Works for me! And for you?
 Works for a German in Japan

What? New! Japan Healthy... Clean Techie


Living in Japan: I do it My Way

Vehicle Inspection (sha-ken)    Cars & Environment

Although in Japan for many years, I have not written much about living here. There are enough books and guides with ample tips.  Here you will find only what I can vouch for.

One article so far. Expect further construction.

Vehicle Inspection
by Bernd Nurnberger

This is about a matter boring to most, the mandatory roadworthiness inspection (sha-ken) of the family car. Contrary to popular opinion in Japan, the actual inspection is a quick and cheap act. If the car is less than 5 years old and in good maintenance, it is likely to pass, first try. If you know someone who speaks Japanese, you can do it yourself. If not, you can hire an assistant for the inspection. If you want to be extra sure, let the car dealer do it, but expect to pay for preventive maintenance.

As an added bonus, near the end of this article, I drift off into the environment and get carried away with engineering details that cast doubt on the wisdom of antipollution laws.

The Japanese View

Japanese dread the sha-ken (sha = kuruma = car, ken = kensa = inspection) because it is expensive. Depending on the size and make of car, it is an event on the order of yen 100,000 - 300,000 (some US$ 800 - 2500). A large part of this is the weight tax and mandatory insurance due at the time, but there is other more or less necessary expense, depending on how much you are willing to do yourself.

Contrast this with Germany, where many car holders take a half day off, drive up to the public inspection place (found in every small city), run the car through the tests and pay some $50 to receive the coveted "good until" seal for another two years, or a detailed report of findings to be re-checked after repair. Of course you can ask the garage to do it all, and they will, for a fee. But unless you can trust the repairman, you may never know whether certain surprising repairs were really necessary.

Personal Experience

Our 1994 Toyota Caldina (known as Carina wagon in the UK and in the U.S.) was due for inspection this November. Beginning in summer, the shop we bought it from and the other shops we ever had it serviced at sent us reminder postcards. They sure do work their databases. Even a gas station we went to only once sent reminders, in addition to our usual station. We had made a member's card there and they must have gleaned the due date from the windshield sticker, just as a number of sha-ken service flyers mysteriously appeared under our wipers during the past few months.

BTW, if you are concerned about your privacy what with all the company and government computers storing data about their customers (yes, we are, WE pay the government), what would be the defense options? Offhand, I can think of one: many of us storing data about companies and the government practices and sharing it all. The people know about big brother as much as big brother knows about the people, hehee... With home pages mushrooming everywhere, we are getting there.

Back to the car. The second postcard from each shop had their 'special offer' - all inclusive sha-ken package with change of oil, filter, air filter, wiper blades etc. Seemed expensive. Let's take it apart. Here the unavoidable cost for a 2.0 liter mid-size vehicle.

What it costs

Common dues at time of inspection (these accrue anyway) in yen, 1997 figures

  • 27,600  Mandatory liability insurance 
  • 37,800  Weight tax
  • 1,400  re-registration stamp fee
Best dealer offer (roadworthiness inspection by authorized garage personnel, takes about 2h and includes explanation to customer)
  • 14,300  Regular Check-up (teiki-tenken)
  • 5,300  Sideslip (toe-in) and headlight alignment
  • 3,000  misc. parts (no idea what) 
  • 7,000  Inspection fee 
  • 8,000  Inspection arrangement
  •         plus tax 5%
Determined to find the necessary minimum, we asked around. In recent years, a number of "user sha-ken" shops have sent their flyers in the newspapers. They help with the inspection formalities for a fee of approx. 16,000 yen (US$ 130).

Near our house, there is a small second-hand car shop called Atlantis, and one night I went to ask them for an estimate. We know them by a few of their visitors who chose to park their cars on the narrow road just opposite our garage, effectively blocking access. The shop's price for the service was 10,000 yen plus tax. That was it. And I told the shop owner I wanted to witness the inspection.

Atlantis estimate (roadworthiness inspection at public test facility)

  • 10,000  Inspection arrangement
  •         plus tax 5%
Difference to the cheapest dealer's estimate: 27,600. A standard Toyota sha-ken offer costs even more.

The Big Day

On the evening before the day of sha-ken, the young shop employee came over to pick up the car papers. This young guy rides a Buell motorbike, that is a Harley-Davidson in racing dress. For this 100hp monster, he had even made a cover for the driving belt from carbon fiber. Looks very professional. So this employee cam for the papers and also wanted the keys. "No, no, I'll be there tomorrow. I can drive. I took a day off, I want to see the inspection. "

With the aid of my wife we finally got an idea why the young guy kept repeating "muzukaashii" (difficult). Not the shop people, but a subcontractor would take the car to "sha-ken-jyou", the inspection place. Apparently he had never admitted owners to the inspection. I guessed no one had ever asked to. Took us almost 30 minutes of persuasion to reach a Japanese solution. I said "Wakarimashita. Ashita made." (understand, see you tomorrow) and kept the car key.

The agreed time 13 - 15 o'clock passed while I was reading a book by Michael Riversong about the Chinese art of Feng Shui and its connection with Bau-Biologie (Design Ecology). I went over to the shop. No, the subcontractor had not called yet, but our turn would come. Would I please leave the keys in the car and everything would be taken care of... I said I'd be over at home waiting for them and kept the car key.

Around 15:15 the young employee came over and we drove to the sha-ken-jyou (public vehicle inspection facility) at Yokohama rikuun-kyoku (Land Transportation Authority). We met Mr. Nagamine, a sha-ken touroku dai-kou (inspection-registration assistant), apparently self-employed, who had just finished a van for a nearby dealer and now took care of our car.

Show the Papers, Ready, Check and Go

The necessary papers:

  • Sha-ken-shou (the old vehicle registration document),
  • latest insurance receipt,
  • latest vehicle tax receipt.
With these in hand, the handyman went to pay weight tax ¥37,800 and inspection fee ¥1,400. I had him drive the car to the inspection line. I had seen how it is done in Germany but was not sure I could do it here, with all instructions only in Japanese.

Just outside the testing area, he handed the official inspector an inspection report sheet which he must have gotten from the office just before. He also removed the wheel caps. The inspector wanted to see all lights working, then tapped all 20 wheel nuts with a small hammer on a 1.2 meter handle. I was concerned about the new tires. Instead of 185/65-14, I had mounted 205/60-14, just a little wider, with the same diameter. No problem actually, as long as the tires are not wider than the wheel well. Visual inspection passed. Contrary to Germany, tire sizes are not registered in the vehicle papers.

Inside the testing area, automated stations tested the speed meter (40km/h), brakes front, brakes rear, sideslip (toe-in), headlight alignment (at high beam) and emission at idle. At each station, the subcontractor feeds the inspection report into a printer and received the needed entries and stamps. Results for the pollution test: CO 0.4%, (carbon monoxide, legal limit is 0.5%) HC 200ppm (hydrocarbons, limit is 1200 ppm). These are common values for a gasoline engine with 23000 km, even without a catalytic converter. Only 4 months ago, Toyota had done an inspection and as in previous years reported CO 0.1%, HC 100 ppm. Either they don't measure at all or it is true what German auto makers say here, that the catalytic converters of Japanese models break down long before the estimated life of 150,000 km. Either way, I don't wonder any more because I see black Diesel smoke belching from brand new trucks or Mitsubishi Delica vans or Pajero RVs. Commercial and recreational vehicles at the expense of our health. In Germany, the police issue tickets for such conspicuous air pollution and require evidence of repair within two weeks.

While I muse over the role of the pollution sticker under the hood (Standard values for the 3S-FE engine: CO 0.1%, HC 100 ppm, same as Toyota always reported), the subcontractor stops the car over the pit. The inspector underground checks the bottom for loose parts with his hammer while the plates under the front wheels get agitated hydraulically. Noises would indicate suspension flaws. I hear no alarming sounds. After the pit we get the final stamp on the report. In just 15 minutes, we are through the whole inspection and back at the parking lot again.

Next step is the registration office, where we deposit the inspection report and the old sha-ken-shou (registration document). Within a minute, a dot-matrix printer spits out the new document and thus hold evidence that the car is considered roadworthy for another two years. With a scraper, the subcontractor removes the green inspection sticker from the glass behind (or rather in front of) the rearview mirror. The new sticker for 1999 is blue. Sha-ken is done. We return home, total 1 hour and some.

Benefits of Being a TPC Member (or Knowing One)

And now I got to write up this experience for my friends and all the other gaijin with cars in Japan. You can easily save 30,000 yen or more (especially with foreign cars) by insisting first on the official roadworthiness inspection, and in case of any defects found, you can tell the garage exactly what to repair, and nothing else. Invest your savings, e.g. in your computer, for a second hard disk or the backup system you just never came around to buying.

 If you leave it all to the auto shop, they will do preventive maintenance and repairs all right by the book. You pay and may not even find out what was really necessary, but your car passes on first try. Contrast this with the German system, where the prevalent approach is to get the detailed report from the public facilities first, then repair, then inspect again. The TUVs (inspection associations) collect detailed inspection findings of 9 million cars each year and publish failure hitlists in a magazine format. If you bargain for a second-hand car or if you design the next model these reports provide a pretty good idea where the weak spots are. Even Japanese auto makers rely on the German reports, the Japanese approach - first repair, then test - simply cannot provide independent unbiased data.

Briefing on Auto Shops

Toyota garages do better oil changes (they clean the spill from removing the oil filter) than the local Autobacs accessory shop (leaves oil on engine). Tire specialist Bridgestone balances tires better than both Toyota and the accessory shops. They even find wheels that are out-of-center. New car dealers in general offer extremely good rates when you ask them to rent a car, even if you don't have your own in for repair. Just say you'd like to try their ... [model of your choice] for a day or more in a practical setting, not just around the block, and that you'd pay for it. Could they please arrange "rentakaa" and say how much it costs. Expect some 40% off the price of a rent-a-car shop. Car dealers have volume discounts, and if it is for a customer…

Environmental Impact Continues

The other day, I went on musing about the air pollution by the chemical engines. Back to the unwelcome legalities of emission tests at the biannual inspection: They only cover idling, which is frequently used in Japan, but consumes relatively little fuel, compared to real driving.The problem is not the fuel the engines burn. The problem is the fuel they don't burn. In all operation modes, the 4-stroke engine (as well as any other internal combustion engine) suffers from a certain percentage of unburned fuel particles which

  • reduce mileage
  • cause pollution
  • cause carbon deposits in the combustion chamber that blacken the oil and ruin the engine in the long run.
Here is the plot. The legal limit (in Japan) is 0.5% CO and 0.0012 % CH in the exhaust gas at idle. This means that some 7.5% of the gasoline is legally permitted to not burn completely.

How did I arrive at 7.5%? It is an approximation, based on the stoichiometric air-fuel ratio of approx 15:1. If you mix 15 parts of air and 1 part of fuel, there is just enough oxygen to "completely" burn the fuel and you get 16 parts exhaust gas. If 0.5% of this gas is CO (there is other poison, too) this means 15x0.5%=7.5% of the fuel did not burn completely. I neglected a number of pollutants as well as the energy derived from the reaction that ended prematurely at CO instead of CO2.

For the record, the above is not exact, it shows the order of magnitude. Emission measurements are not exact, either, they measure the concentration of noxious gases, not the absolute amount emitted. This leaves the option to dilute the exhaust gas by designing the engine settings to idle faster on a leaner mixture. Although the concentration would drop and comply with the legal limit, the total emission (mg of CO and HC per minute) would rise, no? This antipollution law is better than nothing, but still a bit silly. Anyway, most of the fuel is NOT consumed at idle, but during acceleration and running at speed. No regular roadworthiness inspection covers that, only the type approval inspection before a new model is legally put on the roads. And even that measures and limits concentration only. The other necessary factor, fuel consumption, is measured as well, but not regulated, because it would disfavor large engines. An economic incentive could work here: a hefty gas tax. Maybe then some companies would figure out why the amount of energy that actually moves the car is only about 5% of the total thermal energy content of the fuel consumed.

What Fuel Efficiency?

Please excuse that I do not bring scientific precision here. If you can do that, let me know, we'll co-author a piece or two. I basically follow this approximation: A common family sedan or wagon consumes 7-12 liters of gasoline running at constant 100km/h. To keep this speed, the engine needs to output about 12-20 hp. Multiply that power with 1 hour and keep the resulting mechanical energy in mind. If the textbook efficiency of an internal combustion engine is correct (about 30%), the total energy to achieve 12-20hp for an hour divided by 30% should be the same energy as is contained in the fuel burned.

It isn't. Some 1.5 - 3 liters of gasoline contain the thermal energy equivalent to 12-20 hp for an hour divided by 30%. That would amount to a mileage of 66-33 km/l or 150-75 mpg. None of our cars achieve that mileage. What is wrong? (Not my approximation, I hope.)

Even the newest high-tech computerized engines with GDI (gasoline direct injection) do not change that. According to tests conducted in Germany and elsewhere they make just as much pollution (tested during city and cross-country standardized drive cycles). Fortunately, GDI fuel consumption is somewhat lower in most situations, so even if concentrations in % and ppm are the same near the legal limits, the total volume of pollutants drops as fuel usage drops. However, imagine everyone on this planet would move about in cars. We would suffocate. Chemical engines are evidently a "sunset" technology.

Electric Vehicles? 

Nope. If we use fossil fuel in a power plant to run an EV with rechargeable batteries, you need three times as much fuel, due to the various power conversions until the wheels turn. The various inefficiencies along the supply chain multiply. Zero emission they are not. Nuclear power plants also fail to meet zero emission standards, quite literally. The zero emission goal may come closer with cars fueled with hydrogen from solar panels or hydroelectric power plants, but even these require energy to build them. Yet, focusing on a car's energy consumption is the correct approach - it is 90% of its total energy use.  10% is used in making the car itself and I have no figures on energy used for recycling its parts.


The analogy between cars and computers, especially comparing the progress in speed and price has been strained in practical jokes. Add energy efficiency, too. For computers, these are all benefits of miniaturization. Everyone would welcome cars that are cheap and powerful. But who wants a car with a computer's level of reliability and its shrinking size?

Happy and safe motoring. Use seat belts always.Use drugs never. Support better technology. If we happen to be re-born, we want clean air on this planet, among other things.

Copying, distribution and reprinting encouraged and permitted with below copyright note intact. All other rights reserved.



 Revised 1997-11-03, slightly edited 2005-09-18.
  Why on earth this date format ?

  © 1996 and later by . All rights reserved.