Twenty-five years ago, nobody was buying things like HKS exhaust systems and Mugen rims because of any sort of perceived exclusivity. Nobody cared that they were rare. There was no Instagram for anybody to properly execute the humble-brag in which that selfie somehow and fortuitously captured in the background a half-dozen sets of limited-run wheels that nobody'll ever use nor sell. Today, the rationale for whether or not JDM parts are worth it has expanded. And 25 years later, the question still looms: Are they the best?
IN THE BEGINNING
It's '91 and the boost controller you just made out of air compressor parts from Sears means your MkIII Supra decided it wanted to start detonating. Then, you had all kinds of choices so long as the solution started with HKS and ended with its Additional Injector Controller. Looking for lightweight wheels for that brand-new CRX of yours that'll actually fit? Say hello to a little company called Mugen. Like it or not, these were the players, and unless you were satisfied with things like Ultra Flo mufflers that belong on a Ranchero and Primax tri-spokes that had the performance advantages of cinder blocks, you'd be scouring the greater Los Angeles area for the few shops that could deliver.
By '95, Japanese parts were no longer requisite. American-based brands like Stillen, DC Sports, and AEM had arrived, and you getting something like that MKIII Supra to stop detonating was all of a sudden a whole lot easier. And then a funny thing happened: The less everyone needed those Japanese-made parts, the more somebody else wanted them. The JDM acronym was coined by the same people who think chassis codes make more sense, boy racers began buying Japanese parts for the sake of them being Japanese parts, and, all of a sudden, that HKS exhaust and those Mugen rims got a whole lot more expensive. All of a sudden, JDM wasn't a point of origin; it was, for better or worse, a subculture.
You think your header was made in Southern California and your rims someplace no farther than 30 miles outside of Tokyo, and you're wrong on both counts. Unlike 25 years ago and with that old HKS exhaust, outsourcing materials and manufacturing processes are so prevalent now that, a lot of times, you'll be hard pressed to know what continent that wideband controller of yours really came from. This can be a problem. It can also be a non-issue. Come to grips with the fact that many JDM parts are manufactured in Taiwan, China, Vietnam, or elsewhere and you're one step closer to understanding global manufacturing and why developed countries with pollution laws and high labor costs like Japan and the U.S. choose to outsource. And it isn't just the company that made your valvesprings. Chances are, that crankshaft or oil pump stuck inside whatever Japanese car it is that you're mobbing around in came from, oh, say, Taiwan. If you're Honda, for instance, and have the means to control the sort of bits that come off of that Taiwanese assembly line, then life is good. If you're the Southern California tuning parts company that's in the business of ordering up ready-made shocks and plopping your company's decals on them, trouble's inevitable. The problem, then, isn't so much where the parts are made, but who, in fact, is selling them.
THE STATE OF JDM
So are JDM parts worth it? The answer is yes, no, and maybe sometimes. Today, it's just as common for American-made parts to make their way onto Japanese cars as it for Japanese parts to make their way onto American cars. It turns out that origin is a whole lot less important than things like proper development, engineering, material selection, and quality control—all of which can occur anywhere from Phoenix to Osaka and parts in between. This isn't '91 anymore; there's a whole world of quality parts for you to take advantage of.