Did you grow up on an unhealthy diet of Gran Turismo and Tokyo Xtreme Racer? Maybe you spent a little too much time watching Best Motoring videos on YouTube? Can you run a virtual lap around Tsukuba with your eyes closed? Every time you buy a block of tofu, do you ponder how it was delivered to the store?
If so, you might be suffering from an unhealthy obsession with JDM motoring, a certain affinity for specialty models of cars available only on the Japanese domestic market. Don't worry, you're in good company, and I'm here to tell you there's a cure. It's a little complicated and occasionally terrifying, and it's liable to be quite expensive, but with many of those JDM queens now turning 25, it's easier than ever to put a piece of forbidden fruit right in your garage.
Join me as I tell you some key pointers on importing. And along the way, you get to watch me go through the process myself, importing my own dream machine from half-way around the globe.
Gallery: Importing Your JDM Dream Car Series
I was bitten by the bug myself in college, too many hours spent scrolling through the markets in Gran Turismos 1 and 2, amazed at the special editions of stunning cars I had no idea existed in the real world. Between that and a similar volume of time spent in both Colin McRae and Sega Rally, I quickly developed a fondness for Subarus.
I'm dating myself here, but the Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS was newly available and my local Subaru garage had a beautiful World Rally Blue coupe sitting on gold wheels right there in the showroom. I left no shortage of nose prints on the windshield but, no matter how I did the math, I couldn't afford it. I did get a chance to test drive one, though, and the performance of that 165-horsepower flat-four really blew my mind.
For a country kid up to my eyeballs in college debt, surely sliding around in Gran Turismo would be as close as I'd ever get to driving a Subaru WRX STI Type R.
Imagine my surprise when I saw what looked like the same car in Gran Turismo 2, only here it had 276 horsepower – and a much longer name. It was the Subaru WRX STI Type R Version 4 V-Limited. It looked more or less the same as the American-market 2.5 RS but had a far more advanced drivetrain setup, better seats, and plenty of extra badging to match. I was in love, but for a country kid up to my eyeballs in college debt, surely sliding around in Gran Turismo would be as close as I'd ever get to driving one.
Fast-forward 20-odd years and I needed myself a new car for ice racing. I'd been lucky enough to race a number of rusty Imprezas on the frozen lakes of New York over those two decades. My then-current ride, a black 2004 STI, was so rotted out I was convinced the thing would break in two the next time I found my way into a snowbank.
Pondering replacements, I started getting some bad thoughts about what might be legal to import. The Subaru Impreza WRX STI Type RA was newly import-legal, and with its light weight and fancy differentials, it would make for a perfect ice racer. The only problem? This is admittedly petty, but visually they just didn't do much for me. Most were painted white, since they were destined to be stickered up anyway, and all were sedans. I had my heart set on blue and the few blue ones that came up for auction kept going for increasingly high prices. I bid on a few and missed out on every one.
Soon, my eyes started to wander into what was coming down the pike, cars that weren't legal for import yet but soon would be. The Impreza WRX STI was first made into a coupe 1998, I knew. One night I looked for what was available, and pretty soon my heart was set on something a little bit different.
USA import rules and classifications are extremely complicated and this isn't intended to be a comprehensive run-down. Generally, though, foreign cars that were never officially certified for US streets are only legal for import into the US under very strict exemptions.
Kit cars and major components of imported cars (up to about half of the car) can be brought into the US at any time. However, fully functional cars can typically only be imported after 25 years have passed from their date of manufacture. There are exceptions to this, like the notorious show and display certification, but those are generally hard to get (read: expensive) and often of dubious legality.
USA import rules and classifications are extremely complicated and this isn't intended to be a comprehensive run-down.
Because of the difficulty of importing them to the US, cars younger than 25 tend to be more affordable. But, once that magic date has passed, their price usually increases. If you can find yourself something choice and keep it safe overseas for a few years, you might just save yourself some money.
How do you find something? That's where it gets fun. Japan runs a series of auctions for its cars, which, if you're feeling dangerous, you can browse online. It's a little like cruising through the used car market in Gran Turismo. The difference here is the money is real and the cars aren't immaculate, shining examples. They are used cars, many of which have already been sitting in warehouses for decades.
As with all used cars, condition is key, but how do you tell the condition of a car that's on the other side of the globe? Well, every Japanese auction has an associated auction sheet, a one-page report listing every ding, defect, and flaw plus an overall, numerical rating. You also get maybe a half-dozen (low-quality, as shown in the gallery above) photos and... yeah, that's about it. It is possible to hire people to inspect these cars for you, but those inspections will be cursory at best.
Seem risky? It is. I frankly was losing sleep when I was going through the bidding process myself, but it's important to know that the information on these sheets is very strict. This isn't a Craigslist posting written by an overly attached former owner. This is a minute listing of every visual and mechanical defect, culminating in a reliable final rating. Japan Car Direct has a great rundown on how to decipher the sheet, but the most important thing to remember is that those sheets can generally be trusted.
It is possible to hire people to inspect these cars for you, but those inspections will be cursory at best.
Seem risky? It is.
Want to bid? Great, now you need an agent to handle the particulars. And the exporting. And, if you want something that's not 25 yet, you'll need someone to handle the storage in Japan, too. More and more places are willing to handle all that for a fee that will add something between 10 and 20 percent to the cost of the vehicle.
Again, it's possible to do much of this yourself if you really want to, but unless you like running the risk of your car being impounded and potentially destroyed as soon as it arrives at the dock, I highly recommend getting some professional help.
That's what I did. I was recommended to a service called The Import Guys, and their agents not only kept an eye out for auctions of cars relevant to my interests, but lined up storage for me. Once my car is legal, they'll handle all the shipping and legal acrobatics as well.
Things To Watch Out For
As mentioned above, many of these cars have sat in storage for years, maybe even decades before going up for auction. Why? Because it's inordinately expensive to run old cars in Japan. Depreciation is far more extreme than in the USA. However, hang on to specialty cars long enough, until some middle-aged American comes along with a bit of disposable income and a penchant for big wings, and those cars can pay off nicely.
After all those years sitting dormant, oil leaks are extremely common, but most importers will address that for you. Tires, too, will likely be ancient and hard as a rock, so be prepared for that. A new battery will also be a must. You should have a good idea about the visual condition of the car from the auction sheet, but pieces of trim may be faded or cracked after sitting in the sun.
So, what did I wind up getting? It's a 1998 Subaru WRX STI Type R Version 4 Spec V.
Now, I probably don't need to say this, but you may recall that tuning cars was a somewhat popular endeavor in Japan in the late '90s, so scour the photos for signs of things like intakes, exhausts, boost controllers, or turbo timers. There's a good chance whatever you get will have something aftermarket on it.
Finally, and most worryingly, there's one thing you can't see: smell. While smoking rates in Japan are going down, when these cars were new a whopping one-third of Japanese adults smoked. One in three! That means there's a good chance your car will have been smoked in. That's a hard thing to avoid, so maybe start looking into deodorizing treatments now.
So, what did I wind up getting? It's a 1998 Subaru WRX STI Type R Version 4 Spec V. Yes, a 1998, made the same year as that 2.5 RS I was formerly ogling at my local Subaru dealership. This one has had a few visual updates, including a 22B-style rear wing and some gold wheels that I'll probably swap with the factory ones as soon as it gets home. (Fun fact: the stock STI wheels that year are the same ones that came on the 1998 2.5 RS in the USA.)
That STI made 276 horsepower when new, but mine has clearly had some sort of mild tuning action, so who knows what it's putting down now. Likewise, it's anyone's guess how well that motor has held up. But, it's a grade 4, which is about as good as it gets for a car of that vintage, and other than some minor scuffs and scratches seems to be in good shape. Regardless, I am overjoyed to get it home. It officially turns 25 in March of 2023 and I've been assured it'll arrive in the US not long after that.
But me, well, I'm a little impatient, see. So, before the car comes here I'm going to go to it. Japan's borders are finally open again and by the time you read this I'll be in Tokyo, where I'm very excited to see my JDM dream car in the flesh for the first time. Did I make a huge mistake? Is it going to be a total basket case? Tune in next time to find out.