Japanese brands are well-known, well-loved, and well-off when it comes to their reputation in terms of reliability. However, why are Japanese brands more reliable than European, American, or even Chinese brands? What’s the secret? Is there a special sauce that goes into the development and manufacture of Japanese cars? Even today, you will be hard-pressed not to find a Japanese brand in the top 10 list of most reliable cars for a given model year. Consumer reports constantly update their list based on consumer data, and there’s always a handful of Japanese marques in the ranking.
To understand why, we have to dive deeper than the product itself. There are many reasons why Japan has a stellar reputation for automotive reliability. Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Nissan, and other Japanese marques have long been associated with products that stand the test of time, but why is that the case? It goes deeper than just the product itself—it goes into the Japanese culture itself.
Post World War 2, Japan was an underdog in the automotive industry. Japan had to prove itself on the world stage against established brands, but what did they offer in the market that really made them boom in the 60s and 70s? Price was one of the main factors that allowed Japanese vehicles to make waves in the industry.
But the story didn’t start in the 60s or 70s, instead, we have to go all the way back to the early 1900s. The Japanese got their start making military vehicles. Designed for the rigors of war, and made to be easily mass-produced. Following the great wars, Toyota and Nissan re-established their businesses. In the 1950s, the Japanese auto industry started to produce more and more cars. Following the boom, the Japanese government restricted car imports to promote Japan’s auto industry. Towards the end of the 1950s, Japan began exporting its cars to other nations.
From a product standpoint, Japanese cars were priced lower than cars from Western countries. In the 70s, the Yen held a low value against the US Dollar, giving Americans more purchasing power. Following that, the 1973 oil shock brought about by the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo further heightened the popularity of Japanese vehicles because of the fuel economy compared to western counterparts.
That brings us to modern times. Japan became the largest car-producing nation in the 2000s. Recently, however, the country has been overtaken by China in terms of production volume. The nation is still third in the world rankings.
Japanese Work Culture
“Kaizen” is often talked about in Japanese work culture. Literally translated, it stands for constant improvement. Because Japan was a challenger in the 1960s and 70s, much effort was put into improving products in order to outcompete and outperform cars from more established brands and countries.
Continuous improvement is not only for the product but also for the manufacturing process of said product. Eliminating waste and other inefficiencies is part of the Japanese work culture. It’s hard to explain Kaizen in writing, but it’s all part of the societal standards set in Japan. Dedication, perfection, and efficiency are all present in Japanese work ethic and that bleeds into the products.
There is also a focus on the group in professional environments. The supervisory role in the Japanese work environment is heavily stressed. Actions are rarely taken without the approval of a supervisor and there is a focus on the process rather than the result. The thinking is, having a streamlined process will net a favorable outcome.
Culture in Japan
While the boardroom and the offices of Japan are quite formal, you will find the same discipline and organization on city streets, on the train, on a bus. Everything is pin-point, scheduled, and precise. You will rarely be late for work because the public transportation system is so efficient. Every train and bus is on time—and if they are, the company issues a public apology even if it’s just a 5-minute delay. Efficiency and organization are very important in Japan. Any delay will cascade into the next process so there is a high level of accountability.
This, of course, bleeds into the automotive manufacturing industry. Just-in-time manufacturing improved cost and efficiency of production. Toyota pioneered this concept with the Toyota Production System, which quickened production phases and addressed the demand from the market. Just like the work culture, every little detail is stressed and fixed in favor of a streamlined process.
Culturally speaking, The Japanese work culture puts a heavy emphasis on company loyalty and pride in work. The individual is part of a whole. Eastern philosophy puts an emphasis on collective benefit, rather than individual benefit. Western ideologies often put emphasis on the individual, while the Japanese have a sense of collectivism, which places emphasis on the bigger picture and how every cog and gear aligns in a societal and professional environment.
The Japanese are also known to be quite conservative. This also extends to adopting new technologies and innovations. Implementation of more unproven technologies means that Japanese cars aren’t always at the forefront of technological advancement. While there are quite a few, it’s usually the west that comes up with newer tech. You may find that many Japanese cars won’t be the first to market a certain feature, and instead will wait before the technology matures before implementation.
Tried and tested componentry
Engines are often the most complex pieces of the puzzle when making a car. If you notice, Japanese vehicles don’t often change their engines from one series to the next. It usually takes about a decade or two before we see an entirely new engine roll out of the production line and into consumer’s hands. The L-series engine from Honda has been around since 2001 and served as the brand’s replacement for the aging D-series engine—a series that was in production for over a decade before its replacement. Now, 20 years into the production of the L-series engine, and Honda have continually refined and innovated on the platform that it launched way back when. Some of the early L-series motors featured a technology called intelligent Dual-Spark Ignition, or i-DSI. There were also several improvements made to the engine that included the brand’s i-VTEC variable valve timing technology. Other modifications to this platform include dual overhead cams, turbochargers, and even hybrid systems. You may find this series of engines in the Honda City, Brio, Mobilio, and BR-V. Surprisingly, the Honda Civic also has an L-series engine in the lineup. The top-of-the-line RS Turbo trim gets an L15B7. The components inside the motor and around the motor are different, but the block and the general design of the engine remain largely the same as the other L-series motors of Honda. You could say that the L-series is a very modular engine. Heck, even the most performance-oriented Honda, the Civic Type R has the same engine series as the CR-V, Accord, and Odyssey, albeit tuned and modified to a different standard. The K20 in the Type R is not the same engine as the K24 in the Accord or Odyssey, but it’s from the same family of motors only iterated to perform.
Now, while Honda is known for a lot of its engine series, Toyota is also another brand that is notorious for its continued use of the GR series of engines. These V6 motors can be found not only in the main Toyota brand but also in the luxury marque, Lexus. The engine was first introduced in 2002. It has displacement that ranges from 2.5-liters all the way up to 4-liters. This motor is used in a wide range of nameplates, from the Toyota Camry to the FJ Cruiser, and the Land Cruiser Prado. It was also used by Lotus for some time and was supercharged by the British brand from the factory. The overall design of the engine remained the same. Incremental changes were made over the years and continually done in order to enhance capability and reliability.
So what does this mean to the end consumer? Parts are tried and tested, each generation is better than the next, the market that the engine will be sold in has a good amount of support from first and third-party suppliers, and the technicians and mechanics that will work on the car are familiar with the engine itself. Additionally, Japanese engines are historically easier to work on as many mechanics will tell you. It also helps that by keeping the engine and perfecting it over time, the parts and consumables that are required during maintenance are available in the market.