Swimming Upstream: Step 1 – Japanese Emissions and Noise Testing

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The Town & Country is back at home and, frankly — no pun intended — I’m exhausted. As I had been warned, the necessary tests required an overnight stay for the van at the research facility and the two trips there and back sapped a lot of my energy. I was at the mercy of my iPhone’s navigation app — UConnect’s navigation, of course, doesn’t work in Japan — that led pell-mell all over the damn countryside without any real idea of where I was at any given moment. To make matters worse, when I wasn’t behind the wheel, there was an equally confusing three-hour train ride to deal with. Once upon a time, I might have considered this a grand adventure. Right now, I’m just tired and in need of a beer. To those of you following along at home, the process has taken just a few minutes of your time and a minimum of mental energy over the past couple of days. For me, however, it was the culmination of almost three weeks of preparation. The photo below is a graphic example of what I have been through. Take a moment to gaze in wonder. To be sure, that is a lot of paperwork, but — because I know some of you can read Japanese — I must say that not everything shown is directly related to the emission and noise testing the vehicle has just completed. Still, every slip shown was required, in some way or another, to get it to this point in the process. Among the forms is a customs import certificate (stamped and approved), the paperwork issued by the city hall in order to obtain the temporary plates (which have a validity of just five days and so must be constantly renewed in person), two separate application forms for the emissions and noise testing (only one of which required extensive research), the slip from the local scrap metal yard where I took the van to be weighed, and 352,000 yen (~$2,900 USD) — most of which got handed over at the testing facility. Not shown are all the insurance forms I had to fill out, but insurance is a hassle everywhere so that’s no surprise to anyone. A week prior to the appointment, I faxed all the pertinent documentation to a laboratory ran by the Japanese Automobile Technology Association (JATA) and, a few days later, received a call from their agent. The good news is that the call went well and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that JATA was quite helpful. The agent spent about 30 minutes with me explaining the process, talking about various issues and assuring me that any information I had left blank on the applications could be completed by the technicians after I arrived. The call helped to ease my nerves and I felt quite confident as I made the two and a half hour drive to the facility. I arrived a little before my appointment and had a pleasant conversation with the agent before I turned over my keys to the technicians. Then, to my surprise, instead of being dismissed or shuffled off to a waiting room while the testing took place, I was led to the testing bay where I was given a folding chair and allowed to watch the entire process. All told, it took about an hour and a half. First, the van was put on a lift and its exhaust was inspected to insure that it had not been tampered with. Then it was moved to another bay where it was chained down and put on rollers. After making some plumbing and wiring connections and positioning a powerful fan in front of the vehicle, the technicians started the engine and put the van through its paces. It was interesting to watch at first but the wait soon became dull. The technicians ran the car and then stopped for a while. Then they ran it again at a different speed and so on and so on until it became so monotonous that I could no longer feign any interest at all. After about an hour, I spoke with the agent and asked to leave but he told me that JATA required the owners to stay for the first day of testing because some cars fail and there is no point in holding them over for the second day. If that was the case, I would be given my keys and told to drive it home. The good news is that the Town & Country passed its first day’s test, with the technician telling me that most late model American and European cars pass without much trouble. When they were finally done for the day, the technicians secured the van in a locked storage bay and I went home by train. The next morning I arrived after an almost three-hour train ride at about 11:00 a.m. Fortunately, JATA’s technicians did the second round of tests, measuring cold-start emissions, prior to my arrival, and all I needed to do was collect the paperwork. After getting my certificate of approval and admiring a brand new Euro-Spec Porsche in the lot (I was asked not to publish any photos of it lest the extremely rich and powerful owner become annoyed), I was then sent across town to the parking lot of a shuttered amusement park for the noise test. [video3] To my eyes, the scene I found upon my arrival looked more like Doc Brown’s experiment from “Back to the Future” than a modern day noise test, but the technicians at work soon convinced me that they were serious researchers in their own right. After affixing several sensors to the vehicle, one of the techs jumped into the driver’s seat and took a few hot laps around the parking lot. ‘Round and ’round he went, driving it harder than I usually do and jumping on the accelerator every time he ran past a series of measuring devices they had set up. After 15 minutes of this, they returned my van, gave me a thumbs up and told me that my official approval would arrive by special courier sometime tomorrow. So, that’s it in a nutshell. The Town & Country passed and, once I get my noise test results, I can take it up to the licensing bureau in Yokohama to submit my next round of papers for review prior to mailing off thousands more hard-earned dollars to an agency that covers the cost of car recycling. Once they send me a receipt, then I can go back up to Yokohama and actually bolt on the plates. Then there is a safety inspection, but not the full Shaken, and a few other gates I have to pass through before I am officially legal. I’ll cover these and whatever else pops up in subsequent articles as the process continues. All totaled, this week’s testing cost me a whopping 328,320 yen, or just over $2,700 USD. Add in $35 for tolls, $22 for round trip train tickets, $6 for a taxi and $6 for temporary plates and you can see that the adventure of the past two days has cost a considerable sum. Of course, I had been warned prior to sending the van that these costs would be incurred and, although I came prepared to pay it, the truth is that prior to actually going through the process, I was a little bitter about it. Like a lot of Americans, I thought the inspection process was a boondoggle and was intended to keep foreign cars out. My experience, however, has changed my opinion. Although the experience was expensive, I received excellent, personal service from everyone involved and was surprised to find that entire teams of professionals spent hours working on my case. In addition to the agent who assisted me over the phone and who walked me through the process at the testing center, there were at least four technicians on each of the two teams that tested my vehicle. Add to that the cost of the facility and the testing equipment and I can understand why it costs so much. That, in turn, makes me feel like I received some value for my money and perhaps it wasn’t really a boondoggle after all. Having completed the process, I can say that the rumors definitely overstated the difficulties I faced Although there probably are companies that would take my money to complete the registration process on my behalf, this first step wasn’t so difficult that I couldn’t figure it out myself. So, does this sort of testing actively work to keep foreign cars out of Japan? I would say, based on my experience, probably not. There are plenty of foreign cars on the streets here — they must have come from somewhere. All totaled, the testing only added about 10 percent to the purchase price of the Town & Ccountry when it was new. That’s a modest premium, I think. It wouldn’t deter anyone serious about importing a car from actually doing so. Hopefully, as far as my own case is concerned, this proves to be a sound investment over the long term. Thomas M. Kreutzer currently lives in Kanagawa, Japan with his wife and three children. He has spent most of his adult life overseas with more than nine years in Japan, two years in Jamaica and almost five years as a U.S. Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. Although originally from Snohomish, WA, he has also lived in several places around the United States including Buffalo, NY and Leavenworth, KS. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, Kreutzer has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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