The fascination of individuals who grew up in the 1990s with automobiles often begins with iconic Japanese models such as the Honda NSX, Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra, Lexus LFA, Mitsubishi Evolution, Nissan 350Z, GT-R, and Skyline vehicles that were featured in The Need for Speed video game. Similarly, the Honda Civic in the opening scene of The Fast & Furious film or Brian O’Conner’s green Mitsubishi Eclipse in the second scene, as well as Dominic Torreto and Brian’s Toyota Supra in the quarter-mile race at the movie’s conclusion, are the first encounters for many individuals with Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars.
In movies and video games, the high-performance capabilities of Japanese vehicles have captivated audiences in contrast to vehicles produced by Porsche or Lamborghini. This fascination, particularly among car enthusiasts, has grown as Japanese cars can provide comparable levels of performance at a fraction of the cost of European-made vehicles. The tuner-friendly nature of JDM vehicles, allowing for modifications to components like pistons, conrods, and crankshafts, has enabled individuals to boost the power of their vehicles’ existing engines. Consequently, these vehicles can perform exceptionally well when compared to high-end sports cars like Lamborghini and Porsche, further fueling the interest of car enthusiasts.
Despite Europe and the United States leading the automobile industry in the early 20th century, Japanese cars have revolutionized the industry since the 1960s.
The term JDM, or Japanese Domestic Market, denotes automobiles that are specifically manufactured for sale within the Japanese domestic market, adhering to the country’s specific automotive regulations and requirements. While Japan ranks third in the world for automotive production, with approximately 8 million units manufactured in 2021, not all of these vehicles fall within the JDM category.
JDM cars have gained a reputation for their reliability, efficiency, and high overall performance, leading to their importation into many countries worldwide. Japan’s automotive industry has a rich history dating back to the early 20th century when Japanese manufacturers partnered with European and American automakers to manufacture brands for the domestic market.
However, the Japanese government later introduced the Automobile Manufacturing Industries Act in 1936, aimed at eliminating the monopoly of American manufacturers. During World War II, Japanese domestic manufacturers such as Toyota, Nissan, and Isuzu were directed to produce heavy-duty military trucks and motorcycles for the Imperial Army.
Following the war, Japanese industrial conglomerates were forced to divide under the American occupation, but they later merged again once the occupation ended in 1952. The Japanese government subsequently endeavored to create favorable conditions for domestic manufacturers to produce small, fuel-efficient cars at affordable prices, meeting the rising demand for automobiles in the country. As a result, Japanese automotive manufacturers began introducing new models to the market from the mid-1950s onward.
The Rise of JDM
Competitive racing in Japan during the 1960s played a significant role in propelling the country to the top position in automotive manufacturing over the next two decades. Although the Porsche 904 secured the win at the second Japanese Grand Prix in 1964, it is worth noting that Japanese automaker Prince Motor Company’s Skyline 2000GT (S54) occupied the 2nd to 6th positions. Furthermore, the Prince R380 car secured the 1st, 2nd, and 4th positions, while the Toyota 2000 GT car clinched 3rd place at the 1966 Grand Prix. In fact, the Toyota 2000GT car went on to set 13 speed and endurance records at The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile in 1966. This newfound reputation for performance and speed was further cemented when the Toyota 2000GT was featured in the 1967 Bond movie “You Only Live Twice” in a chase scene. From the mid-1960s, car sales in the Japanese domestic market began to increase, driven by the increasing demand for fuel efficiency and reliable build quality.
The early 1970s saw the signing of the Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, which aimed to reduce pollution and carbon emissions in the USA. In addition, the oil crisis that began in the Middle East in 1973 resulted in an increased demand for fuel-efficient, lightweight, and reliable vehicles in various markets worldwide, including the US market. Japanese automakers, with their focus on small, fuel-efficient cars, were well-positioned to take advantage of this trend. The US EPA regulations further boosted demand for Japanese cars in the US and European markets. Japanese automakers also used various innovative materials such as plastic and High Tension Steel Sheets to produce lightweight cars that had a significant impact on fuel efficiency and performance. In the 1970s, Japanese manufacturers introduced several iconic cars to the market, including the Nissan Fairlady Z (known as Datsun 240Z in the US and other markets), Nissan Skyline GT-R (C110), and Datsun Sports Roadster cars, which proved popular with car enthusiasts. The release of the Mazda RX-7 in 1978 was a game-changer for the industry, as it was the company’s first widespread sports car and a best-seller. Advanced technology such as robotics in manufacturing and the use of innovative materials in production, coupled with significant changes in management, contributed to Japan’s rise as the world’s largest automobile manufacturing country by 1981.
The 1980s represented a significant period of progress and success for Japanese automobiles, with manufacturers emphasizing technological innovation and product improvement. As reported by a source in the LA Times, Japanese automakers in the 1980s placed a strong emphasis on both vehicle reliability and design. Toyota’s introduction of the second-generation Supra model in 1981 is an illustrative example, with the vehicle featuring a number of technical upgrades, including the use of the Inline-6-Cylinder engine of the M-Series in lieu of the 4-Cylinder Engine. The most notable improvement, however, was in the design of the vehicle, which featured a more athletic appearance and a Fully Retractable Front-end Pop-up headlight design that garnered significant attention at the time. Additional Japanese cars of the era, such as the Toyota AE86, Toyota MR2, Mazda RX7 Turbo 2, Nissan Skyline R32, Nissan 300ZX, and Mazda MX-5 Miata, earned strong praise in the United States and global markets for their design, performance, and reliability.
Moreover, Japanese automakers in the 1980s introduced numerous cutting-edge technologies in their vehicles, which placed them ahead of their competitors. For instance, the Toyota AE86 featured an Active Rotating Grille, which was one of the first such systems to automatically close the grille opening to reduce drag at high speeds and open it again when the engine required cooling. This technology was later reintroduced by BMW in their M240i model nearly four decades later. However, in the early 1980s, the United States instituted a Voluntary Quota on Japanese car imports, leading Japanese automakers such as Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Mitsubishi to establish their own manufacturing plants in the US and other regions of the world, with an eye toward expanding production outside of Japan. Finally, in the late 1980s, Toyota launched two premium brands, Lexus and Nissan Infiniti, to target the luxury segment of the market.
Despite the economic recession that Japan faced in the 1990s, Japanese automotive companies managed to maintain their dominance, but gradually lost their position as the world’s top automaker. Nevertheless, the popularity of cars manufactured by Japanese automakers continued to grow during this decade. Toyota, in particular, introduced the 1JZ and 2JZ engines in the 1990s, which replaced the M-series inline-6 engines that had dominated the market from the 1960s through the 1980s, resulting in further improvements to the performance of JDM cars in that decade. Cars such as the 4th Generation Toyota Supra Mk, Honda NSX, Honda S2000 (also known as the S2K), Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, 3000GT, and Mazda RX7 helped to elevate the popularity of JDM cars to new heights. The Toyota 2JG engine and Supra, in particular, played a crucial role in the current popularity of turbocharged motors.
Pop culture also played a significant role in increasing the popularity of JDM cars in the US and international markets. In particular, cars such as the Mazda RX7, Honda NSX, and Nissan Skyline GT-R R32 began to feature in video game franchises such as Gran Turismo and Need for Speed in the late 1990s. As a result, the adoption of Japanese cars in the street racing culture of various big cities around the world, including the US, continued to rise.
The US and European manufacturers have traditionally focused on producing performance cars, which meant that there were limited options for modification or tuning for car enthusiasts. In contrast, it was possible to achieve 2-3 times more horsepower than the initial horsepower by modifying the base model engine of Japanese cars. Furthermore, due to the strong chassis and build quality, handling, and braking of these cars, this extra horsepower could be easily handled. The tuning-friendliness of Japanese cars led to an increase in the adoption of Japanese cars from street racers to car enthusiasts, and the number of Japanese sports cars in US dealerships also increased. Various aftermarket parts were readily available in the market for modification of the cars, making these modifications and tuning possible at relatively affordable prices.
During this time, the global youth, professional, and amateur racers, and street racing generation were particularly drawn to Japanese cars. Moreover, even in the present day, Japanese brands continue to maintain their own technological innovation trends. For instance, features such as the Mitsubishi 3000 GT’s Active Exhaust System, Electronically controlled Suspension, Four-wheel Steering, and Active Aerodynamics can be observed in many of today’s favorite supercars such as the Lamborghini Aventador, Porsche 911, and Ferrari 812 Superfast models. Furthermore, BMW or Audi modern performance cars utilize Active Exhaust Systems, which fundamentally alter the sound and performance when switched to Sports mode.
In 2001, the Fast & Furious movie franchise debuted its first film, showcasing an array of performance cars including the Toyota Supra, Honda S2000, Mitsubishi Eclipse, and Mazda RX-7. This movie series, with its depiction of street racing culture and highly-tuned vehicles, has enjoyed immense success with 10 films and a significant impact on the popularity of Japanese sports cars. However, in the mid-21st century, car enthusiasts began to shift their focus towards supercars, rather than performance or sports cars. Additionally, Japanese manufacturers began to streamline their production due to the economic crisis of 1998-2000. As a result, Japanese automakers have continued to offer different variants of iconic models such as the NSX, Lancer Evolution, Skyline GT, 3000GT, Supra, S2000, Eclipse, and RX-7, with no new model gaining the same level of popularity. The economic crisis, coupled with changing customer preferences, also led to a decline in the production of sports cars, with manufacturers targeting the SUV and pickup truck market. Furthermore, the once-golden era of Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) cars from the 60s and 70s is fading with the increasing popularity of new automotive technologies such as hybrid and electric vehicles.