Saturday, November 13, 2010

I am Mobile

It’s official: I have a car.  It’s a small, 1000cc 2001 Toyota Duet, wine red, and equipped with 4-wheel drive and a radio that only gets one station.  But it’s mine and I can drive it wherever and whenever I want!
I must admit that I’m quite proud of being a car owner.  This is the first time that I had anything to do with purchasing a car, and I did it in Japan.  I worked with the President of the used-car dealership who spoke only very basic English and that was it.  Between his basic English and my extremely beginner Japanese, we got everything sorted out. 

For the sake of education and cultural exchange, here’s the breakdown of (approximate) car costs:

80,000              Cost of the car
20,000              Road Tax paid through March
10,000              Paperwork and checking my parking space
40,000              Winter Tires
100,000           Shakkan
110,000           Year of insurance

Total Cost:360, 000

Using today’s exchange rate, it would be $4,480 but this is close to the worst exchange rate the U.S. dollar has had against the Yen ever.  During better times, the exchange rate would mean that the total cost was about 3,200 USD.  Luckily, when getting paid in Yen and purchasing the car in Yen, the exchange rate doesn’t matter.

My car!

Here is my car in it's official parking spot!

The driver's seat

The passenger's seat...not much room...

It was interesting getting a lot of attention from the president of the dealership during this transaction.  I met with him and his associates twice before they found a car for me, and then three more times after deciding which car I would purchase.  Each trip was at least one hour, and sometimes two hours…though some of that was due to several insurance “lectures” (for a lack of a better word) about how Japanese insurance works.  I sat through at least three lectures complete with numbers, examples, and tons of stick figure drawing on a white board, though the last two were repeats of the first.  Why might the president work with me?  Was it because I was a foreigner?  I definitely wasn’t going to make the dealership much, if any, profit, so why so much personal attention? 

One day after I signed the papers to buy the car, the president and his associates took me out to a business dinner just to talk.  That’s where he mentioned that his is friends with a teacher at my high school – that’s how I got the “in” to work with him to buy a car…and the excellent deal!  In fact, it appears that it’s quite likely that he sold the car to me at a loss, as a favor for his wife.  She went to college in Chicago and told him to treat Americans well since she apparently had a wonderful time in the States.  I’m not sure he would’ve wanted to do that for anyone since he is a businessman, but he claimed to be afraid of his wife.  To be honest, I think he was joking but it sounded like there was some truth behind that.  Perhaps this is a case of fear being a good motivator?

There were quite a few new things that seem to be different in Japan than in the United States. For the sake of length I’ve narrowed the things I noticed down to 5 major differences:

1. Shakken – It’s not cheap owning a car here and this is probably the main reason why.  Shakken is a total-car inspection that is required by law.  New cars don’t need one until 3 years after purchase, but after that all cars need it every two years.  It’s rarely less than 80,000 since mandatory taxes and fees make up most of that cost.  They inspect the car and then fix everything that might be wrong with it, so the inspection only gets more and more expensive as the car gets older.  It encourages a higher turnover of cars since eventually that 12-year old p.o.s. car isn’t worth a 150,000 inspection anymore.  It is a huge expense that means that there really isn’t anything like a cheap car here in Japan.  However, there seem to be two major perks to this for Japan: 1. Cars won’t be breaking down on the side of the road due to lack of maintenance, and 2. Mechanics and car companies like Toyota will have a steady supply of customers.

2. Insurance – From my car-buying experience, I feel like I understand car insurance here quite well, but I’ll summarize.  First, there is mandatory optional insurance that everyone must have.  It’s government-run and only covers injuries from an accident that the people in the other car might suffer, and it has a limit to the coverage. Then there is the optional insurance (which almost everyone has) and it covers damage to another car, their passengers, and the people in your own car…NOT damage to your own car.  You only get coverage to your own car if you are in a two-car crash where the other driver’s insurance will cover you.  As I learned during my insurance lectures, it is better to crash with another car than be in a one-person accident. 
However, the difference that is most striking to me is that no one is ever considered 100% responsible for an accident.  Even if you are stopped at a red light and a car rear-ends you, you are at least 10% responsible.  You will not get lower insurance rates for the next year because you were 10% responsible for an accident.  You will have to be 10% of the costs yourself.  In most cases, however, the responsibility is divided 60-40, or 70-30. The idea, I believe, is that because you chose to drive at that particular time, you assumed some of the risk of driving even if you did nothing to cause the accident or could do nothing to prevent the accident.

But, just in case (as told to me from the car dealership’s lawyer), don’t sign anything.

3. Parking – In most large cities in Japan, parking is a scarce commodity.  So, because of problems in the Tokyo area, for example, Japan passed a law that before anyone buys a car, they must prove that they have a parking spot. To do this, one must draw a map showing where one will park, then get the paperwork from city hall, take both to the police station, and wait a week while the police go to the place drawn on your map to verify that yes, you do have a place to park your car.  While necessary in Tokyo, it is very unnecessary in most of Hokkaido, including Kitami.  But it’s still the law, so one must pass over the 10,000 or so to the police to get them to check it.  Luckily the car company did this for me.

4. White Plate vs. Yellow Plate – When deciding what car to purchase, I needed to decide between a white plate car and a yellow plate car.  It is a difference of size, power, and safety.  Yellow plate cars are small, have small engines, and don’t need to comply with the same safety standards as white plate cars.  However, they are much cheaper to buy, own, and insure, so they are quite popular.  I may have even gotten one had I not been placed in Hokkaido.  Since there is some rough winter weather in Hokkaido and many large white-plate vehicles and trucks on the highways, I decided that a larger, more powerful, and safer car was worth the extra money.  The yellow plate cars remind me of the tiny cars from Europe—most are about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and just look flimsy and small.

5. Winter tires – I haven’t had personal experience in Hokkaido with snow yet, but from what I hear winter tires are necessary because snowplows don’t try to get all the snow off the roads.  Instead, some is left on the roads and is texturized for better grip.  There is no salting of the roads either, so twice a year people switch the tires on their cars from summer tires to winter tires, and back.  Winter tires have lower pressure so there is more surface area contact with the road, and deeper treads for better grip.  Right now it doesn’t sound like a better idea, it just sounds like an extra hassle to getting prepared for winter.  I’ve driven through eight South Dakota winters without needing winter tires, so why the bi-annual changes here?  I know that people in my area used to switch tires but most don't anymore.  However, I haven’t had personal experience with this yet, so I’ll wait to make that decision later.   I keep hearing terrible things about Hokkaido winters, such as “It gets down to -20 degrees in February!” which sounds awful, until I realized that it is in Celsius and is the same as -4 degrees Fahrenheit.  Sooo…I’ll just have to wait and see if the winter is as bad as it’s made out to be. 

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