Why are used cars, beautiful old houses and vintage kimonos so cheap in Japan?

The longer you’re in Japan—a place known for the meticulous preservation of its ancient sites and the intricacy of its recycling rules—the weirder it seems that Japanese people insist on buying only new houses, new cars, new clothing, new everything. Saddest of all, they often even refuse to adopt pets that had previous owners.

It’s especially inexplicable when you can buy used things in pristine condition for a pittance, compared to what they cost new. A kimono that might set you back $73,000 if you have it made up from a fresh bolt of National Living Treasure designed cloth at Mitsukoshi…

Expensive kimono on display at Mitsukoshi

…might be had for $5 if you pick it up at a secondhand kimono shrine sale booth.

Five hundred yen kimonos for sale at the Setagaya Boroichi flea market

Old houses sell for a sum that’ll have you doublechecking the number of zeroes—this one is on the market for less than $50,000 USD—despite the fact that it features beautiful planed wood joists, thick plaster walls, and gracious rooms…

Living space in traditional country house for sale in Japan

…while teensy new “mansion” apartments are papered in icky textured plastic and are so cramped that the Japanese version of IKEA has aisle upon aisle of goods designed to help you cram your everyday belongings into the meager square meterage you’re paying an arm and a leg for.

Closet organizer in a Japanese apartment

Then they’ll sell you a tool to help you retrieve the stuff that has to be stored too high for you to reach.

Tool for hanging up clothes

Some of this can be explained by arcane local economics—for example, the powerful car industry (for obvious reasons) influenced the government to make it increasingly expensive to register and inspect cars more than three years old, so most people replace their cars with a new model long before it would be considered “old” anywhere else. You’d think that would spawn a robust market for barely-used cars with super-low mileage, but no. They’re shipped overseas, post-haste. But…why?

The truth is, many people believe that the longer an object exists, the more likely it is to become sentient (or at the very least, absorb the good/bad luck of its owner).

It’s generally agreed that anything over a hundred years old has acquired some measure of consciousness (a “soul,” if you will) but an object can become aware of its situation far sooner than that. That splendid antique cup you bought for ¥100 at the shrine sale because it has a microscopic chip in its foot might decide it’s payback time just as you’re serving some piping hot tea to your granny. And only a fool would trust that three-year-old car with only 5,000 miles on it not to resent the fact it’s owner bumped it against the carport post every time they parked it. Old houses? Don’t get me started. How could they not be haunted?

Which is why Japan holds ceremonies like the memorial for used pins and needles, to solemnly thank them for their service and honorably dispose of objects that have outlived their usefulness.

I still see you shaking your head in wonder at these ideas rooted in the ancient culture that reveres eight million Shinto gods who inhabit trees, rocks and waterfalls. But if you’ve ever had to throw away a beloved stuffed animal, I think you understand this better than you think. There’s a reason shrines put up these big signs on the bins erected to collect amulets and other sacred goods before burning them in the New Year’s bonfire.

Sign forbidding throwing away daruma figures, dolls and stuffed animals at the shrine bonfire collection point

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Maybe the Japanese idea that things can become more than things has something to it, after all…

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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