Japan is an island nation known the world over for its peculiar, insular tendencies. Perhaps in no industry is Japan's unique culture more apparent than the automotive world, where the country has contributed far beyond its fair share in terms of design, engineering, and overall ethos.
Today, it's hard to go twenty feet on any road in the world without spotting a Japanese car. Meanwhile in Japan, it's much more rare to see an American car (though Korean cars are relatively popular). The Japanese automotive market is all kinds of strange, though, dictated by taxes and a consumer base that are totally different from the rest of the world.
Subaru bros and Fast and Furious fans might boast about their cars being JDM, or Japanese Domestic Market, mod-jobs until their voices go hoarse but in reality, JDM means something else entirely in Japan itself.
Keep scrolling for 16 things about JDM cars that make no sense.
16 So Tiny
The acronym JDM probably makes most gearheads think of all the sick sports cars they saw in The Fast and the Furious that aren't available legally in the United States. But in reality, just like in the US, most cars in Japan are bland commuter cars. Except for the fact that kei cars are tiny, cute versions of commuter cars that are absurdly sized, that is.
15 The Gentleman's Agreement
One of the reasons there are so many tiny kei cars in Japan is that the government taxes vehicles based on just about everything, including exterior size. But they also tax on horsepower output, which led Japanese manufacturers to make a "Gentleman's Agreement" that all their sports cars would be officially rated at 276 horsepower, even when they were cranking out way more.
14 So Fancy
In the United States, brands like Honda, Toyota, and Nissan produce cheap economy cars for the masses, while their upscale subsidiaries Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti produce luxury versions. But in Japan, the distinctions are far less clear and VIP versions of Toyotas like the one pictured above can be as luxurious as Rolls-Royces or Bentleys.
13 Weak Engines
One silly detail about taxation and kei cars in Japan surrounds their tiny, weak engines. Now, these engines will run forever thanks to Japanese engineering and build quality, but they're weak to stay in lower tax brackets. But weaker engines then have to be run harder to keep up with the cars around them, so the authorities would probably do better to relax the standards a bit.
12 Ship Them Abroad
For fans of JDM sports cars, every passing year means that another make or model might be available in the US thanks to the 25-year rule. But we're still a ways from getting the likes of a first-gen Subaru WRX STI, which is definitely annoying. Japanese manufacturers clearly misread the US market when they didn't ship these cars over here originally.
11 Turbos Galore
In the United States, there's no replacement for displacement—just look at the massive V8 engines powering the Mustang, Camaro, Charger, and Challenger these days. And yet, turbos and superchargers have slowly crept into the mix recently, while in Japan, manufacturers have been bolting turbos onto anything with a spark plug for decades.
10 Hi-Fi Stereo
Driving around in Japan can be an eye-opening experience for anyone who loves cars. First off, there are so many unique designs that just don't exist anywhere else. Then, there are the wild interiors, some of which feature sick dashboards and instrument clusters like the one above, which has very specific hi-fi sound controls.
9 Special Editions
Everyone knows that Honda made some amazing special-editions of cars like the Civic and Integra—but few people realize that in Japan, there are even better versions. Case in point is the Acura Integra GS-R, which is a step above the increasingly collectible Type R that we received here in the United States.
8 Modded, Bro
For plenty of less-educated drivers in the US, JDM just means that a car from Japan has been souped up. But that's not accurate. JDM means that either the entire car or specific parts used when modifying the car were made specifically for the Japanese Domestic Market, and not ever shipped to the US during their production run.
7 Pickup Trucks
In the US, everyone loves Japanese pickup trucks. The Tacomas and Tundras from the late 1990s and 2000s still run today with little more than routine oil changes. But in Japan, pickup trucks look totally different. Little trucks like the Suzuki above are much more common, being able to negotiate narrow streets while remaining in lower tax brackets.
Taxi cabs in Japan are a completely different experience than in American metropolises like New York City. In Japan, instead of being filthy, stinky, huge cars, Taxis are clean, manicured, and luxurious. The drivers are even courteous, which would shock anyone from Manhattan. But the best part? The rear doors swing open at the touch of a button by the driver.
Many of the JDM products that make no sense to the rest of the world surround the taxation levels that the Japanese government has imposed on the automotive industry. The result has been some creative vehicles, like the cute Nissan Figaro above, but for the most part, the tax laws could use a major change.
4 Godzilla Spotting
In Japan, Godzilla either refers to a monster in the movie theater or, more likely, a monster of a car that was built by Nissan. Over the course of its lifespan and more than a few iterations, the Skyline GT-R was simply a beast. With a twin-turbocharged inline-six sending power to all four wheels, the car couldn't be beat—and yet it was a JDM-specific vehicle that Nissan didn't try to ship to America.
3 Right-Hand Drive
Why does Japan drive on the left side of the road, with their steering wheels on the right side of the passenger compartment? Well, it all goes back to when samurai would walk around with swords on their hips—and they didn't want their swords to bump against each other accidentally. But that's a pretty strange reason to drive on the other side, especially if it contributes to JDM cars not being produced for the American market.
2 Really? Gullwings?
One of the most unique kei cars ever built is the Autozam AZ-1. Autozam was a subsidiary of Mazda and the AZ-1 was a little sports car built from 1992 to 1994. No, it was never particularly powerful but it was mid-engined with a 12-valved, turbocharged inline-three. The wildest detail was, undoubtedly, the completely unnecessary gullwing doors, though.
1 Diesel, Please!
American pickup truck manufacturers Ford, Chevy, and Dodge all make their trucks with beefy diesel engines, even if diesel is much less popular in the US than abroad. Volkswagen was making inroads into the American diesel market, too, until their scandal. But the rest of the world, including Japan, uses diesels in many more vehicles, including the Hilux Surf above, which is just a 4Runner with RHD and a diesel engine.
Sources: IMDb, The News Wheel, and Wikipedia.