Infiltrating the Japanese custom car scene with Ron Celestine
With one of the world’s most thoroughly developed public transportation systems, limited parking spaces, and high costs of ownership, owning a car is an unimaginable luxury for most Tokyoites. But delve out into suburbia and beyond, and you will see the noses of domestic vehicles poking out of cramped, single-car garages, and hear the low rumble of luxury import cars as they squeeze through narrow alleys.
As the world’s third largest auto producer in vehicle unit volume, Japan has long had a reputation for producing high quality vehicles with cutting edge technology that are desired around the world. But for some car enthusiasts in Japan, the true spirit of Japan’s automotive heritage comes in the form of mid ’90s sports cars from makers Toyota, Nissan, Subaru, Honda, and Mazda. These groups of die-hards have come together in recent years to celebrate this era of vehicles and the customisations that make them unique; in light of strict environmental and safety restrictions in modern cars, for them, the authenticity of Japanese car culture lies in taking an unwanted (and notoriously difficult to own) car from 25 years ago and making it new and special again.
Brought to light internationally in the 2006 film The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, there is now global recognition of a very unique style of vehicle customisation and modification in Japan. Relying on smaller four and six-cylinder engines augmented with turbochargers instead of high output American V8s, Japanese vehicles are characteristically smaller and more nimble than their Western counterparts, and the style of customization among Japanese enthusiasts reflects that. Flared fenders, big spoilers, and wide-piped exhaust systems, along with computer-tuned internal ECUs, help to maximise the power output and control, nicely pairing the vehicles to the twists and turns of Japan’s narrow, mountainous country roads. However, it has become harder in recent years to catch a glimpse of these cars as the scene moves further underground and the number of remaining cars (and enthusiasts) decreases.
While it can be prohibitively expensive for some young Tokyoites to get a car of their own, the car community as a whole serves to provide them with part of the car experience they desire, a glimpse of what they can attain if they work hard and save. For the youth who appreciate Japan’s cars of yesterday, the real value of vehicle ownership lies in self-expression and community, and not in rolling out of the dealership behind the wheel of a luxury auto. Hard-earned, and well-loved, the customised car is a badge of honour – proof that one is willing to sacrifice comfort (and possibly safety) in favour of being part of a tight-knit community that values cars and the people who make them unique.
With little to no collaboration between Japanese car manufacturers, enthusiasts, and the Japanese government to explore new opportunities for the auto industry to support the customisation scene, it seems doomed to slowly dwindle as fewer and fewer cars are roadworthy each year.
Since 2014, Ron Celestine, founder of www.tokyotuner.com, has been infiltrating the local scene in different cities across the nation, getting insider coverage for overseas magazines and his own website. We recently sat down with him to get a better picture of how the scene has changed over the years, where it's headed going forward, and what it is exactly that draws enthusiasts to what is ostensibly a very expensive hobby.
Note: For readers interested in trying one of the cars for themselves, Ron mentions a site, fun2drive-japan.com where customers can use their Japanese license or an international driver’s permit and rent a classic Japanese sports car for a day, taking it on a full tour of Hakone and Mt. Fuji.
What is it that makes car customization so appealing to Japanese car fans?
It’s like you’re putting your own personality, your own soul into your car. One guy I was interviewing said “it’s like an avatar, another expression of yourself,” and that’s really cool because there's so many different types of avatars that you can have. There’s millions of the same car, but once you put your soul into it, it’s just that one. And in Japan, within the car scene at least, they don’t care what other people think – they just do it. Sometimes, they don’t even care about the legality of it either.
So there’s an element of rebellion, or pushing back against cultural norms?
Yes and no… Like if you look back at the bosozoku motorcycle gangs, or the kaido racers, that type of styling, when they do it like that it’s like a push back against the typical culturally accepted style norms. But especially the guys I deal with, it’s more of just really expressing themselves. They love cars and they want something that reflects that. They’re living their hobby.
What are your thoughts on “authenticity” within the car scene?
Well, it’s about making your car more personal, more you. I know some people will do it just to be cool, saying stuff like “it looks cool, I like they way it looks,” etc., but I think that’s only the initial beginnings of interest in car customisation. But when they start to really get it, it becomes a lifestyle. It’s like it’s a bit ridiculous, but it’s your own style now.
Are there any cars in particular that are big in the tuner scene in Japan?
Definitely the (Subaru) BRZ / (Toyota) FRS, it’s kind of, right now, the only new, affordable, rear-wheel drive car. … I think Subaru and Toyota produced that car just for the enthusiasts. … There was a lack in the market, so they tried to hit that niche. Toyota already has the Camry, Prius, all that type of stuff, but they noticed there was nothing really being marketed to enthusiasts. And to be honest, there still kind of isn’t. ... We’ve got the BRZ/FRS, the Honda 660, but Mitsubishi killed the (Lancer) Evolution, there’s no more (Honda) S2000, Mazda doesn’t have anything really anymore… Subaru has the WRX still, but it’s quite expensive, and Nissan has the same problem – their 370 is priced too high for younger enthusiasts. But you can pick up a cheap ’90s sports car for nothing now. The licensing and registration costs an arm and a leg, but that’s what most people end up doing.
- Article by Colten Nahrebeski