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Driving a Kei Truck to Fit In and Stick Out

Active Travel Japan founder Daniel Moore shares how the humble kei truck, gaining traction in the US, has helped him run his business and embrace his identity.



Daniel Moore on his kei truck. (©Daniel Moore)

Growing up in Japan and attending public school as a white kid, I stuck out. I see-sawed between attempting to fit in and accepting my fate, always wishing I could have been more "normal." Even though I grew up in Japan and spoke Japanese, my quest to fit in was inevitably futile. As an adult, besides being fun to drive, buying a kei truck feels like the culmination of the acceptance of my two worlds: an acknowledgment that I will always stand out in Japan and an appreciation of my difference. Here's my story through the windshield of a kei truck.

What is a kei truck? According to Wikipedia, it is "a mini truck, a type of pickup truck available in rear-wheel drive or four-wheel drive versions, built to satisfy the Japanese keijidosha (軽自動車, 'light vehicle') statutory class." 

A Symbol of Japanese 'Inaka'

More succinctly, the kei truck represents the Japanese countryside. You are not a real Japanese farmer unless you own one. Like pickup trucks in the United States, kei truck owners are a blue-collar, down-to-earth, working-class side of Japan. They wake up early, get it done, and put food on the table (minus the guns, religion, and gas-guzzling monster trucks. But with, perhaps unsurprisingly, the same support of right-wing politics). 

The kei truck is cheap, functional, minimalist, runs forever, gets incredible gas mileage, and would be a disaster in an accident. Every Japanese car maker produces at least one model, and its popularity never fades.

Here, I must admit one tidbit. At the risk of sounding ageist, kei truck drivers are considered reckless in the countryside, primarily because of the average age of those driving them. Did someone pull out in front of you? It's probably a kei truck. Are you stuck in traffic because a car ahead is driving 10 km under Japan's already ludicrously low speed limit? Kei truck. Can you smell a clutch burning or hear an engine revving because the driver never shifts out of first gear? You get the picture.

Daniel Moore (driver) and his friends on his kei truck. (©Daniel Moore)

Practicality and Popularity of Kei Trucks

Even in America, where a kei truck is considered a golf cart with a flatbed, it attracts fans. Although individual states restrict which roads kei trucks can access, these vehicles are now being used for many purposes, ranging from campus transportation and recreational activities to services provided by ambulance companies and police agencies. I suspect that states restrict their use more to protect American car makers than because of safety regulations. But who knows.

Since returning to Japan in 2015, I have inhabited Nagano Prefecture in the heartland of the Japanese mountains and inaka, or countryside. While resort towns like Hakuba and Karuizawa retain their popularity as international destinations for tourists and home-buyers, I prefer the areas where regular Japanese people live, the types who buy kei trucks. And in these areas, it is exceedingly rare to see a foreigner driving a kei truck. It is so rare that I have never seen one in real life. You cannot rent kei trucks, so tourists cannot drive them, and most international residents would never need one.

Yet, running my Airbnb business near Shiga Kogen and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, having a kei truck is useful for scooting around town, doing chores like taking out garbage, yard work, maintenance, and an occasional mountain adventure. I needed one for myself for all the same reasons (except farming) that make kei trucks popular with the Japanese. Besides, moseying around in a four-wheel drive manual, pretending to be Bowser in Mario Kart, is good old-fashioned fun.

The living room of Daniel Moore's Airbnb in 2023. (©Daniel Moore)

The Paradox of Standing Out

But to the point, driving a kei truck is a way of fitting in and acknowledging that I don't care about fitting in anymore. A kei truck is a way of adapting to the countryside because everyone else drives one. When I pull up to the local hot spring bath on a weekday afternoon when the farmers finish work, half the vehicles there are kei trucks. They are helpful, cheap, Japanese-made, and easy to drive, so why wouldn't I want one too? A kei truck is a stepping stone to becoming more integrated into inaka society and in a sense becoming more Japanese.

At the same time, virtually no Westerners drive kei trucks, so driving this symbol of integration causes me to stick out more. I often receive questioning glances around town, probably out of curiosity, bewilderment, and shock. Driving one feels like a statement. I am here to stay. I like my kei truck and don't care what you think. As a kid, I would have felt squeamish riding one, conspicuously looking around to confirm the stares I knew would arise. Now I ride boldly, windows down, a smile on my face, and sunglasses over my eyes. I already stick out, so what's the point of caring about sticking out more?

Daniel at Yamadera temple, located northeast of Yamagata city in 2023. (©Daniel Moore)

Thriving by Not Caring

Oddly, in a homogenous society where citizens strive to conform, one of the keys to thriving in Japan is not caring what people think. As a Westerner, dealing with society's expectations is easier because those expectations are often so much lower. 

Many Japanese friends who return to Japan after living abroad comment about seken no me or "the eyes of society" glaring at those who fail to conform. Yet, Japan is a free society where anyone can act as they please. Japan is also changing rapidly, and for international residents, returnees, and Japanese alike, being yourself is possible and a welcome addition to Japan's diversity. 

Moving forward, Japan cannot help but become more diverse, inclusive, and accepting of people living their lives however they choose. Once that is the norm, Japan will be an even more interesting place to reside, thrive, and drive a kei truck.


Author: Daniel Moore

Learn more about the wild side of Japan through Daniel's essays.