Japan enjoys a great relationship with cars, boasting an active and enthusiastic car scene largely centered around cities such as Yokohama, Osaka, and Tokyo.
Deservedly so, too. Japan is home to the Nissan Skyline and GT-R, Toyota Supra, Honda NSX, and a veritable smorgasbord of World Rally Championship-winning Subarus to name just a few, all of which are widely lusted after in North America, Europe and elsewhere.
Some of the country's biggest regular car enthusiast meet-ups, especially those in Yokohama and Osaka, attract not only Japanese sports cars but also European performance exotica from the likes of Lamborghini, Porsche, and McLaren. American muscle, however, is largely and somewhat sadly rather underrepresented by the majority of Japanese car fanatics.
With that said, while Lamborghinis, Porsches, and McLarens are undoubtedly iconic, beautiful to look at and boast blistering performance figures, you'll also encounter them in Europe, the U.S. and plenty of other places around the world. Much the same can be said for many of Japan's own famous makes and models, such as the GT-R, various fast Hondas and the numerous hot Impreza incarnations from Suburu.
What's perhaps more interesting, then, is that Japan is also home to a selection of highly unique, almost exclusively native automotive oddballs.
Like a Galapagos giant tortoise or one of Madagascar's endemic black and white lemurs, these curious creations have rarely made it beyond Japan's shores... which, in some cases, may well be a blessing.
From tiny K-cars, part matchbox and part automobile, to the likes of Mitsuoka's bonkers-looking wannabe supercar, the Orochi, there's plenty for car nuts to take in when visiting Japan.
Here are twelve of our favorites... some, perhaps, for all the wrong reasons.
An archetypal example of "only in Japan" motoring, the cool-looking-but-tiny S660 is the Honda Beat's spiritual successor, another miniature sports car you're also likely to encounter almost exclusively while visiting the country. Diminutive in size and delivering a decidedly modest power output, it's perhaps not best suited to American or European highways. With that said, there's absolutely no denying it's a great-looking little car, which sadly isn't something which can be said for every vehicle on this list...
Built upon the bones of Nissan's tiny March, Mitsuoka's almost inexplicable creation, the Viewt, a model styled upon a 1963 Mark 2 Jaguar, has now been in production for 25 years... all the while passing for a now-55-year-old Jag. Indeed, you can still buy a brand new one today... although quite why you'd want to is another matter entirely. Enjoying an also inexplicable modicum of success overseas, including in the UK and Russia, the Viewt, rather thankfully, remains mostly confined to Japan's shores.
The car of choice for Japanese royalty, dignitaries, and rich Japanese businessfolk, the Century is Toyota's answer to super-luxurious models from the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac, in production since 1967. Early models packed a V8, while newer examples boast a whopping V12, so even if nothing else, the Century certainly has that going for it. Keep your eyes peeled, not least because you'll almost certainly never see one outside of Japan, but because there's also a good chance it's carrying someone quite important...
One of Japan's many immediately recognizable K-cars, with the "K" derived from "kei" meaning lightweight, the Toyota Pixis features the tiny engine, short wheelbase, and boxy dimensions unique to K-cars. Perfect for Japan's crowded and often narrow streets, the class comprises city cars, small vans, and even tiny sports cars, such as the Honda S660 above and AZ-1 below. Will they ever catch on overseas? They've been around in Japan since the late 1940s in one guise or another, so while anything is possible, they'd be 70 years coming if they were to catch on abroad today...
Made by Suzuki, branded Autozam and sold by Mazda, the AZ-1 is a curious creation from start to finish. Adhering to K-car size and power limitations, the AZ-1 stands out primarily for its gull-wing doors, usually reserved for significantly more expensive cars. Taking styling cues from 1980s Ferraris and out of production since 1995, it's not an especially common sight today, even in its native Japan, but this list wouldn't be complete without it.
Another archetypal Japanese "kei" car, the N-One is Honda's cutesy alternative to its boxier and more traditional looking N-Box model. As Toyota has done with its own "Joy" version of the decidedly more block-like Pixis above, and Daihatsu with its cute "Canbus" variant of the older Move model, the N-One applies retro-inspired looks to the traditional K-car formula. So popular, in fact, is the bug-eyed N-One, the tiny 660cc motor even has its own racing cup.
Two incarnations of Daihatsu's Midget have existed, with the first, as photographed, dating back over 60 years. The second generation, built between 1996 and 2002, and enjoying many of the same "features" as its predecessor, including a single seat and one-too-few wheels, begs many of the same questions; not least - "why?" Still, the Midget enjoyed success not only in Japan but also elsewhere in Asia, albeit to a lesser degree, although you're highly unlikely to see one any further afield...
Based on the Subaru 360, a tiny VW Bug-like creation built between 1958 and 1971, and at the time one of Japan's most popular cars, 10,000 of the 360 were actually sold in the United States. The 360 "van" on the other hand is an entirely different animal. Quintessentially Japanese, at a glance, the Sambar could be a to-scale VW Bus clone. It's not until you see someone stood next to one, however, that you realize they're, well... tiny. Really, really tiny. Subsequent and rather less-quaint generations remained in production until 2012, while later Daihatsu-badged models are still sold today as the Hijet Truck.
In its modern guise, Honda's Vamos is rather more mainstream and largely indistinguishable from the likes of the Toyota Pixis. In its original 1970s guise, however, the mid-engined, rear wheel drive, 354cc Vamos is utterly bonkers. Marketed as a "jeep" and somewhat reminiscent of British Motor Corporation's classic Mini Moke, it's not such a popular sight on Japan's roads today, which is perhaps for the best.
Unlike the Honda S660, the Copen has enjoyed a level of success elsewhere in the world thanks to exports made by Daihatsu. Now manufactured for 16 years, the Copen has developed something of a cult following in a small number of other countries, offering a cute and fuel-efficient alternative to Japan's more typical, and much more powerful, Fast and Furious-style cult car exports.
Sadly now out of production, the Orochi looks like something from a sci-fi movie, imagined in the past as a reality from the future. Powered by a largely unremarkable 3.3-liter Toyota engine, also used to power the brand's Camry, Avalon, Sienna, Solara and Estima models, the Orochi was never built in massive numbers and remains a rare sight even on its own turf. A true oddball, however, and awarded the title of "World's Ugliest Car" by Jalopnik, the bonkers Mitsuoka 100% deserves its place on this list.
Another Japanese oddball which has developed a slightly more substantial cult following in parts of Europe and elsewhere around the globe, much like the Mitsuoka Viewt, the Figaro is based on the Nissan Match and is a perfect example of the country's classic automotive weirdness. An essentially modern car dressed up as something from the 1960s or 1970s, these pastel-colored Nissans forgo all practicality in favor of unmistakable, cutesy, retro styling. A stark contrast to the country's bold and boxy K-cars, the equally tiny Figaro offers something entirely different while remaining unmistakably Japanese in its concept and execution.