A Car Nerd's Guide To JapanAn insider look at car culture in Japan.

Japan has long been one of Ferrari’s strongest markets. But within the car community here, many attribute much of the Italian brand’s success in the Land of the Rising Sun to one man: Toru Kirikae. Kirikae-san is regarded as the godfather of Ferrari in Japan and is called by his friends as “Mr. Ferrari.” Quite the reputation to uphold.

So when my friend Mr. Miura, himself a long-time friend of Kirikae-san (and a Ferrari collector who also has a Lamborghini Miura), invited us to get to know his story, I jumped at the chance.

Mr. Miura’s collection is quite possibly one of the best in Japan, and it’s impressive enough on its own. But he kept talking praise about how Kirikae-san was the person he looked up and that he was the Ferrari guy of Japan. We convoyed from Mr. Miura’s collection with him in his Rosso Barchetta Enzo and me in a Toyota Alphard. (I just can’t get enough of those.)

Before leaving the collection, Mr. Miura showed us old photographs of Kirikae and him from back in the old days cruising around in supercars, Mr. Miura in a Countach LP400 and Kirikae-san in his 365BB. These were friends way back when, but lost contact for about 30 years. This would’ve been their first time talking to each other in person after all the time.

Kirikae-san is a proper old school Japanese guy. He had this captivating charm about him as he reminisced about the glory days of the supercar boom in Japan. He was full of enthusiasm and had a sparkle in his eye as he reminisced about the past, where he said his “best memories were.” He describes himself as a driver first and foremost as opposed to a strict collector.

For him, this passion started in 1971, when he was 24 years old. He recalled when was out driving in his Nissan Skyline GT-R with three friends when they came across a red Dino 246GT.

“It was the first time I laid eyes on a car with such striking looks and beautiful curves.”, Kirikae-san said. “I thought how beautiful the red paint was. At the time I wondered how it must feel to own such a car,” though his friends thought someone with a car like that mustn’t be very nice.

At this point in his life he was still involved with Japanese sports cars, and he worked on the Mazda Wankel engine.

But Kirikae-san saw the potential and the appeal for Ferrari in Japan early on. He started bringing in parallel imported European-spec Ferraris at such a high rate he was almost competing with Cornes, the then official sole distributor and dealer of Ferrari in Japan.

By this point he had also set up his own shop, Racing Service Dino, which he still runs today. The name pays homage to that first encounter with a Dino 246GT.

From there, his passion for Ferrari just got bigger and bigger. In 1982 he established and was chairman of the first Ferrari Owners Club in Japan. During the supercar boom in Japan during the mid-1970s and ‘80s, Kirikae-san used every medium he had to get the word about Ferrari out into a wider audience. He wanted Ferrari to be a household name.

It’s hard to think of a time when it wasn’t, but in the 1970s it didn’t have its badge on perfume, hats and jackets. Japanese audiences only had the chance to see Ferraris in action twice in the ‘70s during the Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji in ‘76 and ‘77. The next Grand Prix would be in 1987.

The ’70s and ’80s was a good time for luxury European brands—the Japanese were buying them in a frenzy amid a surging economy. According to a JP Morgan study, Japanese tourists back then accounted for 80 percent of sales at Louis Vuitton’s Champs Elysées store. The first freestanding Chanel store in the United States was only opened because of the amount of Japanese tourists vacationing in Hawaii. 

Kirikae-san was invited to do a quiz-type television show about supercars on TV Tokyo. He even recorded a song with Colombia Records. You can listen to this catchy gem here:

Completing the media trifecta, he published his own book about his story with Ferrari. After the book came out, he noticed an uptake in appreciation of Ferrari and it gaining a more mainstream recognition. He felt as if his job had been done.

That is, until he got a F40. Annoyed by all the people saying it wasn’t as good as Ferrari claimed it and doubting its abilities—hard to believe now, considering what an icon that car is—he sought to prove them wrong.

The best way he thought of doing this was to video himself driving the F40 at its top speed. Let’s not forget, the F40 was the first production car to break the 200 mph (320 km/h) barrier.

Acting on his own, without any support from Maranello, he made a video of him trying to max out the F40 on a banked circuit. However, at the time they didn’t film the speedometer, so instead of redoing the run on the banked circuit, he just did the top speed run on the motorway, achieving 317 kph—197 mph.

As soon as word spread, newspapers were calling him up asking to confirm. Being the kind of man he is, he proudly admitted it was him. But against his intentions, the video leaked. As you can imagine got him in quite some trouble—the public response was extremely negative, and the police charged him with reckless driving and a fine of ¥200,000 ($1,800).

Kirikae-san didn’t go into further detail as it seems he didn’t want to talk about it much. He said every time the story resurfaces it “agitates his haters more.”

Funnily enough, the video itself couldn’t be traced back to him; only when he took credit it for it did the police catch on. However, Kirikae-san said he didn’t regret it. “I was able to show the power of Ferrari and it boosted my popularity.”

Of all the things Kirikae-san had done, the F40 video was arguably the most infamous. Obviously, he said it was also a “different time back then” with all the Midnight Club street races going on. Doing a stunt like that now would definitely not be recommended, and probably received even more poorly.

(For context, the Midnight Club was a street racing organization established in the late ’80s. Guys in heavily modified Porsche 911 Turbos, Nissan Skyline GT-Rs and other high performance cars would have races at night between the motorways connecting Tokyo and Yokohama; the Wangan Highway and the Tomei Expressway. The only condition of entry was that your car had to do at least 160 mph, so the pursuit of a 200 mph top speed was desirable.)

He channeled that pursuit for speed in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s on the track, by becoming the Ferrari Challenge Japan champion three years in a row in 1999, 2000, and 2001. At 72 years old now, he still keeps on racing with a 458 Challenge. His son also takes part with a separate car.

Racing Service Dino is still the go-to place to service Challenge Cars in Japan and still has a nice inventory of classic and modern Ferraris. But only Ferraris—his brand loyalty can’t be broken.

Interestingly, he found the most success not through the shop or the racing, but through karate dojos. He opened up a bunch during the 1980s Bubble Era boom years, and that’s how he was able to afford his love for Ferraris and racing.

Today, he still has a humble collection. He showed us his personal garage with a mixture of old, new, road legal and race cars. He had a gorgeous blue 456GT, a 458 Speciale, and of course, the very same 365BB he’s had since 1976.

Naturally, being Japanese, he couldn’t leave it untouched and so he’s modified it a bit with the Koenig exhaust being the most notable addition. As we’ve seen before from the various car meets, events, and shows in Japan, they just can’t leave supercars alone. But otherwise, the condition looked like it just came out of the factory. It was pristine and clearly well loved.

Hearing all these stories from Kirikae-san left me in awe. I’ve been fascinated by this era in Japan for a long time now, especially the peak of the Bubble Economy where the Japanese bought everything and anything.

The way Kirikae-san talked about those was like hearing stories from another world. The supercar dream was very much alive back then and there was no lack of imagination on what to do with them. There were wilder modifications, crazier stunts to prove their performance (like V-maxing them on a motorway) and a more freewheeling attitude towards them in general.

The tragic crash which resulted in a death during a Midnight Club race in the late ‘90s caused the club to break up due to their policy of disbanding if anyone ever died from their activities, as mentioned in this article.

It’s no coincidence the cars and modifications of this era have inspired today’s tuners. Anjia, Morohoshi, and Nakai were all around during this and has clearly influenced their unique way of tuning as well as their choice of cars. Seeing and hearing how he devoted so much time and effort on getting Ferrari to become a household name in Japan simply because from how it made him feel in the past was admirable.

That passion still exists today, even if it looks and feels different.

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