Japan is a country like no other. The small island nation of about 126 million citizens has managed to create a global impact that vastly outpaces the size and quantity of natural resources available. With a unique culture that has become immortalized in countless movies, TV shows, and novels, Japan's development has been truly remarkable.
One of the most impressive ways that Japan managed to achieve its global reach was by dominating the automotive industry in the last few decades of the 20th century. Brands like Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, and Mitsubishi established themselves as builders that prioritized the simple design of meticulously engineered cars that were efficient, reliable, and cheap.
But for all the cars Japan ships to the rest of the world, there are many that stay for the domestic market—and they have features the rest of the world would never dream of.
15 Toyota Crown Royal Saloon Dash
This 1980s-era Toyota dashboard is just about the most JDM thing ever made. Check out the early digital displays, with a tachometer that looks more like volume controls on a stereo amplifier. All the plastic looks pristine and there are approximately as many buttons as a fighter jet pilot might be accustomed to seeing.
14 Autozam AZ-1 Gullwings
Today, the Autozam AZ-1 has emerged as a favorite for collectors of cars from Japan that are now available thanks to the 25-year import law. Tiny, mid-engined, and nimble, the AZ-1 is essentially a sporty Kei car. But only in Japan would someone think that putting gullwing doors on a Kei car would be a good idea.
13 Toyota POD Concept
Concept cars are always exercises in imaginative design. After all, they're supposed to push the entire automotive industry forward into the future—even if they clearly require a ton of changes before reaching production. But as wild as concept cars in the US may be, cars like the Toyota POD Concept in Japan will always be a step beyond; is that a plunger stuck to the front?
12 Toyota Crown Athlete Dash Tray
There is a range of cars available in Japan that aren't shipped to the rest of the world. Some of them come with fancy dash trays like the one seen above, which is in a Toyota Crown Athlete. Complete with cup holders, cell phone receptacles, and even perfume or cologne slots, these would never fit into cars in the USA.
11 Taxi Doors
Most taxi cabs in Japan are still sedans, even as taxis (and ride-hailing app cars) increasingly move towards hybrid hatchbacks and crossovers. But one of the coolest features that might give visitors to the country a pleasant surprise is that taxis in Japan have a button that the driver can push to open the rear passenger door.
10 Bosozoku Mania
As if the factory features that are available on cars in Japan weren't wild enough, modding culture goes way above and beyond, solidly into the ludicrous zone. This isn't Tokyo Drift, either, this is Bosozoku, a trend that started among motorcycle crews who would get together and drive at a snail's pace on crowded highways in Japan. For cars, the style includes anime-inspired details like those seen on the Bosozoku specimen above.
9 Toyota Century
One element of car culture in Japan that would seem totally foreign to any US citizen visiting is the VIP luxury that many car owners want to experience. To the rest of the world, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan may seem like economy cars but in Japan, they actually make cars dripping with sumptuous luxury. But only in Japan would reclining rear seats be shod in cloth, not leather.
Sun shades are a standard feature in luxury cars these days and plenty of car owners who have children or pets even buy little sheets of plastic mesh with suction cups for creating a bit of respite from the sun's rays. But only in Japan do normal cars like Nissans and Toyotas come equipped with full-on curtains on curtain rods.
7 Honda Odyssey VIP
In the United States, a Honda Odyssey is a solid family minivan that combines reliability with affordable ownership. The insides are bland but functional and the outside reminds every other driver that this van won't be going fast any time soon. In Japan, though, Honda makes the Odyssey in full VIP trim, complete with burled wood, leather, and stitching.
6 Nissan President Royal Limousine
Nissan is another company that most car buyers in the United States equate with cheap, affordable commuter cars. After all, their Sentra regularly competes for the dubious title of cheapest car on the market. But yet again, in Japan, Nissan builds some luxury cars that are seriously trimmed out, including the President Royal Limousine, complete with soft seats and a wall between passengers and chauffeur.
5 Analog Stereo Controls
The dashboards and consoles of modern cars are losing all their knobs and buttons in favor of touchscreens, and Japan is no different. But only in Japan would a car have ever come with amplifier controls for a High-Fidelity sound system. Is there an actual record player in the trunk for spinning vintage LPs?
4 WiLL Vi
Before Toyota introduced their Scion sub-brand that was supposed to be "hip and cool" enough to reach a younger demographic, they tried a similar tactic in their home market of Japan. The result was a car that looks about as quintessentially perfect for the streets of Tokyo as possible, a mix between a snail, a Kei car, and an anime dream.
3 Honda N-Truck
Japan's streets can be very narrow and the government has a tiered system that taxes cars not just on their displacement but also on their exterior dimensions; this is why so many cars from Japan are narrow, tall, and underpowered. But this Honda N-Truck is just absurd—creating a lounge inside a van that's barely four feet wide will never be cozy.
2 Honda City & Motorscooter
One of the most famously hilarious cars to ever come from Japan was the Honda City, which was available with a Motocompo scooter that fit perfectly in the trunk. Presumably, this was for when one of the world's smallest cars was still too large and only a scooter would suffice for getting through the rush of traffic.
1 Honda S2000 Tach
The Honda S2000 was a car that could only come from Japan: lightweight, nimble, a VTEC inline-four, and built as solid as a rock. Still highly desirable today, for its time, the S2000 had the highest-output naturally aspirated engine, in terms of power to displacement, in the world. Part of that was its sky-high 8,000-RPM redline, which was displayed to the driver by a tachometer that was unique, to say the least.
Sources: Wikipedia, Jalopnik, and Road & Track.