Why Do Used Japanese Cars Have Such Low Mileage?

If you’ve looked at a used Japanese import car at a local dealer (or you’re considering importing one yourself from Japan – read our guide on how to do this here) then you may have noticed that many Japanese cars seem to have low mileage on export.

While you can definitely find higher mileage examples (and here in New Zealand where the editing team is based, you will certainly find plenty of higher mileage used Japanese imports) you can also find a great number of cars with very low miles for their age.

But why do used Japanese cars sometimes have low mileage?

In particular, why do they sometimes have low mileage relative to the age of the car?

There are a few reasons why used cars exported out of Japan often have few miles/kilometres on the clock.

One reason is that in metropolitan/urban Japan (e.g. Tokyo) it is generally more convenient for people to take public transport. An individual may own a car but only for infrequent use and longer journeys, or where public transport is otherwise impractical or unavailable. Many Japanese car owners do not use their car every day (one of the Garage Dreams editing team has lived on and off in Japan for a few years now and can confirm this; and it was also his own experience – the car was not for daily use)

Because Japan is not as “car-centric” as say the United States when it comes to personal transport, there is also a tendency towards cars being owned by those of higher socioeconomic status. This – in turn – means that the people who are likely to buy cars are more inclined to buy newer models when they come available … which leads us on to our last reason (and the most important one).

The Impact Of Shaken On Used Japanese Car Prices

If you have read our article on why used Japanese cars are so cheap (or our guide to importing a car from Japan) you will have learned about the “Shaken” system.

This is the rigorous bi-annual inspection and certification process that Japanese cars must go through in order to be allowed on the road.

When you buy a new car in Japan, it has three years of Shaken/registration, which then must be renewed every two years thereafter. Business vehicles must renew their shaken every year.

We are working on a more detailed explanation of the Shaken process (as it is a bit of an opaque topic for Westerners to understand) but for the purpose of this article we will stick with a simple explanation.

Long story short, the older a car becomes in Japan, the more expensive it becomes to keep on the road – not just in terms of maintenance but also in terms of simply keeping up with the Shaken requirements so that the vehicle can legally go on the road.

Compounding this cost is the fact that in Japan you pay vehicle tax based on the curb weight of the car, as well as the fact that compulsory insurance (that tends to become more expensive as a vehicle gets older) can cost as much as ten times what you might expect to pay in the United States.

Because of the unique combination of the rigorous Shaken system, compulsory insurance that gets more expensive as a vehicle ages, additional taxes based on vehicle weight, Japanese car owners tend to swap out their cars relatively early.

Once a car gets more than several years old, it can often be comparable in price (and a lot less hassle) to go and buy a new vehicle. Sometimes it can even be less expensive to buy a new car than keep your current one on the road.

There is definitely more to the Shaken story than what we mentioned above, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface on the complexities of Japan’s vehicle tax and insurance systems – but for the purposes of this article the explanation should suffice.

Basically, Japanese cars often have low mileage when exported out of the country because the previous owner didn’t want the cost and hassle of keeping it on the road.

Astute readers will no doubt have realised that although Shaken has clear benefits for the safety of Japan’s motor vehicle fleet and road users, another key driver of the system is that it provides stimulus to the Japanese car industry. Basically, the law has created a scenario in which it is often easier and financially more favorable for the Japanese car buyer to replace his or her car on a more regular basis than might be the case in the United States or other Western countries. This means Japanese car manufacturers get to sell more cars on the domestic market due to increased demand for new cars.

And guess what happens with the used cars?

While many are kept in the Japanese market and on-sold second hand (with the appropriate Shaken inspections etc) many are also exported overseas, and because this tends to happen relatively early in the car’s life AND in a country where vehicles don’t tend to do massive mileage compared the United States and other Western countries, this is why used, exported Japanese cars often have low mileage on the clock!

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