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What Is JDM?

Jesse McGraw

So, what is JDM? Car enthusiasts use the term JDM when referring to Hondas, Nissans, Toyotas, and other cars manufactured in Japan, but there’s a lot more to it than just country of origin.

The Japanese Domestic Market

If you’ve ever run across an awesome Japanese car like a Nissan Skyline GT-R, Honda NSX, or even just a quirky little kei car in the United States, you may have heard the term “JDM” thrown around. JDM stands for Japanese Domestic Market. In other words, they’re a specific model of vehicle that was only available in Japan and offered exclusively to Japanese car buyers. Some more popular brands that are considered JDM include Honda, Lexus, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Suzuki, Subaru, and Toyota. That may sound like a bunch of well-known manufacturers seen here in the US, but there is a missing chunk of recent automotive history locked away on the shores of Japan.

Whether it was emissions regulations, safety regulations, or market research driven, a lot of cool Japanese cars never make it over to the American market. Even special car parts or engine variants were never carried over to their US counterparts, making them coveted within the car community. However, due to certain importation loopholes, JDM cars and parts are making their way across the Pacific and into the hands of JDM enthusiasts. Let’s find out how JDM cars are making their way over to America and the car culture surrounding it.

How JDM Cars Get to the US

JDM cars lined up waiting for export - topranktrade.jp
JDM cars lined up waiting for export - topranktrade.jp

If you’re lucky and live in Canada, the wait time for a car to become eligible for import unrestricted is 15 years from its date of release. Meanwhile, the rest of us in the United States deal with the NHTSA, DOT, and EPA regulations, as well as the Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988 which affected grey market importing. All these rules and laws and government regulators makes importing, owning, and registering a JDM car in the states a fickle process. The best way around this is to wait out the 25-year limit set by the NHTSA in 1998 granting immunity for import vehicles from certain guidelines.

JDM imports for sale in the US - topranktrade.jp
JDM imports for sale in the US - topranktrade.jp

Now, importing may come with a lot of paperwork and a certain amount of tip-toeing around government regulations, but thankfully there are dealerships in the US that have made JDM their thing. They bring in JDM stock straight to their lot and handle all the importing and paperwork. It’ll cost a bit more than doing it yourself, but you can be sure everything was done correctly and that the car won’t be stuck in customs or lost to the shipping container maze. Plus, the car you’re looking for is probably already on their lot right here in the United States waiting for you to come get it.

The JDM Car Culture

So, what exactly makes these Japanese used cars so alluring? Sure, the cars are rare to us in the States, but why are people clamoring to get their hands on them? Here’s a look through the JDM crowd and a few different reasons they’re snagging up JDM cars as quickly as they can.

Japanese Car Care and Rules

Toyota Century on the streets of Japan - markriccioni.co.uk
Toyota Century on the streets of Japan - markriccioni.co.uk

Like in the US, owning a car in Japan connotes social status. Having the newest and cleanest looking car shows others that you’re successful, while having a used disheveled-looking car is frowned upon. Because Japanese cars basically show off your economic and social standing to others, people tend to keep them clean inside and out. Plus, the typical car owner in Japan rarely actually drives. People in Japan choose to walk, bike, or take the train to get where they need to go, rather than drive themselves. That is why so many of the 25-year-old cars coming from Japan have far less than 100,000 miles on them.

Japanese car owners also endure Japan’s shaken. The shaken is a shortened term for Japan’s stringent automobile inspection registration system. The mandatory inspection takes place every two years for car owners. This inspection ensures that the car meets strict requirements on emission, safety, maintenance, and checks that illegal modifications haven’t been performed on the car. If the car cannot meet these standards, then a red sticker is applied and it is thus labled illegal to drive. If the car passes, then the owner has to pay a paperwork fee, inspection fee, compulsory vehicle insurance, and a vehicle weight tax – the last of these is why Japan has an affinity for tiny cars.

Japanese cars enduring the shaken process - readyseatbelt.com
Japanese cars enduring the shaken process - readyseatbelt.com

So, what does all this mean for people looking to import? Well, the shaken encourages Japanese car owners to purchase newer cars rather than continue to pay for upkeep and fees on their used cars. This leaves a ton of used cars for sale ready to export with exteriors and interiors in good condition, low mileage in comparison with the US used market, and regular maintenance performed in order to allow it to drive in japan. Now, that doesn’t mean every single Japanese import won’t have any flaws or issues, but it should keep potential buyers’ minds at ease.

The Tuner Community

Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 - markriccioni.co.uk
Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 - markriccioni.co.uk

Another big part of the JDM lifestyle is tuning. While America was obsessed with getting the best straight-line performance out of their Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Corvettes at the drag strip, Japan was modifying their Toyota Corollas and Nissan Fairlady Zs to compete on winding roads. Lowered aftermarket suspensions, aftermarket exhausts, big spoilers, widebody kits, and tuned engines both under the hood and on the computer. These Japanese tuners do everything to give their cars the fastest acceleration and best handling. They show off their efforts at meets or take their cars to the track and drift their projects sideways through the turns.

If you’ve ever seen the early Fast and Furious movies, like Tokyo Drift, then you know it isn’t just about performance, these tuners make their cars really stand out. While some keep the exterior rather simplistic, others let their imaginations run wild. Colorful graphics, intensive vinyl wraps, custom paint jobs, neon under glow, high-end rims, sticker bombed body parts, stanced wheels; the list customizations of just goes on and on. This culture isn’t limited to only well-known sports cars, either. There are some interesting kei cars, like the Daihatsu Hijet, that have been modified into real pieces of art.

The eccentric tuner culture didn’t contain itself to Japan however. Popular media like the Midnight Club video games, the Initial D anime series, and the aforementioned Fast and Furious series picked up on the tuner lifestyle, further promoting the phenomenon of JDM outside of Japan. Nowadays it’s hard to not see (or hear) a Subaru or Toyota driving down the street in the States with the same Japanese tuner inspired designs. Although, they are much cooler when the car is truly a Japanese Domestic Market import, rather than an American Domestic Market Honda Civic with a “brapping” exhaust mounted to it.

The JDM Car Culture

JDM cars at the track - markriccioni.co.uk
JDM cars at the track - markriccioni.co.uk

The Japanese Domestic Market is waiting and open to you. Feel free to pick your next project car that’s imported straight from Japan, with certain exceptions I previously stated, and customize it to your heart’s content. So, what will it be? The Toyota Corolla AE86, Nissan Skyline GT-R, Toyota Supra, Honda Civic Type-R, Mazda RX-7, or do you have something else in mind? I know I’m more in the market for a Nissan Silvia S12 personally. Whatever JDM it is, you’ll be welcome with open arms to a community that loves to talk to you about your imported car and what you’ve had done under the hood.

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Jesse McGraw
Jesse McGraw

Jesse's life-long car obsession began when he started collecting Hot Wheels as a child. He’s constantly keeping up with the latest car news and diving deep into automotive history. His automotive journey began with a rusty ‘99 Dodge Dakota held together by zip ties, only recently replaced by an impeccable 2014 Kia Soul. You can find him modifying and racing cars in video games when he’s not playing paintball or writing about cars.

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