Monday, December 07, 2009


I have never understood the automobile industry in Japan. When I first came to Japan and probably even now, I noticed that there are no old cars on the streets. In Southern California there are cars that seem to be held together with rust and twine but in Japan all the cars look new. It is true that occasionally you will see a dent on a fender (and that used to be unheard of) but Japanese drive nice, well-running vehicles.

One reason is because of the sha-ken system. Sha means vehicle and ken means testing. By law all cars must be registered every two years. The car goes away for a day or two, the vehicle owner pays a horrendous fee (like a couple thousand dollars!) and the car comes back registered. Supposedly the mechanics have given the car an overhaul but that is of course extra and if the car is somewhat old then it may break down again in a couple months. I think that sha-ken must be done every year once the car is older than 12 so you can guess that most people would rather buy a NEW car than pay the exorbitant fee for just another year.

Of course, I know nothing about cars... and neither does Tetsu.

We sort of live on a shoestring and so in all the 30 years of marriage Tetsu has never bought a NEW car. We buy used cars that a dealer friend will deliver at our door and Tetsu never looks over a car, chooses between styles or even cares how the car looks or runs. We trust the dealer friend and whatever he says is available and can be used for another two years (the length of the sha-ken) then we buy. No haggling of prices, no options no accessories.

Last month Tetsu sighed and said one of our cars was up for sha-ken again. Is it worth it to pay all that money when already the back light is broken, there is a funny noise in the engine and the air conditioning is irratic? But even buying a used car is a big purchase for us. Tetsu contacted our dealer and asked him to look around for a used car again this year. And he told me that the car (the one I drive) was only registered until Saturday so he would take it in Saturday night.

Saturday evening Tetsu asked if I'd like to go with him to the dealership to return the car, pick up another one and stop off for Starbucks on the way back. I could care less about the car but yeah, a Starbucks might be nice so off we went.

And on the way Tetsu breaks the news that he is thinking about buying a NEW car! A NEW CAR?! The Watanabes have never owned a NEW car! I never thought in my life we'd own a NEW car. We are recycle shop, hand-me-down, used car people. A NEW car is a major luxury item. Is a NEW car even affordable for us? I don't think so.

It seems that the Japanese government is trying to get old cars off the street in order to cut the carbon dioxide emission percentage and for every car over 13 years old the government will give a major cash back if you buy a NEW one. (If you buy a hybrid car there is a double cash back but that is definitely out of our bounds). And Tetsu noticed all this in the morning newspaper. Of course our dealer friend had mentioned this months back but at the word NEW, Tetsu tuned the conversation out and the dealer, who has supplied us with cars for the past 20 years never really expected us to think of anything but another used car.

Of course I just thought I was along for a Starbucks and was a little put out by this turn of events. Has Tetsu thought this through? (Yeah, from earlier that morning...)

"Okay. But I'm driving your car then. You can have the NEW one. It would be too scary to be driving a NEW car."

"No. Tanya, I want you to drive the NEW car. Here. What color do you like?"

The dealer just sat back smiling saying it didn't matter to him which one of us drove the car but wasn't this a lovely lavender? Wow, this is getting to be way too affluent a conversation for me. Choose? We get to choose something?

Tetsu did think this over another night (he couldn't sleep Saturday night) and yesterday he signed papers on a NEW car. And I guess it really is going to be my car. And lavender to boot! I have a week to get used to the idea that we are going to be NEW car owners!

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