Dajiban! How the Humble Dodge Ram Van Rose to Racing Stardom in Japan

Photo Credit: Dino Dalle Carbonare, Speedhunters

America runs on the full-sized van. They deliver our packages, they transport our tools, they tour our punk bands, and they even house some of our adventurous explorers. They go by many names: the Transit® van, the cargo van, the Sprinter van, and the commercial truck. They’re the beige wallpaper of the street — hanging around on every corner, but not really noticed or seen. You probably passed a dozen of them on your way to work today without so much as batting an eye. 

But, as the cliché goes, they’re really big in Japan. 

We sat down with Tokyo-based car journalist Dino Dalle Carbonare to discuss how and why the humble, utilitarian Dodge van rose to cool car cult status — including a dedicated racing circuit — over in Japan.

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Only in Japan

Photographer, car enthusiast and co-founder of Speedhunters, Dino Dalle Carbonare’s taste in cars is as diverse as his background. Born in Italy, Dino was taught from a young age that cars were an art form. He remembers regularly attending Hill Climb races with his family in Italy up until they moved to the UK when he was eight. 

His years in the UK were spent leaning against the walls of local bookshops, where Dino devoured every car magazine he could get his hands on. Inspired by the glossy, full-bleed photos, Dino decided he was meant to be an automotive journalist. At age 17, he moved to Japan to pursue his dream — in the country where car culture lives, acts and drives a little differently. 

“This Dodge van phenomenon is something that could only happen in Japan, where everybody wants to create or expand on their own ideas, no matter how weird or bizarre other people may think they are. Car culture is different here. Standing out is very important. But you’re not trying to impress the whole world. It’s all about your niche community. And ironically, that’s how to create something that the whole world notices.” – Dino Dalle Carbonare

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Why Dodge Vans?

Dajiban — which is simply the Japanese phonetic translation of “Dodge Van” — builds typically begin with a secondhand Dodge van from the 80s, 90s, or early 00s. The fact that these vehicles are both common and not highly desirable in the US is a contributing factor to their rise to fame in Japan in that they are relatively inexpensive and easy to import.

In the mid-00s, the vehicles became popular with motorcyclists, as they were a great method of bike transportation that kept racing bikes out of the elements. Their wide, roomy stance made a perfect fit for this use but also turned heads in Japan without any modifications. 

“They have that impossibly American nineties look about them, and they're way wider than anything you would ever find in Japan. They stood out in the Japanese market from the beginning. Their boxy, cartoonish shape makes them almost look like toys. Like the matchbox vans, you used to play with as a kid.”

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More than Utility 

For years, the motorcycle racing scene in Japan relied on using vans to haul their bikes and gear. In the beginning, they were purely utility vehicles. Cool utility vehicles, no doubt. But they came with plenty of XL American charm. 

“The Japanese embrace American culture not only in cars but in everything. If it's foreign, it's American. You see a lot of muscle cars in Japan. Rat rods and hot rods of all types. If you hang around the right circles, you’ll see a lot of Corvettes and Chargers as well. A bit of America is never hard to find in Japan.”

The Dodge van’s great leap out of utilitarian obscurity and onto the main stage started as a bit of a joke. One fated day, in the middle of a motorcycle race, one competitor finished his lunch early and came up with a silly idea. On break in-between races, he took his van out for a lap around the empty track. 

Taking a full-sized Dodge van out for a lap on a race track is a little like putting a hippo in a tutu and asking it to twirl. 

“People were just dying laughing seeing this thing barely make it around the corner. But it did make it! And then another guy took his van out, claiming he could go faster. And another. And another. It spiraled from there. Just a bunch of guys trying to outdo themselves to be faster but also funnier. Because that’s what Dajiban always has been: a bit of fun among friends.” 

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A Circuit is Born

From that day forward, the Dodge vans in Japan weren’t just vans anymore. Competitors began modifying their vans to come back to the event next year with a bigger, buffer hippo to take for a spin and hopefully win what quickly became one of the most sought-after titles in the scene. 

Now a full-fledged racing circuit, Dajiban hosts several events a year, culminating in an annual Grand Prix, typically held in June. For their biggest event of the year, the community rents out the Ebisu Circuit up in the Fukushima mountains. It’s a complex of five different tracks housed in one big venue. 

The D-Van GP (Dodge Van Grand Prix) is a one-day event, but it’s customary to spend the night in town before and after the race. The night before is for the prep, and the night after is for the party. June is the rainiest season in the region, so track rental rates are low, and the racing can get sloppy. But that’s all a part of the fun. 

“I’ve had the chance to go out for a lap in one of the vans, and let me tell you: these guys are nuts. I couldn't believe what the driver was doing with this box on wheels. I don’t think he ever hit the brakes. I was bouncing up and down in my seat, and the driver just had a huge grin on his face the whole time.”

The big GP prize at the end? A trophy, some very valuable stickers, and bragging rights until next year. ​​​​​​​

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What Makes a Stock Dodge Van a Dajiban?

The relatively low price of a secondhand van in Japan means that there’s plenty of budget to blow on making it your own. As niche and DIY as it is, the Dajiban scene isn’t exactly elitist or purist. However, a handful of popular mods have emerged that together signify that a certain van isn’t just a van — it’s a Dajiban build:

  • Lowered stance, as low as you can safely go.
  • 8-spoke wheels, typically Wantanabes, in a 15 or 16-inch size.
  • Very precise wheel fitment, down to the millimeter. 
  • BFGoodrich® Radial T/A® Tires, for their classic look and on-road performance.
  • Modified brakes. Ferrari Brembo calipers are common. 
  • Yellow-tinted headlights.
  • Side-exit exhaust. 
  • Racing seats.
  • Engine swap, if you’re serious about speed.
  • Air dam in the front.
  • Diffuser in the back.
  • A personal touch. No van is complete without a few stickers and some tasteful rearview mirror decor.

 

“One thing about the Japanese is that they really know how to nail stance. I come from Italy and I see a lot of Italian cars here that are modified with aftermarket parts, and they always make them look so nice! Nicer than they look in Italy. It may also have something to do with the roads. Japan has nice roads, so if you want to ride low and quite stiff, you don’t have to worry about potholes.”

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Small Scene, Big Splash

Dino estimates that there are only about 100 Dajibans actively racing in Japan today. Maybe 150 total on the road. This isn’t a huge community by the numbers, but the circuit’s uniqueness and charm have made Dajiban famous the world over. So famous that small groups of American car enthusiasts are now building Dajibans of their own stateside. Even going so far as to import parts or vehicles back to the US for the project. Americans inspired by the Japanese inspired by Americans.

The whole thing has some Japanese builders introducing a new cliché:

“Did you know I’m really big in California?”

 

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