If you’ve got any interest in cars (and you probably do – or else how did you stumble across this site!) then you will have likely come across the term JDM – but this is a term that causes a lot of confusion, and in this JDM meaning guide we are going to “set the record straight” on something that many people don’t really understand.
Maybe your friend has invited you over to check out their totally sick new JDM ride, or you’ve been invited to a JDM festival or car meet, or you’ve fallen into the YouTube black hole of JDM videos.
JDM conjures up images of Nissan Skyline GT-Rs and Toyota Supras tearing up the Tokyo expressway, Midnight Club style. Others might think of the type of cars that were popular in the early Fast and Furious movies.
Many think that JDM’s meaning is any Japanese car, as opposed to a “domestic” car (for the American market, e.g. a Ford or a Chevrolet).
But what does JDM mean when it comes to cars?
We aren’t talking about the “popular” definition, but the real meaning of JDM. There’s a big difference, and we want to help you get it right.
In this article, we are going to cover the meaning of JDM and the origins of the term, as well as quash some common myths about this popular type of car.
At Garage Dreams we are massive fans of Japanese cars.
We are also big fans of Japan and Japanese culture (in fact, our editor in chief currently lives in Japan – right in the heart of Tokyo – having trekked all the way from New Zealand … he is our “man on the ground” for all things Japanese motoring).
As such, a big part of the focus with this site is on Japanese cars and JDM in particular.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at JDM’s meaning and history, and what the term means for you as a prospective car buyer.
Table of Contents
The True Meaning Of JDM – Key Points
Don’t have time to read the whole article? Here’s what you need to know:
- JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Market
- JDM means a car built for sale in the Japanese Domestic Market (i.e. someone went into a showroom in Japan and bought the car)
- JDM can also refer to vehicle parts/accessories
- Not all Japanese cars are JDM – many Japanese cars are built to be sold outside of Japan in countries like the United States, Australia, New Zealand and UK. Just because a car is Japanese, it doesn’t mean it is JDM.
- Some cars are “true” JDM cars, i.e. they were built only for the Japanese market and not sold outside of the country new. These have found their way into other countries as used imports/grey market imports.
- Some cars have JDM variants. For example the JDM Toyota Supra MK4 was different to the model sold in the United States. JDM variant changes range from visual/aesthetic only, through to changes to engine, safety features and more.
- JDM has come to refer to just about any Japanese car with a performance focus – but the original meaning is specific.
What Does JDM Stand For?
JDM is an acronym for Japanese Domestic Market.
JDM Meaning – The Quick Version
Don’t want to hang around too long? Here’s a quick explanation of JDM:
JDM means any car manufactured specifically for sale in Japan, and not for export to overseas markets such as the United Sates or Europe.
JDM primarily refers to cars, but can also include car parts/accessories specific to the Japanese market.
The Japanese domestic vehicle market is people buying cars in Japan, for use on Japanese roads. So someone from Tokyo going down to their local Toyota dealership, for example, and buying a new car to drive to work.
A common misconception is that JDM refers to any Japanese produced vehicle.
This is not correct – JDM specifically means a vehicle that was produced with the intent of being sold in Japan, and not outside of the country.
This can be a bit confusing to get your head around, as we will cover in the next section.
Are All Japanese Cars JDM?
As we mentioned above, not all Japanese cars are JDM. However, there is a popular misconception (especially in the United States) that JDM does just refer to any Japanese manufactured vehicle.
There are many Japanese cars that are produced for the US, European and rest of world markets (often referred to as USDM in the States). Just being manufactured in Japan does not make a vehicle JDM.
Some Japanese cars that people incorrectly categorise as being JDM are – in fact – built by Japanese car companies in factories located in other countries, such as the United States. Your US-market Toyota Camry, that probably rolled off the production line in Georgetown, KY, is most definitely not a JDM car.
Even when it comes to some of the most legendary Japanese performance and luxury cars of all time, people mistakenly believe that all of them are JDM (hence the term ‘JDM Hero Car’).
For example, the Toyota Supra MKIV was available brand new in the United States with left hand drive, and some changes to specification to comply to US law. This made it a Japanese manufactured vehicle designed to be sold new in the US market – a USDM vehicle.
However, the Toyota Supra mkIV was also available as a vehicle produced new for the Japanese domestic market – with the JDM version having differences to the US version (beyond just left versus right hand drive). The JDM Supra, for example, was limited to 180 km/h – much as all Japanese vehicles of the time were in order to comply with domestic safety regulations.
As you can see, the distinction between JDM and Japanese car can get a little blurred when referring to vehicles that were available both in Japan and elsewhere, but with different specs. Perhaps it is useful to think of cars like the MKIV Supra as having USDM and JDM versions as opposed to a black/white JDM or not distinction.
Sometimes different names were given to the JDM versus USDM or rest of world market version.
For example, the Nissan 240SX as it was sold in the USA was actually a Nissan 180SX when sold in Japan (and they had totally different engine options). To compound matters, the 180SX was also sold outside of Japan as a 200SX … now you can see where the confusion about the meaning of JDM comes from!
There Are “True” JDM Cars And JDM “Variants” – The Difference Is Important
To further complicate matters, we must also consider the existence of what can only be described as “true” JDM vehicles.
A true JDM car is a car that was never sold new outside of Japan – as opposed to a car that might be a JDM version of a vehicle that was also sold for export.
Examples may be imported used or even new (as grey market imports) into other countries but a true JDM car was never intended to leave Japan to be sold new in a dealership elsewhere.
Many true JDM vehicles are “Kei” cars. Small, lightweight vehicles that are highly fuel efficient, which comply with a specific set of regulations around physical dimensions, engine size and power in order to afford the owner reduced road tax and insurance. In some parts of Japan, Kei car ownership also eliminates the need for the owner to prove that sufficient parking is available.
For example, the Honda N Box (which our editor in chief drives while in Japan) is an example of a true JDM car that is also a Kei car.
In fact, as of December 2019 the Honda N Box was the most popular new car sold in Japan for 28 consecutive months, with over 1.7 million examples sold since its introduction.
However, it is a car that most people outside of Japan will never have heard of.
There are also examples of larger true JDM vehicles that do not comply with the Kei standard.
For example, the Toyota Century is a JDM vehicle intended to serve as a replacement to luxury limousines from the likes of Mercedes Benz or BMW:
While an S-Class or 7-Series might be the epitome of luxury in the west, a Toyota Century means business on the streets of Tokyo, and is a true status symbol.
Is JDM Bad?
JDM cars can have a reputation (that is occasionally deserved) for not being as good as the domestic market version of a vehicle.
To demonstrate this point, we will use the New Zealand vehicle market. We can speak with authority here, as New Zealand is where Garage Dreams is based.
Many vehicles in New Zealand are vehicles that were imported at some stage from Japan in used condition. Roughly 60% of the new-to-the-fleet cars registered to drive NZ’s roads each year are used Japanese imports.
“New Zealand new” vehicles are often bought by fleet buyers, companies, or wealthier individuals/families.
The average Kiwi will drive a car that is imported from Japan by a used car dealer (often the dealers will purchase or sell on consignment from larger importers).
These cars can vary anywhere from being relatively recent models, through to cars up to 10+ years old (the exact requirements of NZ’s import laws are – like most other countries – fairly arcane as there are exceptions for vehicles past a certain age, and other exemption categories too).
Because of the popularity and demand for these cars, many of these Japanese imports are JDM versions of cars that were also available new in New Zealand.
The JDM versions will often have inferior safety and equipment specifications to a New Zealand new version. Sometimes they will even have different names.
For example, the ‘Mazda Axela’ (a common sight on the roads here) was actually sold new in NZ as a Mazda 3. JDM spec Axelas often have different specifications to NZ-spec Mazda 3s, such as options for lower power engines (presumably to suit the Japanese buyer’s need for a car that complies with the requirements to enjoy lower road tax).
Japanese imports that were intended for sale domestically in Japan can sometimes have worse safety features than their NZ domestic market counterparts – a trend especially (and unfortunately) seen in less expensive, economy cars that make up the majority of our fleet.
Because Japan’s domestic market for cars is structured in a way to encourage high turnover of vehicles, different specifications are offered – partly because the Japanese buyer is likely to upgrade to better specs on a more frequent cadence owing to the progressively more punitive taxes levied on older cars.
Not All JDM Cars Are Sports Cars
We tend to think of JDM cars as being sports/performance vehicles, such as the Toyota Supra or Nissan R34 GTR.
However, there are many interesting, quirky examples of JDM motoring that were never built to go fast.
For example, the Nissan President is hardly the last word in performance – but how comfortable and enjoyable would it be to waft along in one of these JDM luxury barges?
Prices for desirable JDM performance vehicles have skyrocketed in recent years. Depending on where you live and the import laws, you may be able to pick up an interesting, exotic and enjoyable vehicle for a great price by exploring some of the ‘unsung heroes’ of JDM history.
For example, the writer of this piece owned at various points in his life two Mazda Sentias. These were the JDM version of the Mazda 929, with higher specification than what was sold new in other countries. Both of these cars were purchased for around $3000 NZD (less than $2000 USD). Chump change for what are great vehicles with plenty of comfort, pace and grace.
Why Do People Use The Term JDM To Refer To All Japanese Cars?
Now you understand JDM’s meaning, you might be wondering why so many people seem to use the term to refer to any and all Japanese cars.
In our view, part of the reason is because the term “JDM” sounds better and cooler than just saying you have a Japanese car.
JDM as a term carries a little bit more desirability and uniqueness, which is possibly one of the reasons why people started using it.
In some respects, it’s a bit like people using the word “Sellotape” to describe sticky tape – technically Sellotape is a specific product made by a specific company, but many use the word as a generic term for any kind of sticky tape.
“Mistaken” words or phrases have a tendency to enter the popular lexicon, and be used despite being incorrect.
What Is JDM Culture?
“JDM Culture” – as a term – has a different meaning to JDM itself.
As we covered earlier, JDM refers to vehicles produced for the Japanese Domestic Market.
JDM Culture is the “automotive subculture” associated with JDM and Japanese car tuning/modification.
At a mainstream level, this term tends to refer to any kind of modification of Japanese performance cars, but there are also very specific JDM sub-cultures like bosozuku (which originally started with absurd modifications to motorcycles, but then expanded to cars as well).
However, for the majority of the population JDM culture is about owning, enjoying, and potentially modifying JDM cars, or trying to make a Japanese car produced for a domestic market be as close in spec to its JDM equivalent.
It gets a bit confusing here, as you can be a JDM car owner who isn’t into the whole JDM Culture (and there are also plenty of people into JDM Culture who don’t actually own JDM cars – they just have Japanese cars and like the idea of modifying them both in terms of appearance and performance).
There can be some overlap between JDM Culture and Ricer and/or Tuner culture.
Why Are JDM Cars Illegal?
In some jurisdictions (such as the United States) JDM cars might be – for all intents and purposes – “illegal” depending on what you are trying to import and drive on the road.
We actually have a more comprehensive piece on this very topic about to drop soon, and will update here when it’s available.
However, for now, what’s important to understand is that there are a few factors that might explain why your local legislation doesn’t allow for imported JDM cars to be driven on the road … at least not without certain conditions being met:
- In some countries, you can’t easily register and comply a car where the steering wheel is on the opposite side to most cars. For example, in the United States you drive on the right with the steering wheel on the left – which is the complete opposite to Japan. Some countries (or states/territories within countries) don’t allow for this, or at least make the compliance process very challenging. This is because having a steering wheel on the opposite side to most other road users can be a safety risk, as it makes overtaking and visibility more challenging.
- In the American context at least, safety legislation is a key factor why JDM cars are typically illegal until they have passed 25 years of age (at which point importation becomes much easier). Japanese safety standards – particularly on older cars from the 1990s and early 2000s – were quite different to many other markets, particularly for smaller cars. For example, here in New Zealand where JDM imports are common on the roads you’ll typically find that a JDM version/variant of a car has inferior safety equipment fitted. Of course once a car is 25 years old it becomes immune to being involved in any accident, so you are good to go!
- Emissions standards and requirements can vary, and a JDM-spec car may not comply with all pertinent emissions legislation in your jurisdiction.
You can read at the following link our more detailed article on why JDM cars are illegal in the United States.
Conclusion – JDM Meaning & Why It Matters
Remember that JDM means any car that was built in Japan to be sold within Japan, instead of exported overseas.
There are “true” JDM cars that were simply not intended to be sold in any guise outside of Japan (which have now found their way into countries like the USA, UK, New Zealand, Australia and Canada due to used import availability and the rules/regulations of import legislation). Kiwi readers, for example, will be familiar with JDM cars as they are such a common sight on the road here due to historical import laws that made used Japanese import cars affordable.
There are also JDM vehicles that were sold elsewhere in a domestic version, often with different specifications to suit the local market. It’s not uncommon for the JDM version of a car to be somewhat more basic in terms of interior trim, specification etc (but you might also find that the JDM version has superior performance – compare the JDM-spec 2.0 WRX STI to the US/ROW-spec 2.5 WRX STI … the JDM variant is the clear winner, but these cars tend to be much more spartan in terms of creature comforts).
The key thing to know about the meaning of JDM is: all JDM cars are Japanese, but not all Japanese cars are JDM!
This doesn’t change the fact that many people like to use the term JDM to refer to any Japanese car in general (especially the “Japanese car culture” in places like the United States). But at least you now know the true meaning of JDM, and you can be that annoying person who calls out their friend who wants to show off their totally cool JDM Corolla that was actually probably built in the United States anyway.
If you are based in New Zealand (where we are headquartered) then we suggest you have a chat to Tim from J Cars. There is nobody else we know with such a wealth of knowledge and passion for JDM vehicles – you can check out Tim’s current stock here, and he can also import to order (as well as help buyers from other countries source a JDM purchase). His blog is also worth reading for more info on JDM.
If you have any more questions on the meaning of JDM and what cars are (or aren’t) JDM, then leave us a comment below. We welcome all reader comments, both positive and negative – we look forward to hearing from you. If you’ve ever owned a JDM car – or you really want to – then share your experience as well.
Thanks for reading – hopefully you found this article interesting and it gave you a clear understanding of what the true meaning of JDM is. Next time someone tells you about their totally awesome JDM Civic they just bought brand new (with US-spec such as a left-hand drive steering wheel and MPH speedometer/odometer) you can hit them with a “truth bomb”.
If you’ve got any questions, concerns or have clarifications to make, please feel free to leave a comment below – it would be great to hear from you.