Why is it that forbidden fruit always seems to be the sweetest? Japanese and European carmakers have a habit of hiding their best work from the United States, and it doesn’t help that our import laws ban everything younger than 25 years old. Even our Canadian neighbors have a much more enlightened 15-year position. Nothing stops the march of time, though, and it’s possible to find just about anything you want on the international market.
While mail-order cars open up a world of possibilities, you’ll want a partner on-site to help with the process. That’s where companies like Japan Car Direct, with offices in Chiba and Tokyo, Japan, come into play. Their staff includes locals and American transplants. Car lovers, savvy businessmen, and vigilant auction hunters all, these are good people to know.
“I came here at 15 years old for the first time, studied in university, married a Japanese woman, have kids here, I speak fluent Japanese,” Matt Matusiak, the general operations manager at Japan Car Direct, said.
Matusiak managed an international school before his current job. Now, he facilitates the purchase and export of cars offered at auction yards and used car lots across the country. His business partner, the company's creator, got the idea to start exporting cars after reading an article about a student who won a national business plan competition for their idea to import used vehicles from Japan. Like-minded people started coming together, and Japan Car Direct was formed in 2006. Their first export was a mini truck to a family member in Canada.
Constant exposure to auction houses has predictable side effects.
“In the past year, I’ve owned five cars,” Matusiak said. “I went a little wild. I sold them, though, so I didn’t really lose any money. But I’ve had a Hiace, Kei vans, a camper–a Hiace camper as well–a Range Rover, a Suzuki Cappuccino. So I’ve also driven different kinds of Kei cars here and there. It’s been a while. I’m in the market for a new Hiace next year, so we’ll see.”
Most of Japan Car Direct’s customers are American or Canadian. That makes sense; after all, someone has to send us all the Japanese domestic market treasures that weren’t offered in North America. European, Australian, and New Zealand customers make up the rest of the company’s clientele.
While the JDM scene is typically thought of as exclusively high-strung sports cars, Matusiak said that’s not the only offering coming out of Japan.
“I’d say 30 percent of our business is Kei vehicles; little farm trucks, vans,” he said. “Then track cars like 180s, Skylines, and things like that. Luxury vehicles are probably our smallest market, I’d say. Deltas, and Alpines, or Ferraris … we do sell them but it’s definitely a small portion of our business.”
You can watch Todd and Paul tearing around in Kei cars, and going rates can have even the most financially responsible among us imagining life with a tiny imported car or truck. I’ll vouch for that temptation. I’ve driven a Toyota Hiace and a Suzuki Jimny, and they were both absolute delights.
The business of matching cars with buyers is a digital affair. The team at Japan Car Direct works remotely with the auction houses to source vehicles and place bids. On-site inspectors chase down specific cars to get a closer look and provide detailed photos. To stay on top of everything, Matusiak’s home office features three computer monitors that allow him to connect multiple buyers and sellers at once.
“It starts off with replying to everybody in the morning,” Matusiak said. “And then I take bid requests, I do translations, I do inspection reports, get the customers all the information before they head to sleep. And then, once we do win, take care of the back-end office work, winning bids, make invoices, and at the end of the day try to put some social media and call it a day after that. Usually, I’m working eight to 12 hours a day.”
This job involves a lot of multitasking, so staying organized is essential. It also requires someone who isn’t intimidated by chaos. When a customer wants a specific car, the team at Japan Car Direct has to search through hundreds or thousands of cars to find the right one, then battle it out with other bidders without breaking the budget.
“On a busy day, it can kind of sound like a stock market in here, with all the alarms and bing-bongs going on from the computer,” Matusiak said.
Each auction house is different, but some can open bidding on as many as three cars per minute. To keep up with this kind of pace, all homework has to be done ahead of time. That means clients need to provide detailed search criteria and give their liaison time to translate auction sheets, arrange photos, hire an inspector, and agree on a car to pursue.
Committing to a strategy is also important. Many clients provide high bid limits to increase their odds of success with a specific vehicle. Others place a low bid limit and allow cars to pass by until they get lucky on a bargain. How you approach the process will differ based on which strategy you choose.
The good news is that inventory is always well-stocked.
“Just at USS Tokyo every week on Thursday, there are 10,000-plus cars running through that auction,” Matusiak said. “Whatever you need, even if it’s a rare vehicle, it’ll come up at least once or twice a year, that’s for sure. It depends on what the model is. Some things take longer than others to find, but that’s just the nature of the beast.”
Japan’s culture, laws, and climate tend to produce used cars that exhibit above-average condition. Cars registered in Japan must be inspected every two years in what’s called shaken (pronounced SHOK-en), and the process goes far beyond what is required in the United States. Aside from emissions equipment, cars are inspected for things like body rust, speedometer calibration, and even torn upholstery with a requirement to repair any discrepancies. Still, there’s a big difference between a lightly used car and one that’s been on the road for more than two decades. Matusiak gets excited when he comes across an exceptionally clean car.
“Like I said, the majority of our customers are Americans, and they need vehicles that are 25 years or older to legally import,” Matusiak said. “Those cars are obviously older and can be in poor condition. But, when somebody has taken care of their vehicle very well and garaged it, it has all the maintenance and all the records, it’s just right off the showroom floor even though it’s 25 years old, that’s a good day, and a lot of people are interested.”
For Matusiak, one of the most rewarding parts of the job is getting to help other people fulfill a childhood dream. Hunting for cars across Japan might be a daily routine for him; but for his clients, it’s often a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s years in the making. Glowing thank-you letters from happy customers make all the hard work and late nights worthwhile.
For those of us who aren’t in a position to buy just yet, there is good news. Matusiak sees the current bubble of Japanese enthusiast cars lasting another 15 years, with plenty of market growth to come. Once the heyday of JDM sports cars passes, there will be a fresh crop of more modern vehicles–especially ones that use alternative power sources. One thing that isn’t expected to change is the supply of and demand for Kei cars.
Regardless of what or when you start your search, buyers and sellers alike have the same words of wisdom.
“My advice to buyers in the U.S. is to inspect your car every time before you buy it,” Matusiak said. “Always inspect, and it’ll save you headaches in the future. You can suss out things that might be wrong with it. When you import it, best to import it yourself. It’s cheaper, it’s not difficult, and we’ll guide you through it.”
That sounds like a plan to me.
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. Scott works as a freelance marketer for Dingo Productions in Fort Worth, Texas. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.