Japanese carmakers spout an ancient philosophy for survival, growth and awesome new tech
TOKYO: Aptly, the scion of the founder of what is presently the largest carmaker in the world led in proclaiming that Japan’s auto industry is not about to pull over to the side and merely let US and Europe carmakers zoom past—or at the very least, catch up—at any moment soon.
Akio Toyoda, who spoke in an unprecedented gathering of all the chief executives of the biggest carmakers in Japan a day before last week’s opening of the Tokyo Motor Show—which is only a year short of marking six decades after it was first held—crowed the Japanese auto industry has been at the forefront of introducing innovative technologies for years. This, according to him, is not about to change.
Toyoda, president and chief executive of Toyota Motor Corp., and whose father and grandfather were also former Toyota presidents (not to mention being a direct descendant of the founder of the Toyoda loom works that preceded the automobile company), in his speech cited particular technologies and seminal cars that have helped make the Japanese auto industry the leader today. Mazda’s rotary and Honda’s CVCC engines; the Nissan Z, Mitsubishi Evo and Toyota 2000GT cars; hybrid and electric vehicles—Toyoda said these are now all “etched in the annals of automotive history.”
While crediting the “more experienced” US and European carmakers for drawing the templates from which Japanese auto companies learned during their formative years, the Toyota chief said the innovativeness of the local auto industry remains as its way of responding to consumer demands in the last six decades.
“Japanese carmakers have been providing the world with new technologies that are ahead of the times,” he said.
Honda President Fumihiko Ike furthered Toyoda’s statement, saying that cars are about to get smarter as they link with pedestrians, as well as with other cars and a road network that are just as smart as them. This would allow cars in the future to drive themselves, according to Ike.
He added that the Tokyo show is where carmakers could “demonstrate various autonomous driving technologies that are created through enhanced intelligence.”
“These are technologies that can help humans sense and avoid risks that go beyond the limit of their capabilities,” Ike said.
Nissan President Toshiyuki Shiga added that Japanese carmakers are “constantly creating innovations for the global market” which do not only include electric vehicles and hybrids but also safety technologies.
“We are addressing two big challenges simultaneously; zero emissions driven by electric or fuel-cell vehicles, and zero fatalities driven by autonomous cars,” he said.
Toyoda, head of the 14-member Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association, emphasized that the road has not always been smooth for the Asian nation’s carmakers, especially in recent years, as he cited the massive Toyota recalls from 2009 to 2011, as well as other events that negatively impacted the car business.
“Since the Lehman Brothers crisis, the Japanese automobile industry has been enveloped by an extremely severe environment. And the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake was a calamity for the entire nation,” Toyoda said, referring to the 2008 downturn in auto demand in the US—at the time the largest car market in the world, but since overtaken by China—following the collapse of the financial services firm, and the supply and production disruption caused by the natural disaster.
The 2011 flooding in some parts of Thailand—a car manufacturing hub in Southeast Asia—did not help either. Worst hit was Honda, whose Thai plant was shut down for months. But even the factories of other Japanese carmakers that were spared by the floods had to suspend building vehicles too as some companies that produce auto parts did not escape the disaster, crimping supply.
To drive past the various setbacks, Toyoda said Japanese carmakers resorted to the “spirit of monozukuri—” the spirit of making things—a strong culture that has existed in Japan since ancient times. The thinking encourages a tradition of handing down building skills from one generation to the next, and the Toyota chief called this strong DNA for manufacturing as the “essence of Japanese innovation.”
Characteristically Japanese, a people whose every facet of life—from architecture, design, food, fashion and social rituals—has an underlying philosophy, the country’s carmakers have also shown they can translate into manufacturing terms the idea of monozukuri.
“This means going beyond what is necessary to ensure high quality and steady operations,” said Mitsubishi President Osamu Masuko.
Japanese carmakers, he explained, started building cars abroad in the ’70s, with overseas production first exceeding domestic production in 2007, eventually reaching six out of 10 Japanese vehicles being built in plants elsewhere as of last year. In such setting, Masuko said monozukuri becomes essential, and the skills and knowledge that Japanese carmakers have must be handed down to the workers and suppliers of the particular country in which they operate.
The philosophy, according to the Mitsubishi chief, ensures that the training a local supplier gets paves the way for more jobs, a stronger auto industry and, eventually, higher income for host countries.
Toyoda boosted Masuko’s argument, saying Japan is not the only place its carmakers call home.
“The Japanese automobile industry has operations around the world. In various countries we create employment, help people grow, and as a key industry in those countries, we contribute to local development. And through making cars, we strongly want to make commitments throughout the world in the future,” Toyoda said.
Clearly then, just as monozukuri has helped shape the Japanese identity since ancient times, it is the same philosophy that will drive the Japanese auto industry into what Toyoda referred to a the “new age of mobility.”