindly laid out the process that him and his team go through when importing a vehicle from Japan. He has brought together a team of the best buyers in Japan who work together to cover all the auction houses to purchase the best cars at the best prices.
Unlike some other websites or buyers, Japanese Cars (jcars.co.nz) does not give access to the auction houses. Instead they take full responsibility by picking from the auctions and suggesting the best buys each day for their customers. The customer then selects which car they like the most and Japanese Cars puts a bid in for them.
Tim and the team at jcars.co.nz target good buys over speedy purchases to get the best result for their customers. They make sure the fees charged for buying and importing a car are fair yet competitive with the idea that buyers in Japan are rewarded with a good living from their skills. This is why they have a good network of inspectors/buyers in Japan as they treat them well.
With the relationship they have built with the big dealer exporters, Japanese Cars has gained access to their stock and can cherry pick the best for their customers. This means that those who want a car now can get one that reflects the condition stated and have quality control and guarantees in place. This will get them the best vehicle at the best price landed compared with the other general public stock offers from the larger exporters.
Japanese Cars works with customers from start to finish and can also help with other markets as well. Tim looks after the New Zealand side of the business while the other guys in Japan look after other markets.
One of Tim’s main motivations behind the business was created after he saw how poor the working conditions and pay were for highly skilled buyers/inspectors in Japan. He believes if you look after them fairly they will look after you and will help you find the best possible car.
Wrapping Up How to Import a Vehicle from Japan
As you can see, there is quite a bit of information to digest when it comes to importing a car from Japan. You need to find an importer that will help you, find the car you want and place a bid. You will then need to get all the appropriate paperwork together and make the required payments.
Take your time when importing a car from Japan and if you are unsure about a vehicle, get another person’s advice. Always check the auction sheet and get a translation of it. The auction sheet is your bible when it comes to importing a car from Japan.
Lastly, don’t forget to take a look at your country’s importation laws. You don’t want to pay for a vehicle and send it all the way to your country, only to find that it can’t be imported.