Sales of imported cars set a 17 year record in Japan, with brands like Maserati and Volkswagen leading the way, with Bloomberg reporting that non-Japanese brands captured 8.8 percent of non-key car sales – the highest figure since records started being kept in 1989.
Mercedes and Maserati both had record setting years in Japan, while the VW Golf was the best-selling non-Japanese car, ranking 27th overall. The VW Up! is also said to be stealing sales away from kei car shoppers, and the trend of smaller imported cars appears to be a welcome one for Japanese consumers.
Previously, most European brands imported big, expensive luxury sedans, attainable only to the upper strata of Japanese society. Many of these examples were also left-hand drive, which was considered to be a status symbol by many, in the way that a right-hand drive car has enthusiast cachet in North America (and an inconvenience as well – which was arguably part of the appeal).
But the Golf and Up! have demonstrated demand for smaller, imported premium vehicles, and other brands have been following suit. Mercedes is set to begin sales of the A-Class compact hatchback, while Volvo’s V40 small hatch is the brand’s best selling vehicle.
Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that imported vehicles will ever make up a big part of auto markets in Japan. Despite talk of non-tariff barriers and other obstacles, there are significant cultural hurdles to overcome. Certain American vehicles (like muscle cars and large custom vans) have a following among Japanese enthusiasts, but for the vast majority of consumers, American cars are simply too big and too thirsty for Japan. Witness the boom in European vehicles, which didn’t take off in earnest until smaller vehicles became available. Among Japanese auto makers, kei cars are the dominant segment, with smaller cars taking up most of the non-kei share.
Beyond that, Japan is a society where conformity, not individual expression, is considered a virtue. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, is a constant refrain in discussions of Japanese management culture, and what better way to stand out than by buying a vehicle made by the opposing team? Based on that alone, it’s reasonable to conclude that talk of closed markets and non-tariff barriers are secondary