The Problem Isn't Tariffs, Japan Just Hates American Automobiles
Japanese cars gradually overcame the stigma of being low-quality, unreliable trash piles after entering the U.S. market decades ago. Imports became commonplace during the 1970s and Japan’s cars began setting the new benchmark for automotive quality while Ronald Reagan was in office.
The inverse can be said of American cars being sold in Japan, and it’s a well-documented and long-running annoyance for the American automotive industry. In January, a frustrated President Donald Trump complained that Japan does “things to us that make it impossible to sell cars in Japan, and yet, they sell cars [in the United States] and they come in by the hundreds of thousands on the biggest ships I’ve ever seen.”
Though the statement could be taken as contentious, as Japan does not impose any tariffs on U.S. cars, the country also exported 1.6 million vehicles to the States while America sold fewer than 19,000 back in 2015. Something is definitely amiss, and while it might not be as simple a reason as Japan hating our cars, that’s still a large part of it.
“Of course American cars don’t sell in Japan,” says semi-retired music producer and American automobile enthusiast Yoshihiro Masui.
“American cars have a bad image — they aren’t fuel-efficient, they break down,” he explained to The New York Times. “That’s not really true anymore, but dealers don’t make an effort to convince people. I’ve never seen a TV commercial. You go to a car show, they’re not there.”
Having little to no presence on Japanese roads doesn’t help that image problem, either. Last year, American cars only made up 0.3 percent of the Japanese market. The vehicles that are sold tend to be large, image-enhancing SUVs (Cadillac Escalade, Lincoln Navigator) or brawny American muscle cars. It’s a similar story for German imports, though Mercedes-Benz and BMW are viewed as unique luxury items and typically sell at a substantially higher volume. Many Japanese customers actually prefer left-hand drive cars to further push the idea of owning something unique, especially when they are buying German.
Price is another issue. American imports may not be subject to tariffs but a weaker yen isn’t helping a Dodge Charger that shows up in Tokyo at nearly double its domestic price — an issue former Chrysler Corp. chairman Lee Iacocca was critical of decades ago.
“I wouldn’t mind driving American cars if they didn’t need maintenance for a year,” said former diplomat Kunihiko Miyake to Bloomberg. “Cost-performance-wise, American cars are not good. That’s why I don’t buy them, not because of the nontariff barriers.”
Even with today’s smaller, more reliable, and budget-conscious models, U.S. automakers would still have to spend a fortune on improving public perception and ten times that establishing dealer networks in the Land of the Rising Sun. Even that wouldn’t assure success, though. It has been suggested that the country may not want too many foreign cars there, precisely because they are foreign.
Meanwhile, not quite two thousand miles away from Japan, Chinese consumers are becoming increasingly more interested in American brands. With a billion extra people and a willingness to buy from foreign automakers, China seems like a much more lucrative place to focus North America’s export efforts than the Pacific Islands.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be meeting with President Trump on Friday to discuss the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and make a case for Nippon as an automotive trading partner.
A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.
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