Changing Perceptions of Cars

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yumi Kawabata

    Main guest

    Yumi Kawabata worked as an engineer and an automobile magazine editor before starting her career as a freelance automotive journalist. She attends various motor shows and conferences in Japan and abroad. Since 2013, Kawabata has been active as a Green Car juror for World Car of the Year. She has also been acting as a juror for International Engine of the Year since 2015.

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November 28, 2017

Changing Perceptions of Cars

*You will leave the NHK website.

For as much as we talk about Japanese food, music, movies and other cultural exports, Japan's greatest contribution to the world—at least in terms of pure volume—may be its cars. Japan produces around 10 million motor vehicles a year, and it's almost impossible to get on any roadway in the world without spotting a car made by one of the country's many manufacturers.

But in Japan itself, perceptions about the role of cars in everyday life have been changing. A variety of factors have seen Japan's youth take much less interest in automobiles than previous generations. What's behind this loss of interest, and what are Japan's manufacturers doing about it? Those are the big questions on this edition of Japanology Plus.

In his quest to discover why Japan's young people are less interested in cars than their elders, host Peter Barakan visits the Tokyo Motor Show with expert guest Yumi Kawabata, an automotive journalist, to check out some of the industry's latest offerings.

As we see in the program, the first Tokyo Motor Show was held in 1954 in Hibiya Park. Less than a decade after the end of World War II, most Japanese consumers could hardly imagine owning a car, and the event was largely centered around cars and trucks for commercial use—of the 267 vehicles on display, only 17 were passenger cars.

Fast-forward to the 1960s, though, and thanks to Japan's economic boom, owning one's own car became a reality. The made-in-Japan English phrase "my car" (one's own car) even entered the lexicon. 1970 was the first year in which registrations for passenger cars finally surpassed those for commercial trucks—and due to high tariffs and other factors, the large majority of those cars were produced domestically. Not long thereafter, Japanese car manufacturers began to take aim at the international market. With a reputation for fuel efficiency and quality, Japan's automobile industry became one of the world leaders. As of 2016, the industry is the world's third largest, after China and the U.S.

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This Japanese hybrid has made waves with its high fuel efficiency.

This brings us back to the question of why, in one of the world's automobile centers, people are losing interest in cars. You'll have to watch to learn the whole story, but for a hint, take a look at the topics of some past editions of Japanology Plus: the country is home to some of the best public transportation in the world, and it's constantly evolving, making owning a car more of a luxury than a necessity.

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In big cities like Tokyo, parking is also a major issue—but Matt Alt discovers some unique solutions in Plus One.

What can Japanese manufacturers do to win back consumers? Peter Barakan and Yumi Kawabata come across some potential answers at the motor show, where new vehicles run the gamut from sleek, science fiction-inspired cruisers to those that look like, well, boxes.

These cars, which are literally called "one box" in Japanese (traditional sedans, with a hood, passenger space and trunk are, by comparison, "three box"), are a more common sight on the roads in Japan than anywhere else in the world. That's partially because, explains Kawabata, Japanese consumers are interested in having a "rolling living room" where the whole family can relax. It's also been speculated these distinctly un-aerodynamic vehicles have caught on in Japan because the country's speed limits are relatively slow.

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Thinking inside the box: these cars may not sport the world's coolest design, but they're loved by consumers.

This "one box" shape also has implications in the world of universal design. In October 2017, a major Japanese manufacturer unveiled a boxy new taxi that can accommodate wheelchair users and other passengers who might have trouble boarding a standard one. Tokyo's taxi companies are aiming for these versions to make up at least a third of their fleets by the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, offering improved access for all.

In fact, accessibility is a major issue in Japan not just for those with disabilities, but for the elderly as well, an ever-growing segment of the population. Traffic accidents involving elderly drivers have been a big topic in Japan recently—a potential solution displayed at the motor show were cars that switch between driver control and self-driving to avoid danger.

In the end, of course, it will be up to consumers to decide whether "my car" is truly necessary, or whether cars will become a luxury item for a small number of automobile enthusiasts like Kawabata—but it seems clear that Japanese manufacturers are poised for a variety of eventualities.

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Host Peter Barakan and expert guest Yumi Kawabata check out a futuristic concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show.

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Another vision of the future of Japanese cars.

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