Kei – car ? ]

A Kei car, K-car, or (軽自動車) “kei-jidōsha” literally “light automobile”, is a Japanese category of small car of 660cc or less, which includes passenger cars, microvans, and pickup trucks. The trucks are known as “kei-tora”(軽 トラ), “tora” being a poorly contracted version of the word  “truck”.  The cars have to adhere to a set length, width, height and weight which is strictly controlled.

Max : (as of 1/10/1998)   Length 3.4 m (11.2 ft)   Width 1.48 m (4.9 ft)   Height 2.0 m (6.6 ft)

After World War II, the kei car was born as the public car.  It was in May 1955 that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) announced a promotional program called the “People’s Car”.  Their executive summary of the foreseen car was described as, “A 4-seater with a top speed of 100 kph, priced at ¥150,000 (£1,145)”.

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The engineers of the Nakajima Aircraft Company  (中島飛行機株式会社) Nakajima-Hikōki-Kabushiki-Kaisha developed the first truly successful kei car (above), the Subaru 360 (1958-1971).

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 ( The Suzuki Wagon R (above), is the best selling kei car in Japan since 2003 )

Kei cars are designed to comply with Japanese government tax and insurance regulations, and in most rural areas are exempted from the requirement to certify that adequate parking is available for the vehicle.  Some roads are also specifically marked for kei-cars only, due to their narrow width.  This especially advantaged class of cars was developed to promote popular motorisation in the post-war era.  While successful in Japan, the genre is generally too specialised and too small to be profitable in export markets.

The different types of Number Plates


( Pre 1974 private kei car plates )      


( Pre 1974 commercial plates )


( Today private plates have black numbers on a yellow background )


( Commercial plates have yellow numbers on a black background )

Until 31st December 1974, kei-cars used smaller license plates than regular cars (230 × 125 mm).  As of 1975, kei cars received the medium-sized standard plates (330 × 165 mm). To set them apart from regular-sized cars (not kei), the plates were now yellow & black rather than white & green.

ad19   ” T A X A T I O N “

Vehicle Excise Tax :  The taxable amount is 3% of the purchase price, compared to 5% for a larger car.

Automobile Weight Tax :  The amount is ¥13,200 (£83) and ¥8,800 (£55) for a three- and two-year period respectively, as compared to the ¥18,900 (£119) and ¥12,600 (£79) charged for larger size passenger cars.  The savings are thus more than 30% in both cases.  This weight tax is paid after the vehicle has passed its safety inspection (shaken)*.

*(車検) “shaken“, is a contraction of “jidōsha-kensa-tōroku-seido” (自動車 検査 登度), meaning “automobile inspection registration system”,  and is the name of the vehicle inspection program in Japan for motor vehicles over 250 cc in engine displacement, similar to the MoT in the UK.

Automobile Liability Insurance (Compulsory Insurance) Premiums :  A 24-month insurance contract typically costs ¥18,980 (£119) at the time of registration, versus ¥22,470 (£141) for a larger car.

Annual Road Tax :  Tax is based on the engine’s displacement.  Due to the popularity of “light cars”, a tax was placed on the size of these vehicles called the Light Motor Vehicle Tax.  The car tax on “light cars” below 1,000 cc is ¥7,200 (£45), or ¥4,000 (£25) for commercial vehicles (some local governments may charge more based on local regulations).


To promote the growth of the car industry, as well as to offer an alternative delivery method to small business and shop owners, kei car standards were created.  Originally limited to a mere 150 cc (100 cc for 2-strokes) in 1949, dimensions and engine size limitations were gradually increased (in 1950, 1951, and 1955) to tempt more manufacturers to produce kei cars.

’61-’62 Suzulight 360 Van: kc20  Subaru 360: kc21

With the 1955 change to 360 cc as the upper limit for 2-strokes, as well as 4-strokes, the class really began taking off, with cars from Suzuki (Suzulight) and then the Subaru 360, the first mass produced kei car, finally able to fill the people’s need for basic transportation without being too severely compromised.

’69 Honda N360 Sedan: kc22  ’70 Honda Z GS: kc23

The class then went through a period of ever increasing sophistication, with an automatic transmission appearing in the Honda N360 in August 1968, with front disc brakes becoming available on a number of sporting kei cars, beginning with the Honda Z GS of January 1970.

’77 Daihatsu Fellow Max SS: kc24 kc25 (Daihatsu 360 in Europe)

Power outputs also kept climbing, reaching a peak in the 40 PS (29 kW, 39 hp) Daihatsu Fellow Max SS of July 1970.  Sales increased steadily, reaching a peak of 750,000 in 1970.

Throughout the 1970’s, the government kept whittling away at the benefits offered to kei vehicles, which combined with ever stricter emissions standards to lower sales drastically through the first half of the decade.

Honda and Mazda withdrew from the contracting passenger kei car market, in 1974 and 1976, respectively, although they both maintained a limited offering of commercial vehicles.

Since WWll, engine sizes have changed 3 times

The 360-cc era (1949–1975):


( An early 1955 Suzulight SD delivery van )

The 550-cc era (1976–1990):


( A 1976 4-stroke Daihatsu S40 series van )

The 660-cc era (1990–date):


( The 2001 Smart K, discontinued in 2004 )


You may have noticed that some kei-cars bear stickers or magnetic signs on the front and rear of the car, these are explained below :

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(The “Shoshinsha” and “Kōreisha” marks are used to warn drivers about other drivers)

Related image  The “Shoshinsha” / “Wakaba” Mark  Related image

The “Shoshinsha” mark ( 初心者 マーク) or as it is sometimes known as the Wakaba mark ( 若葉 マーク), introduced in 1972, is a green and yellow V-shaped symbol that new Japanese drivers must display on their cars for one year.  A driver must display this mark on the front and back of the car for one year after they obtain a standard driver’s license.  This obligation is only for a standard license, not for motorcycles, large vehicles, special cars, etc.  Drivers who consider themselves beginners may continue to display the sign, even after the period of a year.  Its official name is the “Beginner Drivers Sign” ( 初心 運転者 標識 ) Shoshin Untensha Hyōshiki.

The “kōreisha” mark ( 高齢者 マーク), is a sign that denotes an older driver is at the wheel. It is a statutory sign contained  in the Road Traffic Laws of Japan and indicates that “an aged person is in control of the car”.  Its official name is the “Aged Drivers Sign” ( 高齢 運転者 標識 ) kōrei untensha hyōshiki.  The law decrees that when a person who is aged 70 and over drives a car and if their old age could affect their driving, they should endeavor to display this mark on both the front and rear of the car.  It is mandatory for drivers aged 75 and over to display the mark, which other drivers have to take due notice of.

In the 2004 anime series Sgt. Frog, Private 2nd Class Tamama wears a reverse shoshinsha on his stomach and head, this is in reference to Tamama’s status as the youngest, lowest-ranking member of the Advance Recon Mission Preparatory Invasion Terror (A.R.M.P.I.T.) Platoon !!

The “kōreisha” mark (above) was instituted in 1997 and used until January 2011.  The orange and yellow teardrop-shape is also sometimes called the “momiji mark” ( 紅葉 マーク), meaning autumn leaf mark, being a nod to advancing years.  Other terms are used, which show different levels of politeness.  Some people call it the “kareha mark” ( 枯れ葉 マーク) dried leaf mark or “Ochiba mark” ( 落葉 マーク) fallen leaf mark), but this is a more informal title, and considered less polite.

  The New “Kōreisha” mark  Related image

The new “Kōreisha mark” (above) has been in use since February 2011.  Owners of Japanese classic cars outside of Japan sometimes use these marks to denote the car as being old, or to refer to themselves as an experienced driver.


N  O  T  E  :

Although this site is dedicated to kei-cars, from time to time we mention other types of cars, mostly of vehicles of less than 660cc that do not fall within the kei-class category such as micro cars.  Occasionally vehicles above 660cc will also get a mention when related to a relevant article, for example…

See: Honda ‘S’ Series in “Sports”


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