Auto thefts in Japan record first rise in a decade

March 23rd, 2012 by Philip Brasor & Masako Tsubuku

Sitting pretty: Hiace with steering wheel lock

In 2011, 24,928 cars were stolen in Japan, an increase of 1,153 vehicles compared to 2010. This was the first time the number of thefts had gone up since 2001 when 63,275 cars were stolen. Obviously, things have gotten a lot better since then, owing mainly to the standardization of electronic ignition systems, which make it more difficult for thieves to start a car and drive it away.

The General Insurance Association of Japan reports that the model stolen the most — based on statistics from November — is Toyota’s large van, Hiace, which isn’t to say it was the model most targeted by thieves. Hiace does not have electronic ignition as a standard feature, thus making it relatively easier to hot wire. Its popularity among regular ignition cars, though, is well-known by insurers, who say that Hiaces have three things going for them in terms of resellability: They are very durable, they are easy to find parts for, and they are very popular overseas. They’re the Kalashnikovs of the automotive world.

The GIA doesn’t reveal how much its members shelled out in claims for stolen cars. Collision insurance for one’s own car is optional in Japan, and the customer can decide the level of coverage. The same is true of optional auto theft insurance. Since mandatory liability insurance runs car owners around ¥50,000 a year regardless of how old the car is, many people just don’t buy optional auto insurance.

It may depend on how much the car is worth to you. The second most stolen car in Japan last year was the Celsior, the highest-grade Lexus model (called Lexus LS in the United States). Again, the main reason for the car’s popularity among thieves is due to its popularity overseas, which is where almost all cars stolen in Japan seem to end up. According to an NHK special report that ran last year on the “A to Z” in-depth news show, car theft rings in Japan sometimes take orders for specific makes from clients in other countries, and the most in-demand models are Celsiors and Land Cruisers, both made by Toyota, which earned the dubious distinction of holding the top five places for most-stolen models in 2011 (Hiace-Celsior-Land Cruiser-Crown-Prius). The manufacturer with the second highest numbers of purloined cars was Honda, but the number of Toyotas pinched was ten times more.

It’s important to point out that Celsiors and most other luxury (kokyu) models have electronic ignition, so the slight year-to-year increase in thefts could indicate better technology on the part of thieves in starting cars equipped with immobilizers, which are electronic devices that prevent the car from being started unless the actual key is present in the car. Or it might be due to more people just leaving their keys in their cars, which seems to be a factor in about a third of all car theft cases.

The vast majority of stolen cars are taken from parking lots, with private garages/parking spaces coming second and street parking a distant third. The number one prefecture for stolen cars was Aichi, which happens to be where Toyota is headquartered, accounting for a whopping 39 percent of the nation’s car thefts. It’s not clear how many stolen cars were recovered by police in 2011. The latest figure we could find for catching car thieves was 20 percent in 2004. Law enforcement is apparently busy looking for stolen bicycles when they aren’t away on departmental excursions.

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