Answerman
What's With The Tiny Trucks In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asked:

I was recently watching Napping Princess and Sakura Quest and noticed that the trucks most people tend to drive do not look anything like what is made or sold here in the USA. Most tend to be this small compact truck with a white cab and a flat platform back with no side guards or rails to prevent stuff from falling off. Also I have never seen a hitch for towing drawn in anything either. Yet this style truck seems to be the status quo truck that has been draw for years. What is this small compact working mans truck I see everywhere? Why was a similar model never at least attempted to be sold here?

What you're seeing is called a "Kei truck," a tiny class of truck that's everywhere in Japan and the rest of Asia. Kei class is a legal vehicle designation in Japan that has a lot less restrictions put on them, simply because they're tiny. Denoted with a yellow and black license plate, Kei cars enjoy far lower taxes, insurance costs, and relaxed parking restrictions in some areas. "Kei" is short for "Keijidosha," (light automobile), and was originally a designation to make cars more affordable for everyday people in the post-war era. Since space in Japan is often at a premium, use of a Kei car or truck is usually a practical choice. In some dense urban areas, it's the only choice. They comprise about 1/3 of the vehicles sold in Japan.

Kei vehicles are cute, but have a lot of compromises versus a full-size car. The narrow wheel base makes them less stable, and to compensate, car manufacturers have made the steering of most Kei vehicles far more granular, so you are always prodding the wheel to stay stable in motion. This means that actually turning the car is a chore: a normal 90-degree turn might require you to turn the wheel 180 degrees or more. And since they're meant to be cheap, the interiors often feel cheap, with lots of hard plastic and seats that you slide around on.

Just how cheap are Kei cars? There are models for every price point, but the cheap ones can cost as little as US$9,000 NEW, and that includes a built-in GPS/TV/DVD player. In addition to being cheap and tiny, these vehicles are very fuel efficient and meet strict emissions standards, and some of them are now electric. For these reasons, many of these vehicles are also being sold in developing countries like India.

There are Kei vehicles of every kind. There are trucks, vans, sedans, and even sports cars! And while the sports car variations do have some pep to them (the speedometer goes all the way up to 100 kph, or 62 mph!), Japanese engineering can only do so much with such limited specs. Many Kei cars are pretty sluggish, and can barely go fast enough to drive on a Japanese freeway. They're meant for city use. Most of them also have very little cargo room.

Kei vehicles can only seat up to four people, and can't be over 3.2m (11.2 feet) long, 1.48m (4.85 feet) wide and 2m (6.5 feet) tall. The engine can only be 660 cc's or less, and be 63 horsepower or less. Nearly all of these cars would be impossible to drive on an American freeway. Moreover, most Kei cars do not comply with North American or European crash test standards, so they're not exported. American law prohibits importing foreign market cars under 25 years old, so Kei cars can't be driven on US roads.

Except due to a loophole, Kei trucks CAN be imported and registered as off-road all-terrain vehicles in several states! While some of those states allow you to take ATVs onto public roads, I don't consider this a particularly sane idea: I sure wouldn't want to get into an accident in one of these things. That said, they're very popular in certain places as cheap and efficient utility vehicles -- by resorts as groundskeeping and security patrol vehicles, for example. A few speciality companies import Kei trucks (usually calling them "Japanese Mini Trucks") and equip them with regulators capping their speed at 25 mph -- effectively preventing their use on public roads.

These days, an electric or hybrid car or truck, even a full-sized one, is more efficient than a Kei vehicle, so their actual utility is not what it once was. As with most nifty foreign vehicles, there's a small fandom among car enthusiasts for Japanese Kei vehicles. They're very efficient with the right usage scenario, they're cheap to own and maintain, and they're just so CUTE! But they're not sold in the US and Europe for a reason.


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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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