Every country dominates at some mode of manufacturing. Across the globe there are astonishing feats of engineering and design from every nation, including Japanese car parts dealers. It’s hard to argue one country has a monopoly on anything, but when you think about modern street racing, about two (or more) vehicles screeching around turns what kinds of cars come to mind? When you catch a glimpse of glowing rotors and ultra-high performance tires stuck to fresh asphalt what emblems do you see? When you hear turbos spool and blow-off valves whistling as racers jockey for position, what kind of car are you imagining?
An R34 Skyline GT-R perhaps? A tuned and modded A80 Toyota Supra with the legendary 2JZ motor? Some might think of American Muscle and the straight-aways of drag racing, where large behemoths of steel careen down wide streets popularized by movies like Grease. When picturing modern, urban racing, there’s no question that the best Japanese performance cars have consistently ranked the highest in favoritism in the modification, tuning and racing community. There are countless vehicles to choose from, and while not everyone might agree, it’s fair to say that the consensus is in. When it comes to the tuning community, Japanese cars are reliable, easily modified, and the most popular.
The question is, why? Why are the best Japanese performance cars so far ahead of the competition? To answer that question we have to take a look at the Japanese car industry over the decades, their working practices, priorities, and why these lovingly crafted cars perform the way they do.
Buckle up, because we’re going back almost a hundred years.
The Early Years
In the 1930s and 40s, the primary Japanese car manufacturers and parts dealers that would eventually become best Japanese performance cars were Mazda, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. Mazda was well ahead of the others, being founded in 1920 by Jujiro Matsuda. Nissan was next, founded in December 26, 1933, bringing in a whole new era of production. Nissan made a huge splash in the American market with the affordable Datsun brand much later, but when Nissan was founded American cars still dominated the relatively young market.
Toyota was third, founded on August 28, 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda and is currently one of the biggest corporations in the world, often trading places with Volkswagen as the biggest car manufacturer on the planet. Honda came a bit later, founded in Hamamatsu, Japan in October 1946 by Soichiro Honda.
These four companies are ubiquitous today when one thinks of cars, but it is remarkable that they managed break into markets that had been ruled by American companies despite being founded decades later. It’s a harbinger of why the best Japanese performance cars also have the best build quality, highest customer ratings, and lowest cost of ownership.
Breaking Into the Market
Japan didn’t enter the auto market until after World War II, meaning their competitors had decades to perfect in manufacturing and defining what the auto market was. The demands of the different geographical locations were substantial as well, with Japan requiring smaller, more efficient cars as opposed to the United States’ fascination with size and power.
The Japanese car companies and parts dealers quickly realized that efficiency was critical, and shifted the focus towards smaller factories and faster means of production, well on their way to making Japanese cars the best performance cars on the market. As a result Japanese auto manufacturers opted to create engine platforms that capitalized on previous engines produced by the company. This is why so many parts are swappable between different models of the same brand.
This wasn’t just a design advancement, it originates from the lack of real estate and is a function of smaller factory sizes. The modern manufacturing concepts of just-in-time manufacturing and parts interchangeability arose from the size restrictions as well and became an advantage for the Japanese auto industry as a whole. This was exemplified by the large push toward investment in infrastructure by the Japanese government in the fifties and sixties.
While American manufacturers were languishing in quickly outdated modes of production, the Japanese manufacturers were creating new ways to build cars. What is amazing about Japanese cars is the passion and practicality that gives them an edge. There is a lot of debate about which manufacturer makes the best Japanese performance cars, but this misses the point entirely. The best Japanese performance cars also tend to be some of the best cars produced in that era.
Through the 1960s and 1970s
Throughout the 60s and 70s, companies like Toyota and Nissan focused on obtaining the best production methods available; attempting to squeeze as much quality out of their production process as possible. There was still a fair amount of resistance from American consumers to Japanese cars and Japanese car parts dealers, which were by definition smaller and lighter, and viewed by many in the US as of inferior quality.
When the US experienced a recession in 1970 and again between 1973 and 1975, there was a window for the best Japanese performance cars to enter the market. Suddenly, Japanese cars, which were inherently more fuel efficient than the big V8’s, were invaluable.
The Energy Crisis
The fall of 1979 brought with it an energy crisis and oil became a serious concern for the American populace. The idea of more efficient vehicles started to seem more practical and Japanese cars became more attractive.
By the 1980s the US Congress, under pressure by the Big 3 US auto manufacturers, passed quota legislation limiting the number of Japanese cars that could be imported. As a result, large Japanese auto manufacturers and Japanese car parts dealers like Toyota and Honda came onshore and began their penetration of a traditionally isolated American auto market. They were building plants in the United States, while the American companies were moving their production overseas. The larger US factories and the ripe US market created an ideal environment for growth.
Enter the 1990s
By the 1990s, Japanese cars were swallowing market share from American manufacturers. Every Ford produced was followed by a Toyota Corolla or a Honda Civic. The appeal of these Japanese cars was their look and their practicality. The United States was having trouble creating unique and interesting cars and Honda and Toyota were all too happy to take everything they had learned about production, engineering and design to give the disillusioned Americans a perfect alternative.
Gone were the days when hulking boats on wheels and thirsty big block motors were what people were looking for. Now, sleek, affordable vehicles were not just in style, they were a necessity. Though the desire for large cars has never completely disappeared, the desire for a Japanese model of smaller, more fuel efficient cars with intrinsic design cues has never subsided.
When discussing performance cars, we usually classify them by country or region. There are domestics, Europeans, Asians, and JDM—or Japanese Domestic Market. Excellence in performance cars and the best Japanese performance cars became synonymous with the use of this term.
A Leader in Energy Efficiency
The release of the first Toyota hybrid, the Prius, solidified Japanese manufacturers as an intrinsic part of American car culture, despite having their inception decades after that of the American manufacturers. There will always be big car enthusiasts of course, and more power to them, but there can be no doubt that car culture has shifted in a pretty dramatic way. Now efficient is cool.
It’s clear to see why the best Japanese performance cars are also the cars most agreeable for modification. These vehicles are designed to be unique, designed by their very origins to have the ability to be improved upon. Built with a fuel efficient yet performance hungry mindset, they lend themselves naturally to modification.
Simple and Modifiable
Take, for example, the remarkably unassuming Nissan Sentra B13 SE-R. Completely unassuming and forgettable, except for the fact that it is one of the most criminally underrated Golden Age sport compacts, totally forgotten despite the performance of its fantastic SR20DE inline four-cylinder engine.
This is what sets the best Japanese performance cars apart; their often unassuming and humble exteriors coupled with a remarkably powerful engine that has decades of engineering behind it to make it powerful and durable, something American muscle cars are only now discovering. Another example, the Mitsubishi Lancer doesn’t seem that menacing and it definitely doesn’t look it., but the Lancer Evolution is a legendary beast and only distinguishable from the base Lancer by a few body parts and badges you could get at a Japanese car parts dealer.
Imagine getting a powerful, economical ride for fairly cheap, and being able to modify as much as you want with custom parts that unlock the engine’s potential. You’re getting an extraordinarily powerful and reliable engine in a simple, unassuming body. Sometimes big things come in small packages. This is why amazing performance cars are almost always the best Japanese performance cars. A sleeper is a highly modified car that appears bone-stock on the outside and it’s no coincidence that a vast majority of sleepers are Japanese.
Flash and Flare
Ever since the ascent of Japan’s auto companies and Japanese car parts dealers, they certainly have not shied away from luxury. Though not many people want to tweak an expensive Lexus or Acura (not to say you couldn’t), there are plenty of fast, sporty vehicles that you can make even faster. There is an extraordinary amount of variety in the Japanese car market, but all of it is focused on one thing; constant improvement.
Though you can work any car from anywhere in the world, it will never be quite as friendly to modification as a Japanese motor. It comes from the design philosophy and outlook of the culture of the creators themselves. The idea that even if what you have is already good, it can always be better.
You already have a blazing fast Nissan? Wonderful. Want to make it even faster? Done. Get a turbocharger kit. Want to make your car handle better? No problem, there are countless options. Everything from your wheels to the specifics of your spoiler can be tuned to not only increase performance, but to customize your ride so it is exactly what you are looking for.
There is something extraordinarily liberating about buying a machine and knowing you can turn it into exactly what you want. Whether it’s a computer, an airplane, or a car, customization is always satisfying. When it comes to cars, nothing is more customization friendly than the best Japanese performance cars.
A Popular Pastime
If you are lucky enough to visit Japan, it quickly becomes apparent that car modding is still an immensely popular pastime. When the sun sets in the warm streets of Tokyo, the tuners come out to show off their eccentric cars. You’ll see every manner of ride, from day glo bright minivans to streamlined Skylines flying down the streets. The racing community isn’t quite as intense as it used to be due to authority crackdowns, but everywhere you look you will see beautiful, creative, and dazzling cars.
When you think of Japanese street racing, you probably think of depictions you’ve seen; tricked out cars sliding across corners, eyes locked as both try and push their tuned up cars to the limit. This is called drifting. The concept has recently had a popular resurgence in modern culture due to the attention raised by its depiction in countless movies and video games. The art of sliding through turns is an important part of Japanese racing, and a huge part of racing culture.
It began in the winding roads of mountainous Japan, where racers would try and beat each other's time from one place to another. Eventually it was discovered that when the car is sliding, there are ways to control it through vehicular dynamics. This quickly became an important technique in the racing culture and a racing discipline called Formula-D. Drifting came from those passionate about cars, those who were unafraid to risk the treacherous mountain roads. This willingness to take risk has permeated Japanese auto culture, both in development, production, and racing.
A Lasting Brand
It’s a testament to the foresight and wisdom of the Japanese government and auto manufacturers that these cars are still so remarkably popular. By investing in infrastructure that can still be seen today, they encouraged the adoption of their locally made vehicles. It’s even more of a testament to the vision of companies like Nissan, Toyota, Honda and so many others that they managed to dominate a car market across the ocean. The fact that it got to the point that Japanese companies were building cars in the United States even as our companies were moving production overseas is truly remarkable.
By establishing a certain idea of their vehicles in the global consciousness, Japan is able to maintain its image of the best Japanese performance cars and the ultimate car lover’s choice for modding, tweaking, and racing. Even as American companies learned valuable lessons about manufacturing competition, the Japanese automotive industry continues to push forward with new developments.
The Ultimate in Performance
Why are the best Japanese performance cars considered the ultimate performance vehicles? Unlike exotics, Japanese cars are attainable and, with a few modifications, they are capable of producing vast amounts of torque and horsepower. Because of the attention and detail in developing highly customizable parts that are easy to install and because of efficient business practices that allow them to sell comparable quality vehicles for less, they established themselves as innovators of the future while American companies were content using proven processes of the past. There are beautiful, amazing cars from every country, but for those who love to tune and modify their cars there will only be one homeland: Japan.
At Enjuku Racing, a Japanese car parts dealer, we understand the passion for Japanese cars, and cater to those of you who love it as much as we do. We truly feel that the best Japanese performance cars are the best performance cars overall. Feel free to browse our massive collection of specialized parts. We’re here to answer any questions you might have, and look forward to hearing from you here.