Young Japan’s waning interest in cars: Feeling the pinch, or looking towards the future?
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Young Japan’s waning interest in cars: Feeling the pinch, or looking towards the future?

SINCE the 1960s the Japanese automotive industry has been one of the world’s largest. Since its heyday in the 1980s and early ’90s, Japan has maintained a spot in the world’s three top car manufacturers, even with the spectacular growth of China, which produces double that of the United States, the second largest builder of motor vehicles.

Though Japan has continued to have a large export market and invested significantly in its automotive industry both at home and abroad, domestic trends among young people could signal a sweeping change in the land of the world’s largest carmaker, Toyota.

The death of the kei car

In 2015 passenger vehicle sales in Japan fell by 9.3 percent, with 14.5 percent less sales in the last month of the year when compared to December 2014.

Japanese mini vehicles or “kei” cars, which make up much more of the domestic market than exports, account for most of the lost sales. Minis fell by 16.6 percent in 2015, while standard cars by just 4.2.

Of Japan’s three largest carmakers — Toyota, Nissan and Honda — it was Honda, with its focus on kei cars, which lost the most, with a 14.4 percent drop in unit sales.

Meanwhile, the registration of imported cars fell by only 2.2 percent.

Feeling the pinch, or looking towards the future?

Factors such as a decreasing and aging population as well as increasing urbanization no doubt have contributed to Japan’s slumping car sales. Then there is the shrinking GDP and slowed economic growth of the last decade. Simply put, people don’t have as much disposable income to spend on cars.

There is another theory, however, which attributes the recent “kuruma banare” or “demotorization”, to a loss of interest in cars among young urban adults.

From the Straits Times:

Kuruma banare is particularly felt among younger urban adults who see little reason to buy cars. Some have decided that public transport will serve them perfectly well, others make an environmental argument, still more refuse to fall for the narrative of freedom on the open road so successfully pitched to their parents.

We’ve heard this before… or have we?

Back in the 1990s there were similar rumblings in the press about kuruma banare, and again in 2008, when a “post-car society” was supposedly emerging among Japan’s forward thinking young urban professionals, who believed cars to be antiquated and were more into futuristic gadgets. But at that time, kei cars were still strong, while the sale of new standard cars had been steadily waning since 1990.

While they are less likely to be burdened by family expenses, Japanese young adults are more worried about financial insecurity than previous generations. A recent survey showed that 77.6 percent of 20-year-old urban respondents did not think they had enough cash to buy a car.

Innovation to the rescue?

Banking on Japan’s reputation and capabilities for technological innovation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to reinvigorate his country’s economy with joint projects between the public and private sectors. These include driverless cars.

In a move that could easily be labeled “only in Japan”, Toyota is marketing its new hybrid Prius model by anthropomorphizing 40 of the environmentally friendly car’s parts into sexy and cute anime girls. The “triangular silhouette” of the Prius is personified by a curvy mermaid with blue hair and a bikini top.

Check out the Prius! Impossible Girls campaign video below:

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