By on August 7, 2010

Japan’s Internal Affairs Ministry has bad news for Japan’s automakers: Japanese citizens are dumping their cars and take the train. Domestic car ownership has declined for the first time since 1964, with declines particularly pronounced in big cities, report The Nikkei [sub]: “Less-status-conscious city residents are abandoning cars for public transit.”

The ministry surveys the number of cars owned per household every five years. The latest study counted 1,414 cars per 1,000 households, declining 2.2 percent from the previous 2004 poll. This marked the first fall since 1964, when the first study was conducted.

2.2 percent less is not mass abandonment. But it’s a turn. The Nikkei has a darker view: “The latest trend bodes ill for the domestic auto market and hints at a shifting sociocultural landscape, where once-common practices, such as buying a larger vehicle after starting a family or upgrading to a higher-end model after a job promotion, are no longer considered important.”

Here are the more interesting numbers: Car ownership tumbled 6.4 percent among the under-30 population and slid 6.6 percent among individuals in their 40s. Younger generations nervous about their economic futures are shying away from auto purchases, while the middle-aged are parting with their vehicles amid a deteriorating income environment.

And they are indeed switching the cars for the train: The drop in vehicles owned per household was the sharpest in Kanagawa Prefecture at 7.7 percent, followed by Chiba Prefecture’s 7.5 percent, Saitama Prefecture’s 7.2 percent and then Tokyo’s 6.9 percent. These prefectures are all part of the greater Tokyo area, bedroom cities connected by a vast and efficient public transportation system with the city core. Tokyo has one of the, if not the, most comprehensive subway systems in the world. You don’t need a car there. Most of the times, it’s a burden.  We have an apartment in Tokyo, no car. My wife owns a building lot. She makes a lot of money by renting it out as parking space.

For the few times you want a car, ther are alternatives. Domestic car-sharing sites more than doubled from a year earlier to 861 locations. Membership surged 150 percent.

Carmakers are getting desperate to attract the few young buyers that some are even holding events at elementary schools in Tokyo to drum up interest in cars among blase children. Toyota sends mechanics to schools to explain and show how cars work.

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17 Comments on “The Japanese Abandon Their Cars...”


  • avatar
    Dr.Nick

    Understandable. I never owned a car when I lived in Manhattan. You have to be quite wealthy to own a car in a dense urban environment. The people I know who own cars in Manhattan routinely need to get to jobs in New Jersey where the public transit connections aren’t great. If you have no need of regularly doing that, not having a car saves a ton of money. In an economic downturncar ownership wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

    • 0 avatar
      mythicalprogrammer

      I think it’s understandable only if your dense urban city have a great public transportation system. Los Angeles on the other hand… doesn’t have a great subway system as New York, so we’re force to use cars instead. I hear Toronto Canada have a great subway system and city layout. Jealous haha.

      Plus the Japanese have great bullet trains. I’m waiting until 2020 for my LA to SF train ^_^.

    • 0 avatar
      John Smith

      In Hong Kong, car sales tax is 100% of the price of the car. The cost of gas is $7/gal. The price of a parking space per sq. feet is higher than the price of an apartment per sq. feet at the same location. It has great public transportation. Car ownership is a status symbol, not a necessity.

  • avatar
    ott

    “Carmakers are getting desperate to attract the few young buyers that some are even holding events at elementary schools in Tokyo to drum up interest in cars among blase children. Toyota sends mechanics to schools to explain and show how cars work.”

    Wow. I guess there is something to the notion of “catch ‘em while they’re young” after all…

    • 0 avatar
      european

      at least the jap kids are learning something useful, while
      the american kids have useless tv celebrities as role-models

      google: “Montana Fishburne”

  • avatar

    From what I know about the Tokyo area, including that this one metro area has a population of 35 million plus (bigger than any US state except California, and not all that much smaller than the Golden State) I find this totally understandable as well.

    A number of years ago, Cameron Mann had a very funny article in The Atlantic about the difficulties of owning a car in Manhattan.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    Years ago I used to to to Tokyo on business regularly. Many of the younger professionals I got to know didn’t own a car at all, while the middle aged managers and executives often owned one which they only rarely used. Japan’s population is concentrated in urban areas like Tokyo, where owning a car is more hassle than it is really worth. Parking spaces are rare and expensive and the streets are hopelessly crowded. Weekend getaways to more scenic areas like Nagano are better enjoyed by bullet train than by car. There are plenty of better ways to display ones social status than through car ownership.

    To top all this off, Japan’s population is both aging and shrinking. This is not the kind of auto market which should excite anyone. It will continue to shrink for many years to come.

  • avatar
    G35X

    Take a look at the Tokyo subway/train system map:
    http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/SUB/SUBWAY/index.htm

    In a place like this, who needs a car?

  • avatar
    twotone

    I lived, worked and drove in Moscow, London, Amsterdam, Bangkok and Mexico City. Driving is no fun and parking is even worse. For a perspective on Japan’s population density, take everyone living west of the Mississippi and move them to Montana. Public transportation is great for day-to-day commuting and cars are better suited for getting out of town.

    Twotone

  • avatar
    Daanii2

    Cars are convenient in Tokyo’s suburbs. I lived there for nine years, and owned only a motorcycle. But I was single at first and then married without children. When our son was born, my wife and I would have bought a car had we not decided to return to the United States.

    Downtown Tokyo is different. But fewer people live there. Even in urban Japan, most families do have at least one car. As the statistics in this post show. Although car ownership will decline, that one car per family is unlikely to change.

    On the flip side, most American families seem to have too many cars. My friend has five cars, with only three licensed drivers in his house. We have two cars, and now four drivers. Still, since I work at home and my wife does not work, our two cars almost always just sit.

  • avatar
    th009

    Another contributing factor is that household size is steadily dropping in Japan: with people getting married later (or not getting married at all), there are more single-person households, which are in turn likely to own fewer cars than multi-person households.

    From 2000 to 2005, the average household size dropped from 2.67 to 2.55 — so those 1000 households contained 2,550 people rather than 2,670. That’s a 4.5% drop, more than the car ownership dropped.

    P.S. Nice picture of Yamanote Line. Usually the situation is not quite that bad, though!

  • avatar
    obbop

    How are they going to flee when Godzilla comes marching through town again?

  • avatar

    The weird thing is, everyone I know there dreams about owning a car. One guy even got a Suzuki Vagoneer (a kei car basically). Just not everyone can afford one.

  • avatar
    Michal

    Parking is a hassle anywhere near urban Tokyo. Your only options for casual parking are expensive small public car parks (some hold as few as 4 cars) or the robotic multi level car parks which can take a long time to retrieve your car from.

    But some people will do anything to own a car in Tokyo. I have seen the most amazing feats of parking ability in Ueno. Kei cars parked within 5cm of the left and right walls of a garage. How does the driver get in and out? Through the rear hatch.

    Cars only really make sense in the outer suburbs or country Japan. Up north in Hokkaido a car is virtually mandatory. But for young urban people I see the car as nothing more than a status symbol. It’s very expensive and just not worth it when incomes have been steadily falling for well over a decade.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny how a lot next to Ueno Touganeya was replanned 2 years ago to reduce the capacity yet let cars get in and out without a valet. But anyhow, Ueno, Akasuka, etc. are kinda special. I honestly was surprised to read that people in Kanagawa were getting off cars, according to the cited report.

  • avatar
    Jolly Roger

    There is an awfui lot of tosh written here by people “who used to live or work in Tokyo.”

    Parking in Tokyo is NOT a hassle. It is dead easy, far more so than in the bubble era. Parking spaces are NOT rare, but yes, they can be expensive if you rent them by the month, as I do. Last time I looked, parking in London, LA, Paris, Hong Kong or Shanghai/Beijing was hardly a breeze, so what’s the big critique about Tokyo? Trains maybe wonderful but not everyone wants to be crushed on one going somewhere, so yes, owning a car maybe not be a necessity but it sure can make the quality of life easier, especially when shopping and in this fierce summer heat etc.
    Some parts of Tokyo are “hopelessly crowded” – true, like Shibuya, but then the same goes for HK etc etc (as above). So hardly breaking news.
    Having said all this, as General McArthur said, Japan is a nation of 12 year olds ie many want to be doing what everyone else is doing. When I came to Japan, buying a car was cool and a status thing. Now, it’s the other way round and Japanese are getting rid of their cars, because of the cost of it all but also because so many others are doing the same. Pathetic. I spoke to one young Japanese girl who said proudly that “none of my friends own cars” as if that somehow made her and her friends some superior human beings. You didnt know whether to laugh or cry…
    Looking ahead, yes, Japan’s train/subway systems are great and the nation’s car industry faces major, major problems as Japanese give up their cars. All we can say to that is, thank heavens for emerging markets, otherwise there would be a hell of a lot of redundancies and the coming new breed of electric cars which might, just might, get Japanese juiced up about cars and driving again.


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