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While Japan's local gov'ts face cash crunch, one pref. dropped $200,000 on official car

The Toyota Century bought by Yamaguchi Prefecture to transport "honored guests" but currently being used by the prefectural assembly chairman is seen in the prefectural headquarters' car park on Sept. 24, 2020. (Mainichi/Hideho Furihata)

Even as steadily worsening fiscal conditions have forced most local governments across Japan to tighten their belts, 12 prefectural governments have found room in their budgets to buy luxury model Toyotas, including Yamaguchi Prefecture's purchase of a Century -- a sedan clocking in at more than 20 million yen (about $190,000) -- as an official car, a Mainichi Shimbun survey has found.

    Yamaguchi Prefecture in western Japan bought a late model Century this fiscal year to ferry around the prefectural assembly chairman and "honored guests" such as members of the Imperial Family. The Mainichi survey of all Japan's 47 prefectures found that eight others -- Saitama, Ishikawa, Nagano, Shizuoka, Aichi, Tokushima, Kagawa and Nagasaki -- also have a Century in their public fleets. Meanwhile, Iwate, Gifu and Oita prefectures have bought themselves a Lexus or a Toyota Vellfire van, all priced at more than 10 million yen (roughly $95,000). When new, the vehicles are used to transport prefectural governors and assembly chairmen, and tend to be repurposed to carry guests or as spare vehicles when they get older.

    The luxury Toyotas owned by four of the 12 prefectures are between 15 and 23 years old. For example, the Century Nagano Prefecture in central Japan bought in 2000 as the governor's car is now shared among prefectural bureau and department heads. However, a prefectural official in charge of the vehicle pool told the Mainichi, "Compared to our other vehicles, which are very versatile, we don't use it (the Century) very often, and it's only put about 60,000 kilometers on the odometer in the 20 years the prefecture has had it. That doesn't even approach the standard for replacing a public vehicle, which is logging 110,000 kilometers within 11 years from purchase. Really, it's a leftover." The official added that the prefecture "probably won't" buy another Century when the current one finally needs to be replaced.

    On the one hand, local governments have responded to criticism of their budget difficulties and wasteful spending by buying cheaper cars for their public fleets. On the other hand, eight prefectures have bought Centuries or other luxury vehicles in the past decade.

    The Century purchased by Yamaguchi Prefecture in July this year set the prefectural treasury back 20.9 million yen (approx. $198,000). However, as of Oct. 5, there were no plans to have the car carry Imperial Family members or foreign VIPs in the near future, and has been used solely for the prefectural assembly chairman.

    According to the prefecture, it has bought three other Centuries since fiscal 2000 -- one in fiscal 2002 for 10.61 million yen (about $100,000); one in fiscal 2007 for 11.39 million yen (around $108,000), and one in fiscal 2013 for 12.6 million yen (roughly $120,000). The three vehicles have been used for the prefectural assembly chairman and deputy chairman, and for guests. It traded in the 2002 and 2007 cars at the beginning of fiscal 2020 because they were wearing out, and then bought the new Century. The remaining older model is being used by the deputy chairman of the prefectural assembly.

    Meanwhile, records show that the Century bought in 2002 to carry VIPs was only used for that purpose on 13 days in the three years from fiscal 2017 to when the car was retired. The only Imperial Family members to ride in the vehicle were Prince and Princess Akishino, who used the car for two days during a visit to the prefecture in October 2018.

    Regarding vehicles to carry special guests, the Mainichi survey found that most prefectures used less pricey options, such as buying a Toyota Crown costing 6.3 million yen (approx. $60,000) or using a car service. Only five prefectures owned a car solely for transporting VIPs, but Yamaguchi Prefecture stated that it "needed" such a vehicle, and explained, "This prefecture put thought into safety, and selected the Century as a result. Furthermore, we purchase vehicles because there are no car hire services in the prefecture."

    (Japanese original by Hideo Furihata, Yamaguchi Bureau, and Tomohiro Shimohara, Kyushu News Department)

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