“Shaken”, not stirred: Making sure our car lasts longer than milk

Posted by in Mike's blog

Every car in Japan has a yellow sticker on the windshield.  On the sticker, there’s a date.  The date signifies the point until which the car can be driven before its next scheduled maintenance.

We have known for some time that our car would expire in March 2013.  There’s been a big “3” (for March) staring at us since we started to use the car last June.  The car has been good to us.  Aside from a small ¥1500 repair and an oil change, the only cash that we have invested in our little white kei car has been for gas.  The sticker, though, has concerned us since day one.  There’s some smaller text on the back of the sticker that shows the exact date…at the moment our car is set to expire before the milk in our fridge.

The scheduled maintenance is part of a system called しゃけん, or, “shaken”, (pronounced ‘shah-ken’, not like the method of milkshake preparation).  Cars get inspected maintained by licensed mechanics every two years.  In order to pass this inspection, everything that might go wrong within the NEXT two years has to be repaired or replaced.  If there’s a part that shows wear that might have a chance of failing 18 months from now…it gets fixed.  Having to go through shaken means that most, if not every car on the road is in pristine condition.  It means that I shouldn’t be worrying (too much) about anything going wrong with my 15 year old car in between shaken inspections.

It also means BIG money.  ¥50 000 is super-cheap, ¥200 000 isn’t unheard of.  Imagine saving up two years of repairs and whatever inspections are required for driving and paying it all at once.  That’s shaken.  It hurts.  We had three choices:

Back to the bus

Imagining Mary 9 months pregnant waiting for busses in Fukui’s 38ºC + humidity summer makes this a non-option.  We need our own wheels.

Another new car

There are plenty of used cars to go around in Japan.  In this country, people like new things.  They like them to be shiny.  I’ve met people who consider cars to be “old” when they hit 20 000km.  Anything past 100 000km is ancient!  I decided to spend a long time doing proper research into my new used car options this week.  I asked a few friends and I found a couple of leads, but nothing that fit the price point that was needed.  That price point needed to be below what shaken was going to cost, but there was another factor: The amount of time left before any car’s shaken will largely determine its value – especially for older used cars.  The more time is left before that number on the little yellow sticker matches a calendar, the more its car is worth.  Were I to find a car at the right price but with a shaken date sooner than when we expect to move back to Canada, we would have to go through shaken all over again!

My search continued on the internet.  Attempting to search for used Japanese cars in English brought me to exporting businesses…not what I wanted.  Searching in Japanese with Google Chrome (auto-translate!) yielded much better results.  I used 4 different websites to try to find what I was looking for: Goo-net, Kakaku, Car-sensor and Yahoo! Auctions.  All of these websites led me to local car dealers and private sellers who had some very nice cars to choose from.

Finally, I went to a convenience store and picked up a giant book of car listings and I broke out a marker to circle the good ones.  There was no auto-translate, but I was able to figure out what the numbers meant with some help.

At the end of my research I found a very good candidate to replace our car:  A white-plated (real engine & safety features, not a kei car) Toyota Ipsum that was 4 years younger than our Suzuki Alto for ¥1000 less than our shaken bill.  The catch: Its shaken was due soon…and that would cost us up to an extra ¥100 000.

Paying for shaken

The first thing that I did (before all the research) was to take the car to a local mechanic for a quote.  This mechanic was very kind, and a friend referred us before we went (referrals ALWAYS help!).  He agreed to look at the car, and he lent us a car to drive while ours was in his shop for a couple of days.  When I got his quote, I knew what my price point was for the new car research.

Choosing between the newer white-plate car and our little Suzuki was a difficult choice, but a little comparison shopping sweetened the deal.  I took the mechanic’s quote (a printed, detailed list of the repairs to be made in Japanese) to another mechanic to get a second opinion…and the second opinion was 15% cheaper.  It turned out that there were a couple of things that didn’t really need to be replaced according to our new mechanic.  That 15% brought the price point for used car research from “difficult to find” to “dodo bird holding a 4-leaf clover sitting in a pot of gold at the end of a double rainbow”.  It made the white-plated Toyota seem expensive enough to pass on, and we left the car at Saito Jidousha (斉藤自動車) with the new mechanic – who also happens to be a friend of ours :).  We got another loaner car to drive around for the weekend while our new mechanic does magical mechanic things to it.

On Monday, the shaken inspection will be complete and we will get our car back.  It will have a new yellow sticker, and our car will expire in March 2015…long past the milk.