Inside Japan’s Biggest Used Car Auction

Inside Japan’s Biggest Used Car Auction
Image: Ken Saito

Of the 4.4 million or so cars exported from Japan every year, around 1.4 million of those are used cars. Used JDM vehicles are the Japanese equivalent of a McDonald’s; there’s very few places in the world where you won’t see one.

Japan remains one of the biggest exporters for used cars in the world, and there are several ways of buying a used car from Japan. You could find a local contact to check dealer listings online, visit them in person, or you could buy from an auction site. The largest source of used cars in Japan is USS Auctions, so that’s precisely where I went.

USS Auctions sell cars to both domestic and foreign buyers, with over 10 locations across Japan. The biggest of these is the USS Noda location. It’s the biggest in Japan, with around 10,000 cars passing here every day. The second biggest is Nagoya with around 8,000 cars per day while the other locations average around 4,000 cars a day. Auctions at the Noda site are only held twice a week; Tuesday and Thursdays. However, not just anyone can walk in and place a bid on a car that tickles your fancy.

The thing is, you have to be a paying member of USS Auctions. Usually this happens if an existing member vouches for you and you have some sort of collateral like real estate. For most people it’s impossible to walk in and bid on the spot. Luckily, I was invited to check this out by a friend with connections to a dealer who was kind enough to bring me in to have a look.

I had no idea what to expect; the Noda site is just a little bit over an hour drive from Tokyo. It’s not housed in some grand arena-like building. Driving into USS Noda it just seemed like we were driving into a Costco car park. The first thing you notice pulling in as the vast amount of cars. I was warned there’d be a lot of cars, 10,000 in fact, but I couldn’t fathom the scale of it until I was there. The lot where that day’s cars were being held stretched beyond 2 kilometres.

There are shuttles taking people back and forth between sections of the lot because there’s just that many cars it’d take far too long to walk around trying to find the car you’re interested in that day. People can use these shuttles to inspect cars before bidding on them or simply collecting them after completing the paperwork after winning the auction. Cars were driving out regularly throughout the two hours I was there.

Walking around the lot is like being in a supermarket for cars. There’s so much choice and it’s recommended not to go there hungry. There’s everything from everyday A to B cars, tuner cars, classics, and even exotics. There was a whole selection of fancy cars at the entrance with examples from Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Lamborghini to choose from. But that’s no fun. No, the excitement was going around the lots trying to find the coolest and most interesting cars hidden in a sea of vanilla.

It didn’t take long to find some cool cars from the Nissan Figaro to the pair of Yakuza-spec 80s Mercedes S-Class, including a Lorinser-kitted 560SEL. In the “large vehicles” section, rather appropriately, was a W220 Mercedes S600 Pullman. If you want modern JDM goodies USS had no shortage of R35 GT-Rs and even had a couple of new Supras.

Remember this was just one day, the cars here change every time a new auction is. On this random day there were countless BMW Alpinas (Japan loves its Alpinas), plenty of 1990s Radwood-ready Mercedes including a mint E500, and a pair of fast Renault hatchbacks, one of which was the bonkers Clio V6, with the engine mounted where the back seats are supposed to go.

For those looking for “˜90s Japanese sports cars there was a section dedicated just for them. It had everything you could possibly think of from R32 and R33 GT-Rs, NSXs, S2000s, RX-7s, WRX STI, Evos, and the sort.

Hidden amongst the :normal” cars were a few goodies such as an Eunos Cosmo, a Juke NISMO, and an obligatory R34 GT-R. In another section were what appeared to be drift-spec cars such as Silvias, 86s, and an ultra-rare Nismo 270R. Sources differ but it looks like just 30 were made. That wasn’t even the best thing there. No, the best thing there was hands down the very legit TRD 3000GT tucked away in a random corner behind a Toyota Land Cruiser. God knows how much that went for.

Inside, buyers bid on cars in a lecture hall type room. There are two of these at USS Noda and around eight auctions happen at any given time. These auctions last only a few seconds so you have to be fast. You can bid with two controllers at a desk, making it feel like an arcade game. The bright lights, instant satisfaction, and occasional regrettable rewards reeks of something akin to a claw machine or slot games.

Over on the seller’s side, most stand by the auctioneers and advise them when to stop the auction. While cars are listed with reserve prices, if the sellers can see bids aren’t going any further, they can decide to sell at the current bid. Everything happens in an instant.

Most of the buyers present at the auctions are usually dealers buying cars for their inventory, likewise sellers here often put up cars they’ve received as part exchanges. There are several other auction sites in Japan, but USS is the most reputable. Its cars are checked by independent inspectors who give each car a fair grade rating. These ratings accompany each information sheet on the car for full transparency, along with the legendary surveillance camera-esque photos.

Dealers also have the option to have a USB key for the subscription fee of Â¥10,000 ($138) per month. With this USB key, they’re able to access the USS Auction database and bid on cars from the comfort of their own office. The grade rating of each cars is so trusted some dealers buy cars on the basis of the reports from the independent inspections alone. To go along with it, there are several companies in Japan that offer services in assisting distant buyers from sourcing a car to bidding on your behalf and even sorting out shipping.

USS is merely providing a platform for people to buy and sell cars. It’s like eBay but in real life. USS charges sellers a flat Â¥25,000 ($344) commission on any car sold and charge the same Â¥25,000 ($344) fee on any purchase made, regardless of the car. If it sells a Nissan Cube or a Lamborghini Murcielago, USS will only get a maximum Â¥50,000 ($688) on the sale. With 10,000 cars sold every day, twice a week, all year round, that’s not a bad deal at all. There is a “cheap corner” where cars in this area are only charged a Â¥9,000 ($123) commission.

This was just a small, sweet taste of what USS Auctions is like. It’s been one of those places I’ve been fascinated with ever since coming to Japan. I’ve always wanted to know where those auction cars being photographed by those grey walls end up. What was surprising was that the auction process itself was a bit underwhelming. It’s like watching someone else play some sort of arcade game, but the scope and scale of the cars that pass though them twice a week is beyond belief.