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Tokyo Motor Show losing its luster

With more international car manufacturers prioritizing rival events in Chinese cities like Shanghai and Beijing, the Tokyo event is rapidly becoming a domestic-focused, second-tier show. Julian Ryall reports.

When the curtain came down on the 2015 Tokyo Motor Show, organizers vowed that the next edition of the biennial event would attract more exhibitors from around the world and bigger crowds to the Tokyo Big Sight exhibition center.  

When they announced the dates of this year's event earlier this week - the show will run from October 27 to November 5 - it was clear that the effort to convince more foreign manufacturers to display their latest models had fallen short.

The 2015 event attracted 160 carmakers, suppliers and related organizations, but that number for this year's show will come down to 150.

A number of global brands will also be conspicuous by their absence. None of the "Big Three" US automakers - General Motors (GM), Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles - will be present, with GM and Ford absent for four consecutive shows. Similarly, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Seat, Kia, Daihatsu and other well-known names from the international auto sector are also skipping Tokyo this year.

Symbolbild - Tokyo Motor Show (Getty Images)

The 2015 event attracted 160 carmakers, suppliers and related organizations, but that number for this year's show will come down to 150

Falling importance

Analysts say an event that used to be the most important showcase for new vehicles and the companies that built them, ranking alongside similar shows in Detroit, Frankfurt, Geneva and Paris, has in recent years slipped down the pecking order and is now firmly a second-tier event for non-Japanese companies.

Tokyo's event has been eclipsed by shows in Shanghai and Beijing as the Chinese market for cars has boomed, they say, and it will be difficult for Japan to ever recover its former prestige.

"The two Chinese events have taken over as the premier motor shows in Asia and Tokyo has slipped to a tier-two event as international brands focus on the Chinese market and Chinese and South Korean brands make impressive inroads into the international auto market," said Peter Lyon, author of the car book "Flashing Hazards" and presenter of the "Samurai Wheels" television program for Japanese national broadcaster NHK.

"A lot of European companies are tying up with Chinese firms to get a foot in the market there because it is growing so rapidly.

"I also feel that while Japanese cars are extremely impressive from an engineering perspective, they are a lot less stylish than some of the cars that are coming out of Korea, for example," he told DW.

KIA Vorstellung Sportage SUV in China (picture-alliance/Yonhap)

Peter Lyon says he feels that Japanese cars are a lot less stylish than some of the cars that are coming out of Korea

Best of East and West

"I was recently at the New York International Auto Show and I was very impressed by the models on the Kia stand," Lyon said. "They appear to have been able to blend the very best of Europe and Asia in their designs and I just feel that Japan's manufacturers have missed the boat a bit."

Japan's car firms clearly have a major stake in the Tokyo show and have hinted that they will be unveiling some impressive new models in October as they try to claw back their reputation.

Toyota is expected to unveil the successor to the Supra, Nissan will have a new Z car on display and Subaru is ready to unveil "something sporty," Lyon said. Lexus and Mazda will also have new offerings, but the limited number of international brands can only serve to reduce the international nature of the Tokyo show.

China Ladestationen für Elektroautos (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Jia)

'China is channeling so much of its investment into electric cars and Japanese firms cannot keep up with that,' said Lyon

"After being steady for a long time, the market here has been shrinking and - given Japan's contracting population - it is unlikely that it will come back in a big way," said Martin Schulz, senior economist with the Fujitsu Research Institute.

"Ford pulled out last year and now no US firms have a foot in the market here because they see no point in pushing their vehicles in Japan," he said. "European companies are still quite strong, especially at the higher end, but we have to remember that Volvo is now a Chinese brand and Jaguar is Indian."

But Schulz believes that Japanese car makers are - for the time being - "comparatively relaxed" about the state of their industry.

"European firms have had a major disaster with the scandals over their diesel engines, which has handed a significant sales edge to companies like Toyota, which have invested heavily in hybrid technology," he said.

China fördert Kauf kleiner Autos über niedrigere Steuer (Getty Images/AFP/J. Eisele)

Many European automakers are joining hands with Chinese firms to gain a foothold in China's fast-growing car market

An uphill battle

The US market, meanwhile, is picking up again after the financial crisis and Japanese manufacturers are benefitting from having built manufacturing plants across the country to meet local demand.

Over the longer term, Lyon is concerned about Japan's legendary car makers losing their competitive edge.

"China is channeling so much of its investment into electric cars and Japanese firms cannot keep up with that," he said. "I feel that they need to refocus a lot of their budget and efforts away from the engineering - where they are already world leaders - and place more emphasis on the design of their cars.

"That is where they are falling behind the Koreans - and I don't think they even see it because you so rarely see Korean cars on the streets here that they do not even register on the Japanese psyche as a competitor. But overseas they are everywhere now and Japan is losing some ground.

"They are battling countries that barely had an auto industry a couple of decades ago," he said. "And now Korean cars are almost comparable in terms of the technology and reliability, but they are cheaper and many offer more stylish exteriors.

"That means that Japanese companies are facing an uphill battle to compete."

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