The first day behind the wheel of his new truck, Masahiko Sakata noticed something odd.
"Nobody passed me," he says. "They all slowed down to watch. If they passed, they wouldn't be able to see the car as well."
Driving a Hummer H2 in Japan will do that. In a country where 30 percent of all cars have 660cc engines, the gargantuan H2 stands out even more than it does on American roads.
Sakata stands out a bit himself. In a land of cookie-cutter apartments, Sakata, 53, is an architect and president of a company that designs and builds distinctive houses. Dressed in a muted purple no-necktie shirt and casual trousers, the soft-spoken Sakata exudes nonconformity, a rare trait in consensus-oriented Japan.
Still, you might think that a Hummer in Japan would be the ultimate aberration. Surely Japanese shoppers would shun the Hummer as unsuitable for Japan's narrow streets.
Hummer sales are climbing in Japan. Through July, about 150 Hummer H2s were sold in Japan this year, according to Mitsui & Co., the vehicle's authorized importer. More came in as gray-market imports. That is roughly double the 77 Chevrolet Corvettes, another American automotive icon, sold in Japan in 2004.
Ads for H2s fill the pages of Japanese magazines such as the 436-page September edition of A-cars: American Car Life Magazine, alongside ads for classics such as a 1968 Plymouth Barracuda HT and a 1972 Ford Ranchero.
Sakata says his H2 had a base price of about ¥8 million, or $72,000 at current exchange rates. He spent another $27,000 customizing it, plus $625 on various taxes. Insurance costs $1,527 a year.
The insurance company insists that Sakata keep the SUV in a locked garage to be eligible for insurance. That's a common requirement in Japan for expensive vehicles that might be stolen.