Cars do not figure big in the daily life of the Kariya/Porritt family, especially since moving to Rokko Island, where everything we need is just a few minutes away on foot, including a train station linking us to the rest of Japan via the world's most efficient transportation system.
We've mostly made do with used cars given to us by friends or family. Our current car -- a 12-year-old Toyota Mark II -- was given to us by Yoko's father about 7 years ago when he got a new car. It has more than adequately filled our very limited need for automotive transportation.
Yoko is what they call a 'paper driver', meaning she has a license but no practical driving experience. That makes Steve the family's designated driver.
Alas, Steve hates driving in Japan. Japanese drivers are astoundingly inconsiderate and completely blind, brain-dead and downright dangerous in their driving habits. There is not one set of timed signals in the entire country, much less a rudimentary traffic flow control system, and since Japan has traffic lights like other countries have trees, driving at all times is literally 'stop and go', with traffic jams that expand and contract as holidays and weekends come and go, but never, ever, disappear. (Sixty kilometer long traffic tie-ups are normal during peak travel times!)
No, driving in Japan is a great way to test the effectiveness of a 12-step stress management program, but fun? Nope. So Steve tries to spend as little time as possible behind the wheel. The three kids, jammed shoulder to shoulder in the back seat, didn't care for car trips, either.
The result was, the car was driven only once or twice a month, sometimes less. Not worth the $200 we pay each month to park the thing at the building. In fact, Steve and Yoko had recently been discussing getting rid of the car altogether.
So when the in-laws offered to buy us a new car, Steve's first reaction was, "???".
Well, there are still occasions when driving is more convenient than taking a train. Going to the in-laws, for example. (90 minutes door to door by car via a $30 toll road that is also nearly door to door, versus 2-1/2 hours, nearly $200, and several transfers by train and taxi.) So we gratefully accepted the offer and started looking at the possibilities.
Now despite having lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, Steve was not prepared for the new car shopping experience. It wasn't sticker shock -- he's lived here long enough to be well acquainted with Japanese prices. No, it was culture shock.
Point one: the Japanese do not 'shop' for a new car. Although attitudes are changing, many families are still fiercely brand loyal, so they will be either a "Toyota' family or a 'Nissan' family or whatever. That narrows the choices down considerably.
There is also a well defined social structure to car ownership. Your company/social rank pretty much defines what class of car you can buy. Buying above or even below your rank risks criticism from your colleagues and neighbors. This, too, narrows the choices.
So in the end, only a few carefully targeted models are available to the brand-loyal, socially sensitive car buyer. Thus, many people end up determining the socially appropriate model in their 'family brand' catalog and placing the order. Very little time is spent in a car showroom, mainly just picking out options and 'negotiating' the standard discount.
So when Steve visited several dealers of each of the major car manufacturers and spent a couple of hours at each discussing models, options and prices, he was definitely not doing it the Japanese way.
He, on the other hand, was not expecting to have the dealers he visited later show up at his door with cars outside for his perusal, which the Toyota guy did. Nor have the Honda dealer show up at his door on a Sunday night, just hours after visiting the Honda showroom, in order to personally bring a reduced estimate. Unlike Japanese drivers, Japanese car dealers are amazingly considerate and polite.
Out with the old...
In with the new...
At the grandparents' home in Gobo...
At the Kobe Arboretum. Note the StepWgn next to ours.
Moreover, Japanese cars do not go through yearly model changes. Instead, the model is entirely revamped every 6 years or so. In the meantime, they regularly introduce new sets of options and colors to 'refresh' the model. Confusing? It was to Steve. It helps explain the almost total lack of a used car market in Japan. How could you tell how old the car was?
Finally, a choice was made (Honda StepWgn minivan) and the papers were signed. It's a Deluxee -- a new 'refresh' package for the 2nd year of this popular model. ("Deluxee?", you say, barely suppressing a giggle. Well, it could have been worse. The other option package was called the Whitee!)
"Signing the papers" doesn't begin to describe the process of actually taking possession of our new car. In Japan, you can't buy a car without proving that you have an official, documented space to park it. That involved trips to the Rokko Island city office and our building's management office armed with a pile of papers and drawings of the parking space and environs, all of which need official stamps. If you already own a car, you must also prove that you have legally disposed of it prior to obtaining the new car. This is another set of documents.
Moreover, as a 'gaijin,' I also had to submit documents proving my legal residence in Japan. And being a 'gaijin,' I don't have an officially registered 'hanko' (Japanese name stamp), so I needed to get notarized copies of my signature. Both sets of papers entailed small fees and two trips to the local ward office. (Because the car's move to Rokko Island was not officially noted on one of the papers, I needed to first update the documentation, then get a new set of documents; all for a car that we would soon be giving up!)
The dealer also had to obtain on our behalf a larger stack of papers from various agencies related to car safety, licensing, etc. The new car must also be registered with the police, who issue their own small mound of paperwork and a stack of stickers that must be affixed to precise locations on the car's windows. The taxes and fees associated with obtaining these documents amounted to nearly $4,000, a robust fraction of the total car price.
Armed with this mass of documentation, I was finally able to prove that I was, indeed, capable and worthy of owning a car.
Then came Culture Shock part II. The Honda dealer suggested that late afternoon -- after the kids got out of school -- would be a good time to hand over the keys as there would still be plenty of light for picture-taking! It seems that, in Japan, a new car is bought only once every 4-10 years, so it is quite an event.
Moreover, because the new car is usually better than the old one, it symbolizes an upward step in social position. Steve, however, with fond memories scooting around Hawaii in his little British sports cars, is not sure how a minivan, especially one full of kids, enhances HIS social position.
|As part of the ceremony, we had our picture taken with our personal dealer representative as well as with the dealer manager and the secretary. The pictures were delivered in a frame emblazoned with the Honda logo.|
|We also received a box of spaghetti emblazoned with the Honda logo, and two key chains.|
And finally, when Steve turned over all three keys to the old car, our dealer returned two to us as mementos! Yes, buying a new car in Japan is quite a bit different than in America.
So here you are. The official pictures from the Kariya-Porritt's new car ceremony. Enjoy!