Home » Massachusetts Announces A Japanese Car Ban And It’s Even Dumber Than You Think

Massachusetts Announces A Japanese Car Ban And It’s Even Dumber Than You Think

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Last month, I wrote about how Massachusetts had a secret policy to ban Japanese Kei-class imports. The policy has finally been ironed out and official documents have been created. There’s just one really large problem because Massachusetts has no idea what a Kei car actually is, and in making the policy the state has effectively banned all Japanese imports. The state is already rejecting the registrations of non-Kei vehicles. Don’t worry, it’s only going to get dumber from here.

All of this is a bit of a whirlwind. For more than three years, Maine, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Georgia all had some sort of issue with over 25-year-old vehicles imported from Japan. Maine is perhaps the most extreme of all as that state banned all imports regardless of country of origin. Michigan recently joined in on the banning party while enthusiasts in Texas were triumphant in getting anti-import policies overturned.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Most of the states targeting Japanese imports are going after Kei vehicles, short for kei-jidōsha, Japan’s smallest class of road-legal cars and trucks. Keis are popular in Japan because they’re smaller vehicles benefiting from lower taxes and overall lower costs of ownership. Plus, they’re easier to live with if you live in a tight environment.

Americans have been falling in love with Keis for a variety of reasons. Personally, I love the engineering involved in scaling real cars down to just barely larger than a carnival fun ride. My Honda Beat and Suzuki Every make my Smart Fortwos look like giants, yet they’re real, practical, funky vehicles. Small business owners also love Kei trucks and Kei vans because they can do real work for not a lot of money.

Mercedes Streeter

Based on this and the multiple state bans, you’d think Keis must be rushing through the border at a rate that must be a threat, right? Exact importation numbers for Kei vehicles are not known, but some estimates show that they’re not even a blip on the radar of America’s car sales. If you take the data from the Japan Used Motor Vehicle Export Association for gospel, just 7,594 Kei trucks were imported into America last year.

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These states are banning vehicles that don’t make a dent in the insane amount of cars sold in America. Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Stellantis have no reason to worry about a paltry 7,594 Kei trucks when combined, they sell millions of pickups every year.

Massachusetts Doesn’t Know What A Kei Car Is

Wallpapers Honda Civic 1997 1

I now have the Massachusetts official policy in hand and it’s somehow dumber than the secret policy was. Before we begin, let’s review why this is a problem, from my previous article:

America bans the importation of a vehicle unless it is either converted to EPA and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or is at least 25 years old. The EPA rule is a 21-year ban, but it is still effectively a 25-year ban since you’re usually trying to import a whole car. Anyway, once a car is at least 25 years old, the federal government no longer cares how safe the vehicle is.

However, there are two prongs to legalizing an imported vehicle, and pleasing the feds is just one of them. Your second hurdle is the state. The states reserve the right to dictate what vehicles can and cannot drive on their roads and as we’ve been seeing for more than three years, some states do not care if your vehicle got through Customs without a problem.

Raymond Moy

Enthusiasts have been going to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) offices to register imported vehicles, only to be turned away without any real explanation. Massachusetts, unlike other states, seemingly decided to ban cars without telling anyone about it. Those who did get some information were given vague explanations like the state no longer liked vehicles with short VINs. Others were told it was because the state is banning all vehicles that don’t meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), like Maine did.

I decided to get to the bottom of the issue and what RMV officials told me didn’t make any sense. The state told me that it wasn’t planning on a total import ban, but just Kei vehicles imported from Japan. One problem is that the state has no idea what a Kei vehicle is.

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When I wrote my original story, the RMV gave me a list of Kei vehicles that were banned in the state. That list was:

Honda Acty truck/van
Daihatsu Hijet, Daihatsu Atrai
Suzuki Carry, Suzuki Every
Mitsubishi Minicab truck/van
Mazda Porter Cab or Scrum
Subaru Sambar truck/van
Isuzu Mini Truck
Nissan Clipper
Toyota Lite Ace or Town Ace

I was told that this was just a preliminary list and that it could change once the policy is ironed out and published. The RMV also told me that the list isn’t exhaustive, meaning that the state is looking to ban any vehicle it deems to be a Kei.

The official policy has been published and the list of example Kei vehicles hasn’t changed:

Mass Rmv
Mass RMV

The state clearly has no idea what a Kei vehicle is. The “Isuzu Mini Truck” does not exist. Further, Isuzu is not a manufacturer of Kei trucks at all, so it’s not like they got their model names mixed up. Yet, I’ve spoken with RMV officials and they’re adamant that the “Isuzu Mini Truck” is a Kei vehicle.

The weirdness continues with the inclusion of the Toyota LiteAce.

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Toyota Liteace 1985 Pictures 1
Toyota

This is a van roughly the size of an equivalent period-correct Dodge Caravan and not by anyone’s definition a Kei vehicle. The Toyota was even sold in America for a short time as the Toyota Van!

Then there’s the Nissan Clipper, which is a line of Kei trucks and vans but won’t be eligible for importation until 2028.

Nissan Clipper Rio I Minivan 1
Nissan

Worse is how the state plans on identifying Kei vehicles. The preliminary policy involved identifying Kei vehicles by their short chassis codes (which the state calls a VIN) and by referencing the above list. Any vehicle found not in compliance with FMVSS was to be denied title and registration.

The published policy is somehow worse. The state offers four ways for its RMV offices to identify a Kei vehicle. Massachusetts says that Kei vehicles will have VINs shorter than 17 digits, will have model years older than 25 years, and first-time registrants will have documents in Japanese. Finally, RMV offices can reference a list of known Kei vehicles.

The problem is that these identification tactics cast a wide net. Every Japanese market vehicle imported from the country is going to have a short “VIN.” The country doesn’t use our 17-digit VIN system, but shorter chassis numbers. Remember that suspicious Skyline? Here’s its manufacturing plate again and note how there isn’t a VIN, but a chassis number:

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Sus Skyline
Cars & Bids Seller

That means everything from the Toyota Century V12 and a Toyota Coaster bus to a brand-new JDM Tundra will have a short code. If Massachusetts is looking to identify Kei vehicles through codes or the fact that export documents are in Japanese, then every JDM import is being threatened.

The effects of this are already being felt as enthusiasts are reporting troubles getting non-Keis registered. One person was turned away from the RMV after attempting to register an imported 1996 Honda Civic. Yet, because Massachusetts has no idea what it’s doing, others have reported success in getting non-Keis registered, including a retired large Japanese fire engine.

Why Is Massachusetts Doing This?

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NHTSA

The state says it’s doing this because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that mini trucks and Kei vehicles do not meet FMVSS and are not endorsed for highway use. For several years, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), the organization that started this whole saga, hosted an NHTSA document on its website. In that document, the NHTSA indeed indicated that mini trucks do not meet FMVSS and are not endorsed for road use.

However, the NHTSA gives exceptions to mini-trucks that are over 25 years old, temporarily imported by a tourist, or temporarily imported by foreign military or diplomats. As I noted earlier, the feds just determine whether the vehicle can be legally in the country without restriction, the final determination of registration is up to your state.

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NHTSA

Massachusetts appears to be referencing this AAMVA/NHTSA document as well as an NHTSA interpretation where the NHTSA reiterates that mini trucks should not be allowed on the road. Per this document, in the late 2000s, a person attempted to import a 2000 model-year Kei truck, making a case that the vehicle could go 70 mph and had safety equipment.

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However, the NHTSA pushed back, stating that the only way an under-25-year-old Kei truck can be legal for road use is if it is modified to comply with U.S. standards and has an FMVSS compliance label to prove it. In the eyes of the NHTSA, mini trucks are either 25 mph speed-limited machines used on farms and colleges or are over 25 years of age.

In regard to the situation, Massachusetts says:

A Kei class mini truck is a motor vehicle meeting the requirements of the Japanese “Kei Jidosha” classification or designation, used or maintained primarily for the transportation of property and having four wheels, an engine displacement of 660cc or less, an overall length of 130 inches or less, an overall height of 78 inches or less, and overall width of 60 inches or less.

These mini trucks and vans are typically imported and are more than 25 years old. Under the 25-year rule, Kei mini trucks and vans can be lawfully imported into the U.S. even if they do not comply with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), which these vehicles do not.

The Massachusetts RMV, under its authority, does not issue registrations and titles for these mini trucks and vans. As the RMV becomes aware that one of these vehicles may have been registered, it will contact the owner and inform them accordingly.

Ultimately, Massachusetts does retain the right to deny registration to vehicles it doesn’t want on its roads. So the state may have taken the wrong route to get there, but it is the technically correct conclusion.

The Damage

1992 Daihatsu Atrai Turbo Ex 4wd
Bring a Trailer Seller

Unfortunately, this whole mess is only just beginning. One thing we didn’t know was what Massachusetts was going to do with existing Kei vehicle registrations and titles.

Massachusetts has decided to land on the side of a full ban. The state plans to notify existing owners that their vehicles can no longer be registered for road use. In addition to refusing to register these vehicles, the state will also refuse to title these vehicles.

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This opens up another headache. The state recognizes that not being able to title these vehicles will cause problems in transferring ownership. Massachusetts offers no real solution, telling owners to sell their vehicles with a bill of sale and to seek legal help to legally transfer ownership without a title.

Remember, this is all happening while the state has no real idea of what a Kei vehicle is. So, I would expect the owners of non-Keis to have to fight this alongside Kei vehicle owners. Until something changes, enthusiasts are about to end up with expensive paperweights.

What Enthusiasts Are Doing

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Mitsubishi

Here’s the part where I sound like a broken record and quote myself from previous articles:

Unfortunately, if you’ve followed my work for long enough, you will know where I’m going with this. It would appear that Massachusetts is following guidance issued by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. I’ve written about these folks so much I can almost recite them like poetry, but click here to learn more about the AAMVA and why it’s a problem.

The group has been coming down hard on imported vehicles since the summer of 2021, with the publishing of a document instructing member states to ban any vehicle that doesn’t meet FMVSS. They’re the reason why so many states are suddenly banning vehicles seemingly out of nowhere. The crazy part about all of this is while the AAMVA has an ax to grind against Kei trucks, the group really wants to remove all gray market imports from America. So, if you’re a fan of any once-forbidden fruit from anywhere, not just tiny cars from Japan, you will want to do what you can to stop the spread of these bans.

As of right now, the shining examples of how to fight this are North Carolina and Texas. Enthusiasts in these states banded together and worked with their lawmakers to have anti-import policies overturned. Instead of being adversaries, they educated their lawmakers and DMVs on what Kei vehicles are and why they should be legal. North Carolina’s enthusiasts won the privilege to drive Kei trucks in 2019 while Texas was the first to beat the post-2021 AAMVA recommendations.

That said, this isn’t a surefire way to win. Maine’s enthusiasts and Georgia’s enthusiasts managed to convince lawmakers to write pro-import bills. Both of those bills have since died. Georgia’s bill also contained restrictions that would have limited Kei vehicles to being treated like side-by-sides, limiting them to local and county roads and banning them from state roads or greater.

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Georgians and Michiganders are also suing their states, and these enthusiasts can tell you that litigation is expensive, takes practically forever, and does not have a guaranteed result. The Georgia suit is currently stalled out as of the publishing of this article.

Still, the best thing you can do right now is to band together, make some friends in your state government, and push for the legalization of imported vehicles. Residents of Massachusetts are already doing that right now. If you’re a resident of Massachusetts and are interested in helping, join the Massachusetts JDM Imports Advocates group on Facebook. Also, write your local officials and tell them why the state is making a huge mistake.

Topshot rubber stamp element: slayed/stock.adobe.com

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Calder Smith
Calder Smith
2 days ago

Theoretically (hopefully? please?) Wisconsin is safe, due to the fact that every UW campus uses some form of kei truck or van as on campus transportation, delivery, etc. UW Eau Claire has about 25 Suzuki Every Vans (newer than 25 years might I add, but kei nonetheless), plus a few Suzuki Carry trucks and one or two Mitsubishi Minicabs. Eau Claire is a smaller campus in the UW system. I can’t imagine, if WI were to for some reason ban kei vehicles, how much money the Universities (and therefore the state) would have to spend on purchasing hundreds, if not THOUSANDS of new vehicles for every single campus.

The reason I’m worried? I really want a Honda Beat 🙁

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
2 days ago

Personally, I am a stickler for emissions compliance and would want the cleanest vehicle possible. It’s one of the reasons I moved on from motorcycles. A kei sized van would suit me well as an urban/suburban fetch vehicle. If I found one, I would convert it to an EV. I would prefer left hand drive, but it’s not a deal breaker. I do recall seeing some left hand drive kei vehicles in parts of Europe, so some may have been built. Possibly for the SK or China markets? Has anybody checked out the regulations in Canada? I do see kei trucks around in mostly BC, but also here in Ontario. I do know we only have a 15 year rule.

It would be funny if Massachusetts, or any other state outlawed right hand drive vehicles. The pissing match with the postal service would be a good show.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 day ago

“If I found one, I would convert it to an EV.”

FWIW there was someone selling a few electric Kei van and trucks on SFBA CL for a long time not long ago. I think they were asking $2500/ea. Green something brand, looked like typical university Keis. The location was Petaluma I think just north of SF. They might just have timed out of CL, if so I expect they’ll repost.

Or you might wait and see if this ever happens:

https://www.autoblog.com/2023/12/28/this-charming-electric-kei-van-has-plans-to-come-stateside/

MikeT-MA
MikeT-MA
2 days ago

Another long-time MA resident here. This is SO standard operating procedure for this state, you can’t even imagine the half of it. Total shitshow. All. The. Time.

Gonkulator
Gonkulator
2 days ago
Reply to  MikeT-MA

Yup and it’ll only get worse for years to come. I’m convinced no one in charge knows what they’re doing, they just got the job because they know someone.

Black Peter
Black Peter
2 days ago
Reply to  MikeT-MA

Back in the day motorcycles needed an inspection sticker, however since motorcycles didn’t have windshields ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Few ever got asked for one, and if you did you pulled the “must be in my other pants” defense. Well then MA got “smart”, they added the inspection as part of the plate renewal, your inspection sticker would be the year tag most states use for registration. a twofer. One of the main reasons for the new rule was loud pipes.
Of course then who would inspect motorcycles? The motorcycle dealers, no emissions just safety and noise, “loud pipes” were a failure. So one Saturday I’m queued up to get my new (i.e first) inspection sticker and I’m seeing everyone wheel their motorcycles into the garage bay for inspection, in fact everyone is pushing their bikes as the line moved. I asked the next guy in line; what’s up with that? “There’s noting in the rules that say the motorcycle has to be running”, not running = quiet exhaust.

This is what happens when bureaucrats develop technical legislation.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
2 days ago

Mass resident here. If you already have a kei vehicle registered, I wouldn’t worry about losing it. Just keep renewing the reg online and don’t let it expire. As Mercedes points out, they are casting such a wide net trying to ID these that the first non-kei vehicle that gets pulled off the road (especially if owned by a well-heeled collector) will cause the shit to hit the fan and will sink the project.

Also, look at your paperwork and see how it’s registered. My Vanagon got registered with a model name of “Camper” instead of Vanagon because the title from SC called it a camper.

If you’re trying to put one on the road, wait a bit for the dust to settle, try different RMV branches until someone lets it through.

TheCrank
TheCrank
2 days ago

It would be a great piece of investigative journalism to dig into the details about the AAMVA to figure out who they are and who is paying them. Some of the earlier commenters have already mentioned their public tax records – $50M is a big number – and submitting FOIA requests for their communications with public officials.

Bhtooefr
Bhtooefr
2 days ago

There is a huge part of me that wants to build a small three-wheel truck that is completely compliant with the FMVSS… for motorcycles.

(Or, for that matter, some Chinese three-wheel trucks were actually imported to the US, and were compliant with the FMVSS. (Turned out some of them weren’t EPA compliant, and the manufacturers were fined, but.) AFAIK, the Chinese three-wheelers are a lot less of a thing nowadays, though.)

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
2 days ago
Reply to  Bhtooefr

This sounds like a job for the Piaggio Ape!

TheDrunkenWrench
TheDrunkenWrench
2 days ago
Reply to  Bhtooefr

This sounds like a job for the Piaggio Ape!

Ricardo Mercio
Ricardo Mercio
2 days ago
Reply to  Bhtooefr

FWIW, the Honda Acty is rear-engined and body-on-frame, it wouldn’t take TOO much to weld the front half of a CB750 where the cab used to be and register it as a CB.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
2 days ago

The biggest issue with the JDM vehicles exported to the United States and registered for the public roads is the headlamps. With Japan being left-hand-rule-of-road, the headlamps have the kick-up to the left, blinding the approaching drivers. That is unless the owners bother to tape over the “bowtie” part on the lenses, a common practice in Europe when the vehicles for left-hand-rule-of-road are driven in the continental Europe and vice versa.

TriangleRAD
TriangleRAD
2 days ago
Reply to  EricTheViking

With our roads full of lifted trucks sporting supernova-bright LED headlights and driven by people who wouldn’t know how to properly aim them if forced at gunpoint, this doesn’t seem like a big problem.

M0L0TOV
M0L0TOV
2 days ago
Reply to  EricTheViking

So adjusting the aim on the headlights wouldn’t fix it?

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
2 days ago
Reply to  M0L0TOV

It helps, but it is not a fix. Some people call these ditch lights as they are designed to add extra illumination up and down the side of the road. So with a drive on left design, this broad beam of light is now shining into oncoming traffic’s eyes.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
1 day ago
Reply to  EricTheViking

How about retrofitting LHD sealed beam lamps? Is that an option?

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
2 days ago

If there’s any place I’ve ever wished I could be driving a kei car rather than, say, the Mercury Sable wagon I briefly used as a catering delivery vehicle, it was Boston.

If owners want to take highway-speed-capable models on multi-lane highways and interstates, to me, that’s their choice, just as motorcyclists are able to make that choice. Not even allowing kei vehicles to be operated on smaller roads feels objectively ridiculous.

With Massachusetts joining Maine and Rhode Island in this insanity, I wonder how long it’ll be until our (New Hampshire’s) easily-corrupted* legislature is pushed toward a similar bill? (We currently have an almost-good-enough allowance for kei trucks within a certain distance of home/business/farm. [Edit: My main objection is that they’re only officially allowed on roads with a speed limit up to 35 MPH, making them useless to many as farm-to-town vehicles.])

*Our legislators earn only $100/year plus travel costs. Guess how that works out?

Last edited 2 days ago by FuzzyPlushroom
Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
2 days ago
Reply to  FuzzyPlushroom

Boston is one of those places I’d rather not drive and, instead, take an Uber (or the T). A Kei car would make it more manageable, but still not pleasant IMHO.

I’d rather happily drive NYC, London UK, or even the highway-hell-of-Los Angeles than Boston.

RC
RC
2 days ago
Reply to  FuzzyPlushroom

My company has twice, through M&A, been owned by boston-based entities.

I once waited 2 hours to get into Cambridge due to traffic on the bridge.

The last time I was there, I reserved whatever the smallest car available was for rental. I landed at the airport and was offered my choice of a Transit van or a Jeep Cherokee. I was not happy about it (seriously, trying to park a van? in Cambridge?), and was told a Fiat 500 would be available in a minute or two. I ended up taking that, and it’s literally the only time in my life I’ve been happy to operate a Fiat product.

Like, go to Catalina, and it’s golf carts as far as the eye can see. While consumer safety is a perfectly fair thing to want to address, I don’t think anyone importing a Kei car is belaboring under the impression that it’s survivable on a 90MPH freeway jaunt, and these types of restrictions just make places like Cambridge less liveable (yes, “bike everywhere” sounds great until you need to go grocery shopping, or have a job that involves having to move more than a backpack).

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