A political dispute in 2012 between China and Japan over a group of islands in the East China Sea dealt a beating to sales of Japanese cars as Chinese consumers decided to back their government's stance with a boycott. It got so bad that Japanese automakers cut production by up to 50 percent, Audi had to distance itself from a dealer who posed with a banner reading "We must exterminate the Japanese," and competitors like General Motors, Volkswagen and Ford were expected to improve market share because of it.
A provocative move by Japanese prime Minister Shinzo Abe probably won't help. Abe visited Japan's highly controversial Yasukuni shrine (part of which is seen above) that "venerates the souls" of the country's 2.5 million war dead, including those categorized as Class A war criminals. Any such visit always elicits condemnations from China and South Korea, and this time even the US spoke of its "disappointment" in the action. Abe's visit came on the first anniversary of his accession to the office of prime minister - with some ascribing it to other nationalist ambitions - and the date also happens to be the birthday of the founder of modern China, Chairman Mao Zedong.
Beyond diplomatic measures like China authorities registering their displeasure with the Japanese ambassador in Beijing in person, and lots of media chatter about what China should do, there have been no further flare-ups of anti-Japanese sentiment. Automakers like Toyota and Honda have no desire to enter into the political situation, but they'll surely be watching what happens next because the effects of the last firestorm haven't subsided: part of the reason Ford overtook Toyota in sales in China this year is ascribed to continued fallout, and just this month a Chinese teenager ran away from home for three days to protest her parents' plan to buy a Honda.