JDM car culture has boomed in popularity in recent years.
Whereas one upon a time, domestic & muscle cars were all the rage in the American market (and they are still popular and desirable for a variety of reasons) there is no doubt that perceptions and attitudes towards Japanese performance cars have shifted.
Many now appreciate just how good Japanese cars can be, and demand for these vehicles – particularly “JDM classics” like the Toyota Supra, Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mazda RX-7 have soared in recent years.
However, if you’re based in the United States then you’ve most likely already come across the fact that getting a true JDM car on the road is tough.
In fact, you might have heard that JDM cars are actually illegal – or at the very least challenging to get on the road in America while complying with all relevant rules and regulations.
In this edition of Car Facts we are going to look at why JDM cars are illegal in the United States (at least some of them) and what you can do about it if you still want to get your hands on one. The good news is that there are legitimate strategies you can employ to get your hands on a proper JDM car, legally, in the United States.
As an adjunct to this article, you might also like to read our piece on why the Nissan Skyline is illegal for additional insight; that is a detailed article that goes into more detail about some of the issues covered in this particular piece.
Table of Contents
Refresher: The Meaning Of JDM
The proper meaning of JDM is something that we have gone into great detail about in the past on this website (read that linked article for more information).
However, to recap the key points:
- JDM – in the truest sense of the term – refers to cars that were built for sale on the Japanese domestic market (i.e. for sale via dealerships and retail channels in Japan, to Japanese buyers).
- Not all Japanese cars are JDM. Your Camry that you bought new from your local Toyota dealer? That’s not a JDM car.
- JDM cars are often different in terms of specification and trim levels. A classic example is the Nissan 300ZX (the JDM version being the Fairlady Z) where in Japan you could have the car with a hardtop/slicktop roof and a twin turbo engine, which was never possible in the United States.The steering wheel is going to be on the wrong side of the car for American roads, and the speedometer will be in KPH and not MPH.
Despite the points above, many people use the term “JDM” to refer to a general enthusiasm and passion for Japanese cars, particularly interesting and/or performance ones like the Toyota Supra, Mazda RX-7 etc.
That being said, it’s important to understand the distinction (as there is nothing illegal about a “US market” Toyota Supra MK4, whereas you might not be able to import a true JDM spec one)
Remember to read our JDM meaning guide for more detailed information on this particular topic.
Are JDM Cars Illegal?
Long story short, yes, they can be. Some are legal, but many aren’t.
In fact, if a car rolls off the production in Japan today and is sold to a Japanese customer via a domestic dealership, even though that car is brand new it probably wouldn’t be legal to import into the United States.
By “default”, JDM cars are illegal in the United States, at least until certain criteria and conditions are met.
Allow me to explain why.
Why Are JDM Cars Illegal?
In the United States, there is a law referred to as the “25 Year Rule” – more correctly the “Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act”, which was passed in the late 1980s.
Without going into the intricacies of the law, it basically means that any car less than 25 years old must comply with prevailing US law regarding crash test standards and emissions controls.
Part of the motivation for the introduction of the 25 Year Rule was to protect the domestic automotive manufacturing industry in the United States, which had been negatively impacted by people “grey importing” cars from other countries to save money.
However, there were also genuine concerns about the safety and quality of some grey market imports – with customers buying cars and receiving inferior or incorrect specification models, and compliance work being done to inadequate standards in some cases as well.
Therefore, a law was passed that ostensibly was about protecting the safety of American road users (as well as addressing environmental concerns) but the impetus also came from a perspective trade protectionism – as well as official importers/distributors of car brands like Mercedes-Benz and BMW wanting to protect their patch.
However, once a car reaches 25 years old, you can import it and not have to comply with relevant crash testing and emission control legislation (at least at a federal level, state law differences may apply – California being the most notable example where all vehicles produced from the mid 1970s onwards must comply with smog testing, which your JDM import is unlikely to pass)
Why Are Some On The Road In The US?
As the theme tune to Malcolm in the Middle told us, ‘life is unfair’ – and is there anything more unfair than seeing someone else drive around in your dream JDM car?
But how is it that some people seem to get away with driving cars that, by rights, should be illegal?
- The car is more than 25 years old, in which case it is entitled to be on the road as per the relevant act (and as long as it then complies with any local/state regulations)
- It was brought in and complied under some kind of exemption rule, such as the Show Or Display system (you can learn more about that in our article about why the Nissan Skyline is illegal in the US, as there were a number of GT-R Skylines that have come in under that system). Long story short, Show Or Display was designed as an exemption to allow vehicles of technological or historical significance to be imported for limited on-road use – but this is a challenging path to tread.
- In the case of the Nissan Skyline GT-R, there were a number of examples that were legally imported and complied by a company called Motorex. The Motorex saga ultimately ended in disaster – with accusations of fraud, dishonest compliance practices and all sorts of other shady behaviour that would actually make for a rather interesting “true crime meets performance motoring” film. You can learn more about the Motorex Skyline saga here on the Nissan Skyline GT-R registry, and this magazine article also makes for great reading.
- The car is not actually a JDM vehicle, but is instead a “USDM” car. For example, your friend who boasts about his sick JDM Miata? He’s just got a made-for-the-US market ‘Mazda Roadster’ (which is the Japanese version)
- The driver just doesn’t give two hoots about breaking the law, and is hopeful they won’t get caught or ignorant of the risks and penalties if they do get caught driving on the road. They might have ostensibly purchased for the purpose of track use, and then decide to stick some fake plates on and go for a cruise around the neighbourhood. Can anybody say “seized and impounded”?
If you are aware of any other legal pathway of getting a JDM car on the roads in the United States, then feel free to leave a comment below.
How Can I Get A Legal JDM Car?
- Import a vehicle that is older than 25 years and then go through the proper registration process, which should be easy enough because you have passed the 25 Year Rule.
- Try to get a car imported under one of the loopholes such as show and display. This is probably the most challenging and difficulty-fraught method, and is reserved for those with big budgets trying to buy truly specialist cars.
- Buy a USDM (or otherwise legal) version of the car you want, for example buying an American-new 300ZX as opposed to a proper JDM Fairlady Z. This will also make driving much easier, as the steering wheel will be on the left hand side of the car as opposed to the right hand side, the speedometer and odometer will be in MPH, and you’ll not have to worry about parts availability or issues as sometimes there can be not-so-minor differences between JDM and USDM spec cars.
- Import a car claiming it is for track use or storage only, stick some fake plates on it, and then cross your fingers that you don’t get caught (ok, maybe don’t try that – at least not on account of our advice)
- Some states have laws that allow for off-road utility vehicles to be driven on the road – sometimes ‘as is’ and sometimes with modification or speed restrictions – and this can be used to allow for the import and compliance of certain types of ‘Kei trucks’/mini trucks. Therefore, depending on where you live in the United States, it might be possible to import a proper JDM kei/mini truck that is less than 25 years old for off-road use, and then also be able to drive it on the road. You can learn more about this loophole, and the challenges you might face, here (and also the sad story of people who had their supposed exemptions cancelled)
Conclusion – Are JDM Cars Illegal & Why?
To recap, yes JDM cars are typically illegal in the United States.
This is because they do not necessarily comply with all applicable import laws, primarily relating to safety and emissions control.
However, once a JDM car reaches 25 years old it can typically be imported, owing to legislation most commonly referred to as the “25 Year Rule”. This is at a federal level, and it’s important to check for any applicable state or local jurisdiction law as well that may spoil your potential fun.
There are also some other pathways to legal import and compliance, such as the ‘Show or Display’ rule (which is meant to allow the importation of rare cars in limited numbers for show at events, auto museums, private collections etc).
Remember that many JDM cars have a USDM/other legal equivalent – such as the 300ZX versus Fairlady Z or Miata vs MX-5 Roadster – and in most instances it is easier to just buy one of those. Not only will you get a car that is definitely legal, but it will also be better suited to American roads in the sense that your car will have the steering wheel on the left hand side of the car (i.e. the correct side for driving in the United States) as well as a speedometer and odometer that are in miles per hour. With some JDM spec cars there are also engine differences that necessitate the use of higher RON fuel than might be easily available in your local area.
That being said, there are perfectly valid reasons as to why you might want to skip over a US market car and buy a proper JDM one instead:
The car you want was never available new in the United States (most kei cars, like the Suzuki Cappuccino or Mazda AZ-3 are a good example of this)
You’ve found an incredible example of your dream car and want to import it from Japan as an investment/asset/once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You want the specific JDM spec car, compared to whatever was available in the US market. For example, rather than buying an US market Acura Integra Type R, you want a Japanese-spec DC2 Honda Integra Type R. There sometimes noticeable differences ranging from exterior appearance, to interior trim, to engine and other specification changes.
Whatever your reasoning, the main consideration is how you will legally import and comply your JDM purchase.
Hopefully the resources on this site help you to understand why JDM cars are typically “illegal” in the United States, and what you can do to get one complied and on the road.
If you’ve got any questions, feel free to leave a comment below – it would be great to hear from you.
You might also like to learn more about how to import a car from Japan.