Scene Theory: The Rising Sun - JDM In America

Article by Corey Davis. Photography by Corey Davis, Ryan Randels, Joel Chan, Brian Bassard, Cooper Naitove, and Tyrone Roberts.

In our last Scene Theory article, we discussed the incarnation of the domestic market, big displacement, patriotism and tradition. The rising sun has not yet set over the West. As far as we can see, it's not even half past noon. 

Welcome to our second installment of our Scene Theory series. This time we dive into what it means to be JDM in America. The acronym JDM has become more than a three letter abbreviation; it's become a lifestyle, a scene, a brand and a way of expression. On the most basic level, JDM refers to the "Japanese domestic market"⎯the heavyweight of the import scene. Honda, Subaru, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Toyota⎯all of these manufacturers are of the JDM variety.

Japanese cars first made their appearance on U.S. shores around the 1950s, but it wasn't until the 1970s that they really started making waves. Why was this? The oil crises of the 1970s had a direct correlation with the demand for smaller, cheaper and more fuel efficient cars being produced in Japan. Also, during the 1960s, a new craze called "time attack” had begun to take hold in Japan. 

See the full feature for this 1983 KE70 Toyota Corolla here:

More from this featured 22RE 1973 Toyota Cellica here:

Time attack was a race against the clock where drivers competed to see who could post the lowest time around a circuit. In America, many of the domestics were a lot larger and not built for turns, but rather for going fast in a straight line⎯drag racing and comfort⎯whereas the Japanese cars were built with agility and performance all around. 

Japan has long been hailed as the front line of technological advancements, so why would their cars be any different? Big expensive gas guzzlers just weren't going to cut it anymore, and Japan dominated the import market. Why pay twice the price for something with worse gas mileage that handled like a boat? World citizens were starting to see the light, and U.S. car sales plummeted because of it.

This change wasn't without its resistance, as many American car enthusiasts rejected the notion of owning anything other than Ford, GM, Chevy, Dodge or Chrysler. Their motto, "There's no replacement for displacement," still echoes today. On the other side, you have all the European car enthusiasts, whose stance is more of a superiority and purist belief that their cars are precision instruments. With the influx of Japanese cars, another door was opened to the automotive community. Large displacement engines were replaced with small, efficient forced induction engines and they began to show that Japanese sports cars equated to efficiency, value and performance. The accessibly and ease of working on these cars, combined with the volume and support, was and still is what sets JDM cars apart. This polarized enthusiasts into their own genres, domestics, Japanese and European. 

What made Japanese cars so appealing was a combination of their bigger selling points. First, they were a refreshing style. Take the 1976 Honda Civic Hatchback for example and compare it to the same year Ford Fiesta. Both are compact hatchbacks, but the Honda engineers paid a bit more attention to the aesthetics of the car. Rigid and sharp lines are replaced by sleek body styling that gives the car a nice smooth profile. The fender flares are far more exaggerated on the Civic, giving it a racy look. It’s the details that come together to make a car look appealing to the would-be consumer. Minor cosmetic features, such as vents on the hood, side markers and the split design of the front grill, all make this car stand out from its domestic competition. Second, they were inexpensive and could be had for a fraction of the price paid for their American counterparts. Lastly, they were reliable and easy to work on. Basic routine maintenance was much easier because the Japanese engineers made getting to the important parts of the engine easily visible and accessible. What started off as cheap rust buckets, turned into a staple in the tuning world. Many times they set the benchmark for various performance measures, but more so they provided accessibility to the ModLife. The competitively priced Japanese cars depreciated over the years making it easier for younger enthusiasts to get behind the wheel of a previous generation.

Keep an eye out for the full feature of this NSX in the following weeks.

Ironically, today many Japanese car companies export their parts to the U.S. and the cars are physically assembled on U.S. soil. These cars are now part of the USDM or United States domestic market. Stricter safety regulations are in place to make sure each car stands up to our rigorous safety and emissions inspections. It's because of this globalization that the JDM craze exists today. JDM versions of cars are slightly different from their USDM counterparts. There are variations in headlights, better engines, better looking taillights or sought after trim pieces, and accessories that aren't on the U.S. models and, as an expression of self, enthusiasts want to own these parts to set their ride apart from the masses.

Two notable JDM versions of USDM parts can be seen on this WRX. The STi Grill and JDM headlights both differ greatly from their USDM counterparts. See the full feature of this WRX here:

Keep an eye out for a full feature of this WRX, FRS and EVO in the coming weeks.

This craze was somewhat accelerated and directly injected into the mass media in 2001 with the introduction of The Fast and the Furious series. Underglow, altezza tail lights, huge spoilers and vinyl graphics became the norm. As soon as people started to take notice of Japanese cars, everyone wanted to have one to modify. With more and more people buying the same off-the-shelf parts sold here in America at Pep Boys, there was a necessity for uniqueness and expressing one's individuality. By looking to Japan, tuners were able to find these rare pieces. It's with these uncommon and hard to obtain parts from Japanese aftermarket companies that enthusiast could finally separate their car from Joe's down the street.

Let's face it, some of the Japanese trends are known for being over the top and straight up outrageous. One of the more well-known trends is the bosozoku style. Bosozoku, from a literal sense, meaning "reckless tribe" or gang, is a subculture that was originally associated with customized motorcycles, but has since trickled down to the automotive scene. Bosozoku cars come in all styles, but can mostly be defined by having bright colored paint, radical body kits and preposterous exhausts. They are loud; demanding attention. 

Bosozoku branched off to create other subcultures throughout the years, but all of them seem to take their inspiration from early race cars during the 1980s. Shakotan, which means "low car," classifies super low stance cars and wide wheels, and is much more mild than any of the other styles. 

VIP style or bippu refers to the modification of Japanese luxury cars, usually by making them lower in stance and adding an aggressive fitting negative camber and low offset wheels. They're extremely flashy. On the inside, it's not uncommon to have blinds for privacy and lush interiors with mini bars, or really any other amenities that you would usually find only in a limo. 

The kyusha style refers to classic Japanese cars that have been modded with a lower stance, wider wheels and small fender flares. A perfect example is the Nissan Kakosukas, Kenmeri Skylines and early model Toyota Celicas that are super popular in the U.S. recently.

The Japanese are trendsetters and most everything that comes from Japan eventually gets integrated into everyday life from a Modified Lifestyle standpoint. Colored wheels, stance, decals, absurd camber, altezzas and the recent bolt-on fender flare wide-body craze that Liberty Walk, RAUH-Welt and BenSopra are famous for. All of these aspects filtered down from Japan and have created their own niche within our car culture. They are just variations of one another.

In the end, no matter what make, be it domestic, European or Japanese, we are all similar in that we are unified by the common bond of passion for cars. It's a language we all understand.


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Rockysds's Profile Image

Great piece Corey. . . That #JDM tho. Amazing shots and write-up all around. Can't wait to see those #ModLifeTour features!

Imprezions's Profile Image

Thanks Ryan! Likewise, stoked for the up coming Scene Theories as well.