I often get asked why Japanese cars are generally in such great shape and why used cars, especially small kei cars, are so cheap. In short, it’s due to shaken, a mandatory vehicle inspection that is required every year or every two years. This short guide will go through the five W’s (and one H) of car inspection questions that are often asked.
Disclaimer: As always, all information herein is current according to my knowledge, but it may not be applicable in your area or situation. I assume no responsibility resulting from the use or misuse of the below. As in, don’t blame me if you can’t pass shaken.
What is shaken and why is it performed?
Shaken (車検) means car examination in Japanese. This consists of a multi-point, comprehensive check of a vehicle’s operating condition. It includes, but is not limited to, function checks of lights, brakes, suspension, alignment, and fluids.
The car will be visually inspected to ensure nothing is out of the ordinary and far beyond the manufacturer’s set condition. Fluids must be in good condition, belts must be changed in set intervals, and car body dimensions must be within reason to the as-manufactured stock size. Rust, a huge issue in Japan, will be checked so that nothing structurally will be dangerous or compromised. (Light surface rust is fairly normal otherwise.) The car will typically be put under a series of tests, checking such things as headlight brightness and alignment, brakes, parking brakes, and wheel alignment tests.
Simply put, this shaken inspection ensures all vehicles are roadworthy and in safe operating condition.
Every two years for most cars. Some cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles have to be checked every year at a slightly lower cost per year. If no issues occur and there isn’t a huge line waiting, this whole inspection and paperwork process at the facility should take no more than an hour.
You can only do the shaken within a month prior to the shaken expiration date, so timing for the inspection is pretty important. More specifically, you should have the car repaired and maintained by a mechanic prior to the actual inspection date. So this means any upcoming wear items need to replaced, old fluid needs to be changed, any issues (leaky seals, rusted exhaust, etc.) need to be fixed.
So this means if you have any inspection failures or issues, they need to be repaired or remediated immediately if you have any hope of keeping the car on the road. My recommendation would be to ask your local car shop at least a few weeks prior to the actual month prior to your expiration date to ensure that you don’t need a mess of parts or repairs. That would also give you a small window to consider replacing the car if need be.
Who performs the inspection and where can I do it?
Your local automotive dealer or mechanic can check your car or have it checked by someone else. Virtually all car shops can perform the inspection, so ask around for recommendations.
At smaller shops, they will take the cars to be inspected at the local Automobile Association. For kei cars, usually there is a separate kei automobile association. There may be one or more of these locations in your prefecture.
Larger car shops may be cheaper because they deal with a sheer volume of cars and they might cut expenses. Also, some are certified to perform shaken inspections in-house. This saves on some cost, but you may be getting a cut-rate shaken inspection, as in they will not perform certain replacements or recommended changes in order to get you a great price and not go to another dealer.
Speaking of cost, how much is it?
Shaken can vary greatly depending on the prefecture you reside in and who does your shaken for you. On average, the very minimal cost of shaken runs around 50,000￥ for a kei car, and this is not including fluid changes or maintenance. For white plate cars, this will run significantly more, starting at around 70,000￥. However, expect to spend at least 70,000￥ for kei cars and 90,000￥ for white plate cars and those are for cars in great condition with little maintenance. If you need belt changes or other maintenance parts replaced in order to pass the inspection, the sky’s the limit. In fact, older kei cars (around 15+ years old) more often get junked than fixed / maintained, simply due to the parts and labor exceeding the overall value of simply buying a new or newer used replacement car.
Seriously, though, why? (Part 2)
Further analyzing shaken, we can come to a few more issues and conclusions. For us “car tuners,” much of what we enjoy in car modifications is actually illegal per the letter of the law. The car must be no wider than approximately 10mm of the manufacturer’s dimensions and wheels and tires must be within the width of a stock fender. The entire car, wheels exempted, must be at least 10cm from the ground, so low exhausts, slammed suspension, etc. are unacceptable. There also must not be any extensive overhang from the front or the rear bodywork, so huge lips and long exhausts must be within reason to the external dimensions. Speaking of exhausts, the sound must be under 96 decibels and a reasonably stock size. Height is a consideration, so wings or spoilers can not go far above the roofline. Even the number of seats and seatbelts must be kept to the original specifications. This goes especially for kei class cars, which are strictly regulated to be under set guidelines.
Viewing this cynically, as with any form of bureaucracy, shaken makes money for the whole system. The government gets more money to do whatever it does and the cost of maintenance and repair encourages new car buyers. Many people choose to essentially junk their 10-year-old car for little money to obtain something newer, fancier, and less troublesome to deal with. (As an aside, I find that hilarious given that Japanese cars are arguably the most reliable.) In most areas in Japan, there are better condition cars on the road than most places in America. There are virtually no smoggers, clunkers, or jalopies as I often see driving around the streets of Los Angeles.
This is why there are plenty of those 10-year-old (or older) cars for sale at the plethora of used car shops around the country and why they are sold for significantly less than an equivalent used car elsewhere.
Sadly, this also means that many cool cars get scrapped or exported to third-world countries when the cost of maintaining it exceeds the value to the owner. For example, it is getting increasingly hard to find excellent condition 1990s MX-5 NAs or RX7s for sale. Car lovers will keep those sporty cars in mint operating condition, others will simply drive the wheels off and scrap them when they are no longer valuable. (Yup, I’m taking a pot-shot at those who can’t keep their cars properly maintained.)
For the curious, I’ll have a more in-depth look at the car inspection process next time. Look forward to a future post regarding a recent shaken done to my little Alto.