Five days after arriving in Japan, we took the Army’s mandatory half-day driving class. The class ended with a driver’s test (perfect score, thank you very much). At lunch, we went and bought two cars.
Neither of us are the type to make big ticket purchases on impulse. Yet we literally did no more than walk the dealer lot, find a few cars that caught our eye, started them to make sure they worked, and then plunked down a big stack of cash (yes, a big stack of paper money). We didn’t even take them for a test drive. Looking back, this seems crazy.
We didn’t have a lot of time to waste and used cars in Japan are cheap. There are a few reasons why. First is that there’s a mandatory system of inspections that are every three years for new cars but switch to annual inspections once a car turns 10. These inspections are notoriously difficult to get through and often require significant repairs on otherwise good cars to pass. Second, taxes go up as a car ages. A 10 year old car can get up to a 50% additional surcharge on taxes. And finally, there are tax incentives to drive a more efficient (and newer) car. It seems that many Japanese view their cars the way we view our cell phones – we rarely pay for them up front and instead see them as a depreciating asset that we pay monthly for.
The result of all of this is that the used car market here is very soft. Once a car becomes 10 years old, it often gets sent to auction or scrap because it’s cheaper just to buy a new car. These cars were often owned as “weekend drivers” (why drive to work when you can take a great train?) with low miles that are in like-new condition. With a SOFA status visa, we don’t have to do the inspections or pay the tax (we do have to do a Military inspection and buy additional insurance). This means we are able to own older cars much more cheaply than the locals.
We bought our two cars from a dealer outside the gates of Naval Air Facility Atsugi called Wellcham. Their entire business is selling cheap used cars to Americans. They buy their cars at auction (where they are able to pretty much get the best pick), do a quick inspection on them, and then turn them around to people like us. They handle all of the details, including titling the car, securing JCI (Japan compulsory insurance), taking the car to the base Land Title Office for inspection, and delivering the car to you. There’s no haggling, no nonsense, no “let me talk to the sales manager”, and in our case, no test drives (hope that works out okay).
So what’d we get? We ended up with a 2005 Nissan Lafesta (it’s a small minivan – gulp) and a 2005 Nissan Note (it’s a hatchback similar to a VW GTI). Each has about 30k miles. Somehow I ended up with the minivan and Stacy got the fun-to-drive hatchback. Total cost, including all taxes, registration, and two years of insurance: $6200.