Kenji Momota, a former racing driver who now writes on the car industry for Diamond and other business publications, believes that Japan’s car industry is facing defeat because of the lack of a car culture in Japan.
He muses on how the only proper car museum in Japan is actually privately owned (founded by the owner of a concrete product sales company) and several hours away from Tokyo, in Ishikawa Prefecture. There are several corporate car museums (Toyota’s in Aichi prefecture, Honda’s in Tochigi, Mazda’s in Hiroshima, Suzuki in Shizuoka and Daihatsu in Osaka) and there was a state museum of transport, founded in 1936, but since 2007 it has focused on the rail industry.
The lack of a national car culture has its roots in the beginnings of the industry after the war, when joining the car industry was seen as a high risk, equivalent to joining a start up venture, by top graduates. Many employees were transferred over from the zaibatsus’ heavy machinery and shipbuilding companies. These employees felt they really didn’t really understand cars. An inferiority complex persisted until a couple of decades or so ago, with even Toyota calling itself “a country bumpkin company” or Honda saying “a small company like ours”.
Then along came the post war baby boom generation, to whom car ownership was the ultimate dream. The older generation were happy to defer to them, believing it was good to have cars made by those who loved cars. The baby boomers made cars for their own generation, during the economic boom time, and that was fine until recently, when the baby boomers have started to retire, and are buying their final cars.
The younger generations are not so fixated by car ownership, with the improvements in public transport, those living in cities can be car free without too much inconvenience. Running a car company has become more about management ability, and understanding finance. Apparently many executives that Momota has spoken to have confessed “we don’t really know what to do next” in the face of a major structural change in the motor industry, with US IT companies such as Google entering the industry via telematics.
Momota recommends constructing a culture from a zero base, as a new industry – which will be a service industry. He points to Mercedes’ “mercedes me” as an example of the future. However Mercedes have been able to do this because they have such a strong brand in the first place. He worries that if Japanese car companies team up with US IT companies, their brand will be lost in a bland global one size fits all. “Japanese car manufactures must review the past and present of their industry, and quickly, in earnest, take the first step into the future”. Judging by a conversation I had recently with a US brand consultancy, at least one Japanese car company is looking to take such a step.
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