Tokyo Struggles To Remain Relevant On The World Stage



The 2009 Tokyo Motor Show was largely ignored by industry and media alike.
There is one model that looks more like a phone booth than a car, another that dispenses its driver like candy from a vending machine. There are party concepts, complete with disco lights, and other concept vehicles that could have been a case study for a film like Transformers. One thing you always know about the Tokyo Motor Show was that you will get to see some of the wildest, weirdest and wackiest concept cars ever created – and occasionally some, like the snail-shaped Nissan S-Cargo, might actually go into production.

There is a serious side, as well. And that is really what has made the biennial Tokyo Motor Show one of the automotive world's most important events, journalists and industry executives jostling for space as each new car was unveiled. And there are plenty of unveilings, sometimes two, even three simultaneous news conferences stretching out over the two-days allotted for the gathered media.

But something went wrong two years ago, the 2009 Tokyo Motor Show was largely ignored by industry and media alike. Indeed, many suspected there wouldn't even be a 2011 show. But in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami that struck the island nation last March, organizers redoubled their efforts to save the show. And how things turn out later this week could determine whether the Tokyo Motor Show thrives, survives in downsized form or simply vanishes, Japan ceding to the twin shows in Beijing and Shanghai that are rapidly becoming the must-attend industry gatherings.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


The decline and possible fall of the Tokyo Motor Show should come as no surprise if you consider several facts. For one thing, the Japanese market, as a whole, is all but closed to foreign brands. True, government officials will go on – to the point of distraction – explaining how they've opened up the market over the years. Okay, maybe they're right. But even if it's just a matter of preference, and Japanese motorists simply won't buy foreign products in any significant numbers, the country is, for all intents, a closed market.

That's led a number of foreign companies to pull out of Japan. Considering the high cost of doing business here – a single showroom in a good Tokyo neighborhood can cost tens of millions of dollars just to set up – what's the point if you're selling only a few thousand cars annually in the entire country?

The world may simply be passing Tokyo by when it comes to venues for a serious world-class auto show.
The situation is compounded by Japan's post-bubble economy. While this is certainly not Greece or Spain, Japan's economy has been relatively moribund for years and car sales are a modest fraction of what they were before that bubble burst. Complicating matters, young Japanese are showing a surprising disdain for automobiles. Perhaps they're looking out and seeing a highway system that is operating at gridlock most of the time.

In the middle of the past decade, Japan could at least boast about building more vehicles than the U.S., but no longer. And with the yen continuing to gain value, makers like Toyota, Honda and Nissan are rapidly moving their manufacturing to friendlier climes like China and – yes, even the U.S.

China, as you're likely aware, is now the world's largest national automotive market. It is a vibrant, Wild West sort of industry where virtually every serious global manufacturer has established a presence and scores of local makers, like Chery, Geely and BYD, are intent on staring down the foreign devils.

Just five years ago, it was rare to see a significant introduction at either the Beijing or Shanghai motor shows. These days, those events are beginning to rival traditional industry confabs like those in Detroit, Geneva, Frankfurt – and Tokyo. Or, at least, what the Tokyo Motor Show used to be. Only a relative handful of foreign makers have a presence at this year's event and even fewer actually unveiled anything of merit.

There are some notable names not on the news conference roster, including Detroit's Big Three and even Mercedes-Benz.

That's not to dismiss the 2011 show entirely. There have been some significant unveilings, including the Toyota GT86, which will come to the U.S. wearing a Scion badge, and its near-twin, the new Subaru BRZ. Honda previewed what it's describing as an electric sports car and Nissan's PIVO 3 hints at a future urban EV. Among the foreign brands that have maintained a presence at the new, downsized show hall, BMW revealed its new 5-Series Hybrid while also challenging conventional wisdom by unveiling plans to bring its high-mileage diesels to Japan.

But there are some notable names not on the news conference roster, including Detroit's Big Three and even Mercedes-Benz.

So it remains to be seen whether the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show will be able to muster the sort of energy and excitement it needs to remain on the calendar as a must-see show. It won't be for lack of trying by its organizers. But the world may simply be passing Tokyo by – at least when it comes to venues for a serious world-class auto show. And you can be sure the folks in China will be glad to take its place.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.


I'm reporting this comment as:

Reported comments and users are reviewed by Autoblog staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week to determine whether they violate Community Guideline. Accounts are penalized for Community Guidelines violations and serious or repeated violations can lead to account termination.


    • 1 Second Ago
  • 19 Comments
      MAX
      • 3 Years Ago
      Who cares about the Tokyo auto show besides the Japanese? The Japanese auto industry is sinking and becoming more and more irrelevant. Will Hyundai be there? No, they left Japan's de facto closed market.
      Jamie Stark
      • 3 Years Ago
      Tokyo is just a bunch of ugly futuristic Japanese car concepts that will never be produced. It's the same every year. Also China (the largest car market) has the Shanghai auto show, which is a far more relevant Asian auto show with many world debuts from intentional automakers.
      IBx27
      • 3 Years Ago
      I hope there will still be a Tokyo show. I like seeing all the quirky tiny Japanese concept cars, and I'm kind of glad that there isn't anything else to get in the way and clutter it up. The volkswagen 'coupe' thing is an eyesore.
      Tolitz Rosel
      • 3 Years Ago
      The fact that Japan is a closed market for automobiles is a significant reason to its irrelevance... the big three didn't come because there's no reason to show cars in a country that won't buy them... nothing more, nothing less...
        lne937s
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Tolitz Rosel
        Japan isn't a closed market for cars (although they do protect agricultural products)- that is a myth. The US with its chicken tax on trucks actually has more protectionist policies regarding vehicles. Safety regulations need to be adapted to in order to import to Japan, just like JDM cars need different bumpers for the US. European brands have been selling well recently in Japan. Toyota actually tried selling a rebadged Chevy Cavalier a while ago, but it just didn't work there. A number of cars, like the Maxima, are actually imported to Japan from the US... Most US cars are just irrelevant to the Japanese market. Due to a lacking offering for the market, Detroit brands have just never gained traction in Japan.
        Hossi Blumengaarten
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Tolitz Rosel
        why do people rate this down, I have been to Japan NO ONE buys foreign cars so what is the point, the only things that sell are BMW and MB but even that is nothing what is the point in the auto show if no one will ever buy what you make no matter how good( and we all know German cars are the top of the line and those don't even sell)
      Sukairain
      • 3 Years Ago
      Yet they are still doing better than the Detroit Auto Show.
      Hossi Blumengaarten
      • 3 Years Ago
      ok guys you don't know ANYTHING I lived in Japan for three years, I have been there and really scene some things the Japanese use the subway and trains so there is no need for cars, Japanese are also VERY NATIONALISTIC(EVEN though they never say they are) and will always buy home brands. The Japanese are also insane for KEI CARS(very small city cars, google them up) the same thing is going on with the Japanese video game industry, Japan is a very closed country and now that we have the internet and can see how strange and freaks the Japanese are(PEDOPHILE ALL OVER, if you have been to Japan you know how rampant this is along with INCEST and marry the first cousin) When I was in Japan old Japanese men would GRIND against HS girls and even little girls, I wanted to scream every time I saw this but my friends told me this is normal(>????) the sickest thing is that Japanese always joke about this, rubbing against little girls is no freaking joke if anyone here has lived in Japan for some years you will start to see these things, ALSO anyone ever saw the USED PANTIE machines?, I saw that crap in Osaka and I was like WTF and then grown men buy them. I expected the really strange loner people but the ones that bought them where guys in suits that work in high pay office jobs
        sckid213
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Hossi Blumengaarten
        Thank you, whether intentional or not, this post was hilarious.
        Krishan Mistry
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Hossi Blumengaarten
        You could have summarized the comment like thus: "Dear Japan, SRSLY WTF?!??! Sincerely, the rest of the world"
      mystro1v
      • 3 Years Ago
      Considering the end of the world comes in December of next year, the question is, will there be any auto shows in 2013? =\
        Krishan Mistry
        • 3 Years Ago
        @mystro1v
        I thought the world already ended on that "Rapture Day" we had some time in early summer?
          Krishan Mistry
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Krishan Mistry
          I think May 21 we were all supposed to start dieing, and by October 21, we'd all be doomed already.
      KAG
      • 3 Years Ago
      Odd, thought it would be a big show
    • Load More Comments