Despite the cultural shift, the country is still one of the beating hearts of the industry

Japan is known for a lot of things. From its incredible food to its hilarious game shows, every corner of culture is occupied, in some capacity, by Japanese culture. That sentiment holds in the world of cars.

Japan is home to some of the biggest automakers in the world. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Mazda all call the Land of the Rising Sun home. Japan’s status as one of the epicenters of the automobile industry is a big part of the country’s vibrant and undeniably unique car culture. That extends to all sorts of aspects of the car world, whether it’s manufacturing, innovation, motorsports, and yes, even street racing.

Understanding Japan’s car culture and how it has evolved through the years requires a look into all these aspects, though it’s largely through the spectacle of street racing where we can see a big part of this cultural shift. There’s obviously more to it than that, but it’s still one of the best places to start if we’re going to talk about the how Japan’s car culture has changed over the years.

The Otaku Culture

Before we can talk about how Japan’s car culture has changed over the years, it’s important to establish why there’s a car culture in the first place. One reason a lot of people have brought up pertains to a specific Japanese attribute called “otaku culture.”

On the surface, the word “otaku” translates to “nerd” or geek.” But there’s more to it than that, too. “Otaku” also refers to someone who is extremely enthusiastic about something. It’s not enough that a person is passionate about something; he also has to be extremely knowledgable about the things that he’s passionate about. In other words, this specific cultural trait among the Japanese is a key driving force in the growth of car culture in the country. The Japanese don’t just love cars; they know their way around them, too.

The Birth of Drifting

There are certain moments in a country’s car culture that you can look back on and identify as a flashpoint moment that helped establish, or at least strengthened that country’s obsession for anything four-wheeled.

Over in Japan, the emergence of drifting played a huge role in strengthening the country’s car culture in the 1970s. We’re all aware these days of what drifting is, but a lot of people don’t know that the art of controlled — and sustained — oversteer traces its roots to Japan, specifically to a man named Kunimitsu Takahashi, a popular motorcycle racer in the 1970’s who turned to car racing.

As the story goes, Takahashi struggled to adapt to four-wheeled racing so he employed a move that involved sliding his car through corners like a rally racer.

The move, which we know now as drifting, not only helped Takahashi win races, but he started winning in crowd-pleasing fashion. It didn’t take long for other Japanese drivers to start emulating his driving style, including one racer who would come to be known as Drift King.

Drift King

If you’ve seen Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, you know that a big part of the movie’s plot revolved around Sean Boswell’s - the character played by Lukas Black — ascent to become the new Drift King. That’s great and all, but as good as Boswell was in the movie, he’s still no match for the real Drift King, Keiichi Tsuchiya.

The Western world may not be familiar with Tsuchiya, but the man is an icon in Japan, largely because of his mastery of drifting that earned him the moniker “Drift King.”

Tsuchiya took on the challenge of mastering drifting in his racing by using Takahashi’s drifting techniques and making them more polished and sophisticated. Tsuchiya’s star exploded in 1987 when a video of him drifting his AE86 Toyota Levin was released. It didn’t take long for drifting to become so popular in Japan among racers and car enthusiasts that it became the go-to racing form in the country’s burgeoning street racing craze of the 1980s.

The Rise of Street Racing

With the growing popularity of drifting, the Tokyo street racing scene exploded in the 1980s. While the drag race largely defines U.S. street racing, the Japanese took advantage of their massive freeway loops to engage in what was called “max velocity” runs.

The most famous of these road stretches is Wangan or the Bayshore Route, a bypass route in Tokyo that connected other nearby cities along the coast. The route connects islands by tunnels and bridges, and the area was relatively empty at midnight, making it the ideal location for street racing.

Winning those races required more than just a fast car; skill was important, too. Drifting became an important tool in winning those max velocity runs. As more and more racers started competing in those street races, racing clubs started to form, including what became the most famous racing club in Japan at that time: the Midnight Club.

The Midnight Club

A lot has been said about the Midnight Club and the influence it had during the heyday of Japanese street racing in the 1980s and 1990s.

Formed in Tokyo in 1987, the Midnight Club was the premiere tuning club in Japan until it disbanded in 1999. It’s been said that membership in the club required owning a car that was capable of hitting at least 160 mph.

Prospective members also had to spend a year as “apprentices” attending all the meetings the club held, and after participating in all of that, they only had a 10 percent chance of making it onto the club. Once members make it, they had to adhere to a strict set of rules that, ironically, prioritized safety above everything else.

The Midnight Club became so famous in Japan that other clubs were formed on the shadow of the group. Being a part of a club was equated to being part of a sports team. You competed in races together and you helped other members improve their cars and their skills before they competed in any of the street races that were happening at that time.

Law Enforcement Crackdown

Street racing in Japan reached its apex in the 1980s and 1990s, but like most golden ages, there’s a start and an end to it. For Japanese street racing, the end began in the latter part of the ’90s when law enforcement authorities started cracking down on street racing. Between a few high-profile incidents — including one that caused the end of the Midnight Club — and inherent dangers of the sport, the police began going after street racers, slapping them with heavy fines and potential jail time if they were caught. Likewise, local governments adopted traffic laws that prevented street racers from going about their business the way they used to.

The demise of the Midnight Club closed the chapter on Japan’s golden age of street racing. According to reports at that time, a Bosozoku gang — Japanese motorcycle gangs — interfered with a Midnight Club run in 1999. The conflict ended up injuring several bystanders, and it is believed that the single incident spelled the end of the Midnight Club, in part because the conflict violated one of the club’s most important rules on safety.

Street Racing isn’t Dead

The end of the Midnight Club coincided with the end of Japan’s golden age of street racing. That said, street racing isn’t dead in Japan. Far from it. Car clubs still exist to this day, and while they’re not mostly concentrated in Tokyo as they used to, there are still car clubs in other places in the country.

One club, in particular, Kanjozoku, is an Osaka-based car club whose members kneel at the altar of the Honda Civic. Every car in the club is a Civic of varying shapes, sizes, and power output.

Car clubs like Kanjozoku help keep street racing culture alive and well in Japan. Street races still happen in metropolitan areas, but they also happen on mountain roadways that are mostly empty at night. For as long as car club culture still exists in Japan, street racing in the country will never die.

The Rise of the Tuning Scene

To be clear, the Japanese tuning scene has existed for a long time. It even pre-dates the glorious era of street racing in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. But just as street racing’s popularity waned at the turn of the decade, the aftermarket tuning scene started to explode in Japan. Maybe it was timing or maybe it was just a coincidence, but it’s worth noting that a lot of the top tuners in the country got their start in car clubs like the Midnight Club. So when the club disbanded in 1999, that presented opportunities for members of the club to go into other ventures.

It also helped that we started seeing a lot of fantastic JDM sports cars hit the market in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, from the Toyota Supra to the Nissan Skyline to the Honda S2000 to the Mazda MX-5 Miata and all the other Japanese sports cars that arrived in that era, the demand for aftermarket tuning shops skyrocketed to the point that it became a cultural phenomenon of its own. Suddenly, power and performance weren’t just the requirements among Japanese sports car owners. Aesthetics became as important — maybe even more important — in the way owners presented their souped-up performance cars.

Being Different is Cool

Vanity can be a funny thing, and it’s even funnier if you look at it from the context of how Japanese car owners view their cars these days. While there are still a lot of car owners that abide by the “skill before swagger” mantra that was prevalent in the glory years of Japanese car racing, a different group of Japanese car owners has focused more on the “image” of a car than what it can actually do in a street race.

This new-wave movement started gaining popularity just as social media was exploding. From tuning their cars to show what it can do in a race, Japanese car owners now embark on making their cars stand out the most from an aesthetic perspective. It wasn’t enough that these cars could win races; they also had to look good doing it. Whether it’s a JDM sports car or a European exotic, nothing was left off the imagination. For as long as a car stands out with all its glitters, underbody lighting, and flamboyant liveries and decals, Japanese car owners will go home happy and proud to show off their bespectacled rides for everyone to see. If it’s not different, then it’s not cool.

For the ’Gram

Go to Japan these days — or once the coronavirus pandemic is over — and you’ll see just how Japan’s car culture has evolved throughout the years. Top Gear went on a trip to the country and experienced first-hand what it meant for a car to have maximum Instagram appeal. Lamborghinis with metallic foil wraps has replaced Supras with 600 horsepower on tap. Some car clubs in the country have put more focus on requiring members to build flamboyant rides. It’s a far cry from the Midnight Club’s 160-mph rule, though, if we’re being honest, a lot of these eye-popping rides are European exotics. They can all do 160 mph without breaking a sweat.

All of this points to one inescapable fact about Japan’s car culture. Like an active organism, it continuously evolves to something else, though traces of its past remain at the fabric of the culture. Street racing is still happening in the country, even if it’s not as prevalent as it once was. Likewise, JDM cars remain popular in the country, but the arrival of foreign exotics have diluted the market for affordable performance cars. These days, image is everything. Every car owner is free to have his car look a certain way; there’s a freedom of expression that’s tied into it that’s magnified by the presence of social media in the country.

Will this current form of car culture remain in the coming years? That’s hard to answer, but we do know that, in a roundabout way, Japan’s car culture is rich and glorious enough that it will continue to thrive no matter what era it’s in, now or in the future.

Is Tokyo Street Racing real?

Tokyo street racing was very real in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and while street racing in the metropolitan city has subsided in recent years, there are still areas in the city where it happens. Car racing used to be an after-hours staple in Tokyo’s streets. It’s not anymore, but if you look hard enough, you can still catch a race or two that happens after dark.

How accurate is Tokyo Drift?

Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift was accurate in the sense that it captured Japan’s car culture of the time. Some parts of it were fictionalised and, in some cases, exaggerated to fit the overall story of the film, but for the most part, street racing and the importance of drifting in those races were captured by Tokyo Drift pretty well. That said, Sean Boswell, the character played by Lucas Black, was not — and will never be — the Drift King. That title is reserved to one man: Keiichi Tsuchiya.

Do they still street race in Tokyo?

Yes, street racing still happens in Tokyo, but not in the places where it used to happen.

Kirby Garlitos
Automotive Aftermarket Expert - kirby@topspeed.com
Kirby’s first exposure into the world of automobiles happened when he caught Knight Rider on television as a five-year old boy. David Hasselhoff didn’t leave much of an impression on him (that happened later on in Baywatch), but KITT certainly did. To this day, Kirby remains convinced that he will one day own a car with the same ‘spirit’ as the original KITT (not the 2008 monstrosity). He doesn't know when that will be, but until then, he’s committed to expressing his love for KITT, and all cars for that matter, here at TopSpeed.  Read More
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