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Why are people in Japan renting cars but not driving them anywhere?

Trevor Mogg

Car-sharing services are becoming increasingly popular in Japan, but it has emerged that some people who rent the vehicles don’t actually drive them anywhere.

So what’s going on?

It turns out that for some folks, the cars, which can be found around cities and rented by the minute via a smartphone app, provide an ideal private space for napping, working, charging tech devices, listening to music, watching movies, storing bags, and chatting with friends, among other activities.

Local news outlet Asahi Shimbun recently shone a light on the increasingly common practice of using car-sharing vehicles for anything but driving.

The unexpected behavior was first spotted last year by car-sharing operator Orix Auto Corp. After examining its rental data, it noticed that some of its 230,000 registered users were paying for the cars but not going anywhere.

Not long after, other car-sharing operators confirmed that the same thing was happening with its own services, prompting one company, Times24 Co., to conduct a survey to find out how people used its vehicles.

The results showed that, indeed, some people were using the cars for a whole range of purposes. All without putting any miles on the clock.

One respondent said they rented a car “to eat a boxed meal that I bought at a convenience store because I couldn’t find anywhere else to have lunch,” while another said: “Usually the only place I can take a nap while visiting my clients is a cyber cafe in front of the station, but renting a car to sleep in is just a few hundred yen [several dollars], almost the same as staying in the cyber cafe.”

NTT Docomo, which in addition to its telecoms business also finds time for a car-sharing service, said that some people use its vehicles “to watch TV in, get dressed up for Halloween, practice singing, rapping and English conversation, and even do facial stretches said to reduce the size of their face.” That last one comes as something of a surprise, but presumably the vehicle’s rear view mirror comes in handy for such endeavors.

In Japan, car-sharing services similar to Car2go and Maven cost around $3.60 for 30 minutes. With most city folks taking the train or bike to downtown areas, escaping to your own car simply isn’t an option. Therefore, if you’re suddenly overcome with the need for a nap, or want to eat your lunch in your own private space — or even stretch your face for half an hour — then a comfy seat courtesy of a car-sharing service seems like a good idea.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of people in Japan still use such services for getting from A to B … instead of just napping in A. One operator said around 15% of it members use its car-sharing service for activities other than driving, with the trend continuing to grow.

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