Saturday, June 16, 2018

How to Navigate Tuning Shops in Japan

Japan is famous for its attention to detail, precision and offering one of the highest level of customer service in the world. While this is absolutely true for a simple retail experience, it can get awfully complicated when it comes to more complex transactions. If you are contemplating to get some serious work done on your car locally, I wholeheartedly suggest to learn Japanese language and culture first, as they are fundamental tools to break through the cultural and communication barriers. 

This is important because, in order to avoid miscommunication that could lead to misunderstandings and potential embarrassing situations, Japanese people usually prefer to take the “easier way”, even if it’s not necessarily the best. A simple example can be found at restaurants: English menu with color photos, very easy to understand and “bulletproof” will be available, but ask for the Japanese one and in 90% of the cases you will find a lot more options, variations and seasonal dishes that are never available in the translated version. Between the embarrassment of not being able to explain (and possibly lead to mistakes) and not offering these options at all, Japanese businesses would often make the latter choice. This is one of the reasons why I’m making plenty of visits to Omori Factory these days: the more we build our relationship, the more they get to know me and become comfortable with the fact that we can clearly communicate in Japanese - all of the sudden a bunch of new options and finishes becomes available overnight! When it comes to artisanal products and services, relationships in Japan will often get you what money alone can’t.

There is also a tendency to please the customer unnecessarily, which sometimes leads to not pointing issues out in fear of hurting their feelings. This can be extremely annoying for Westerns, but is very true especially in the car universe, where owners are clearly emotionally attached to their rides. I have witnessed this first hand several times, starting with my early visits to NPTC, where the staff greeted my car with a plethora of unnecessary “ah, kirei” (綺麗 beautiful) just to make me feel good. They will fix everything that needs fixing, but you will need to push them to actually go the extra mile and spot the smaller stuff that perhaps doesn’t necessarily need urgent attention, but could clearly be improved. The most extreme example I can recollect actually happened at Omori Factory during the planning phase of my project, as they showed me some of the cars they were working on, including one with pretty much the whole Nismo catalogue poured into it. But once the car got on the lift, the underfloor revealed some very serious rust blossoming from the beneath the metal panels. Right away I asked - “why wasn’t this fixed?”, to which they candidly answered - “well, the customer didn’t ask for it”. Truth is that the car did need some serious attention, but, as it was perfectly running, they preferred let things as they were. This has noting to do with lack of professionalism, it’s just Japanese culture: expect little to no initiative unless it's something that could mine safety or basic function.

Same goes with parts availability and orders: don’t expect staff to make promises about keeping an eye on parts for you - nothing is more embarrassing for the Japanese than not being able to keep their word. If the part is temporarily out of stock they will avoid commit to a date they are not fully sure about and will be as vague as possible. An example? In March I visited NPTC looking to order the Nismo tow hook just to learn that it was out of stock. When asked about future production plans, Yamazaki-san launched himself into a very elaborated yet vague answer, quoting a 1 year plus timeline; fast forward to today (4 months later) and the tow hook is already back in stock. He simply wasn’t sure and just gave me the safest answer possible.

What about special requests and customization? In the Nissan/Nismo corporate world the basic answer can be summed up with the golden Japanese rule of “If it’s not on the menu, we can’t do it”. This is true, but not entirely. Rules can be bent, but you will need to invest serious amounts of time building a relationship to do so: it took the owner of the Midnight Purple III Z tune several months to convince Nismo to leave the car in its original color, but eventually they accepted. Don’t expect to simply splash some money and let it do the work. This is one of the reasons why they took the VIN plate off the Z tune prototype: tired of receiving absurd offers from unknown Asian and Arab collectors approaching them out of the blue, they preferred making the car unsellable.  

If you are considering less “corporate” options such as small tuning shops, you should expect an approach a lot less “by the book”. Usually several details are simply discussed verbally and you should account for a variable margin of change that will be mostly entirely up to the shop. Pretty much imagine going to a Japanese restaurant and order the omakase (お任せ - chef selection) course: not everything you will receive will be of your liking. Personally I have never used any of these shops, but, after listening to friends experiences with renowned names like Mine’s and Worx, I would not recommend such options if you are OCD and very meticulous about details.

To summarize, navigating Japanese shops can be complicated and a bit frustrating at times, mostly due to language barriers and the slightly “safer” treatment reserved to people that are not in their inner circle yet. I would suggest doing as much due diligence as possible and, whenever possible, try and get directly involved.

Until next time.

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