If truth be told, I’m not much of a petrolhead. While I do have a driving licence, I’ve only ever used it as a means of ID. In fact, the last time I drove a terrestrial vehicle was coming back from the test centre in Bodmin some 20-odd years ago. With the exception of taxis and the Polish Maluch, cars don’t really mean much to me, see. Except when I’m in Japan, that is, where even the cars are kawaii. I speak, of course, of the Japanese kei car.
Before I go on, though, have a watch of the following vid I made a little while back. As will be explained later, some of the vehicles shown are not actually kei cars per se, but ignore that for now and simply wallow in the beauty it bequeaths. Yep, these things are flippin’ ace.
It’s a Kei, OK?
But what, you may well ask, is a kei car? Well, pronounced like the English letter K, these marvellous mini machines take their name from the Japanese word keijidoosha, or light vehicle. Japan’s “smallest highway-legal passenger cars”, as Wikipedia puts it (so it must be true!), kei cars offer their users a host of tax and insurance benefits as well as traditionally smaller price tags, lower fuel bills, reduced running costs and generally fewer parking hassles compared to standard non-kei vehicles.
Like instant ramen, kei cars owe their existence to post-WWII shortages. Back in 1949, the then government was hoping that the right financial incentives would stimulate a market for affordable run-arounds by which the populace could get on with their lives and in so-doing help reanimate the Japanese economy. And, 72 years on, it would seem those politicos were bang on with their maths. Just take a geek on any Japanese street and you’re bound to clock a couple of cutesy kei cars scuttling along like benign little beetles at the very least. You might even spot a swarm.
Kei Cars Defined
Now, exact definitions as to what legally constitutes a kei car have changed over time, with the local powers that be having revised them upwards over the years. However, at time of writing, any vehicle seeking to attain coveted kei-car status and the ensuing yellow number plates of office must possess an engine with a capacity of no more than 660cc and a maximum motive power of 64hp (47kW). It must also adhere to specific limitations on physical dimensions. Since 1998, these have been a length of 3.4 metres, a width of 1.48 metres and a height of 2 metres.
At the same time, there is also an industry-imposed top speed these vehicles can do: 87mph (140km/h). While this might sound pretty lame to any ufonauts out there, it is nonetheless more than enough to get nicked for speeding in a country where the speed limit is typically 80-100km/h on expressways and 40km/h in towns and cities.
Safety and Stuff
Weirdly, though, not everyone seems quite so enamoured with theses miniature means of mechanical conveyance as yours truly. For example, a mate of mine who has lived in Japan for the past 15 years or so reckons they have a pretty ropey safety record, especially on the open road. Exactly how correct he is, I can’t honestly say. However, his sentiments are certainly echoed here, where one industry insider is quoted as calling kei cars “quite dangerous”.
What’s more, this Jalopnik article doesn’t appear to hold kei cars in particularly high regard either. After describing them as “horrible to drive”, the writer then dismisses them with a crude term for excrement. Not that I care, though, because a) I don’t drive and b) whatever you say, they just look ace.
Boxy and Proud
Yep, however loud the naysayers might naysay, kei cars get my vote for their sheer beauty alone. You see, along with their kei truck and microvan cousins, these vehicles all tend to espouse a certain aesthetic. A certain boxy aesthetic that makes them look like a cartoon car straight from the pages of Viz. Or an episode of Noddy.
Moreover, these sublime little modes of transport actively revel in their boxiness, flaunting their initially awkward angularity with such names as the Honda N-Box and the Nissan Cube. OK, so that latter one’s not actually a kei car as it’s got a 1.4-litre engine. But man, is it boxy!
At this point, I guess I should make it clear that not all kei cars are boxy and not all boxy cars are kei cars. Indeed, depending on the size of the engine employed, different variants of the same model may well qualify as a kei car while others won’t. However, I don’t want to get too bogged down in all that hair-splinting malarkey right now as I’d much rather think about the raffishly-named Suzuki Hustler, a microjeep (if such a term exists) that also boasts a 4WD option, I gather.
Then there is the truly tub-tastic Daihatsu Tanto, which looks like a walk-in bath on wheels. But while such an accolade might seem hard to beat, my favourite of them all has to be the jaw-droppingly gorgeous Daihatsu Move Canbus (pictured top). Typically delivered with a two-tone paint job, this one looks positively edible, as though it were made out of ice cream. Seriously, it’s like a petrol-powered Viennetta or something.
Kei for Kawaii
Importantly, while many of these vehicles ape the shape of a packing crate, they tend to employ few if any actual right angles or similarly aggressive edges. Typical of the Japanese culture of kawaii, they instead opt for smooth curves wherever possible. At the same time, while they often look about as aerodynamic as a house brick, their lines and details generally exude a friendly if not downright fluffy persona, with their bonnets, boots and big-eyed headlights all seemingly (if not deliberately) designed to invoke the face of a cute cuddly creature rather than a menacing monster.
A case in point is the Honda N-One, which, to my eyes at least, resembles a lovely little panda as it tries to run you over. But that’s not all because the cuteness quotient of many of the country’s kei cars is further ramped up by the common use of pastel or near-pastel paint schemes. Particularly popular with women, who account for an estimated two thirds of kei car drivers, these are not the sort of vehicles you’d expect Mad Max or Lemmy to drive about in.
However, Abe Lincoln might well have done for the simple reason he could tootle about town in one without having to first remove his stovepipe hat. In fact, he could probably wear two on top of each other as another key kei car trait is their mysterious abundance of headroom.
Indeed, one can’t help thinking that in a move to max out internal volume, but constrained by the limits on length and breadth, many of the country’s kei car makers are determined to enclose every last inch of height allowable by law. Like Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, if you can’t build outwards, build upwards.
The result is something that only adds to the cartoon character of these vehicles and makes yours truly at least wonder how safe some of these Postman-Pat-mobiles are in a strong crosswind or while taking a tight corner at speed. Do these things topple over much? My mate says yes. Still, I flippin’ love ’em.
Kei Days Numbered?
Sadly, though, the days of the kei car could well be numbered. Thanks to their numerous cost-cutting benefits and their ability to negotiate the many tight spaces associated with Japan’s serious urban sprawl, these vehicles accounted for some 40% of the country’s new-car sales in 2013. However, with very few exceptions (such as the Suzuki Jimny), these cramped contraptions simply don’t sell well abroad if at all. And that is something the Japanese government is reportedly not too happy about.
Deeming such vehicles a distraction to the Japanese car industry’s greater goal of global expansion, the government in 2014 slashed many of the monetary incentives that had traditionally attracted consumers to buy keis. Among other things, for instance, it upped the tax on these vehicles by a whopping 50%. Unsurprisingly, kei car sales took a bit of a hit.
In fact, assuming these stats are right and I’ve done my sums correctly, the kei car’s slice of the new-car sales pie has now shrunk to around 37%. However, while total 2020 new kei car sales fell some 10.1% from the previous year, dropping from 1.9m units to 1.7m, this was nevertheless better than the overall 11.5% market contraction that saw sales of new non-kei vehicles sliding 12.3%, from 3.2m units in 2019 to just under 2.9m.
Boring Foreign Flak
On top of all this, the kei car also looks set to face continuing flak from the US and Germany, who claim these vehicles are being unfairly protected by the Japanese state. Peeved that their own car makers can’t crack the local market (where around nine out of 10 cars on the road are domestically produced), they would very much like to see the Japanese government take further steps to stem the financial attractiveness of these visually attractive vehicles.
But would people want to swap their kawaii little run-arounds for an uglier foreign alternative? Given the choice, probably not. After all, when it comes to looks, you can’t beat a kei car. Heck, all you yuppies can park your cheesy Lamborghinis where the sun don’t shine. Kei cars: to nab a line from the film Crazy People, they’re boxy but they’re good. And if you still don’t believe me, just watch that video once again.
Notes and Credits
The original version of this article first appeared on the now defunct Asia Unboxed website in 2019. However, I’ve updated the stats at the end and am pretty sure any other time-sensitive stuff is still current, applicable and timely, etc. If not, tough. Words and pictures © Ignatius Rake.