Japan has the GM jitters

TOKYO -- In Japan, the saga of General Motors has long served as a kind of cultural punching bag, epitomizing everything wrong with bloated American capitalism.

The finger wagging reached a frenzy last year, when the Detroit carmaker finally went bankrupt.

But pundits here aren't so smug these days, following GM's successful return to the stock market and the recent unveiling of the long-awaited Chevy Volt extended-range hybrid.

Suddenly, GM -- and local counterpart Ford -- look like contenders.

"The new GM should never be underestimated," warned Japan's Nikkei Sangyo business daily in a recent column entitled "Is the new GM a threat?" It's answer: Yes.In a separate piece, the Nihon Keizai newspaper, the country's version of The Wall Street Journal, concurred: "Once again, Japanese makers need to humbly challenge GM and Ford."

They point to GM's progress in advanced technology. Exhibit A: The Volt. They cite improved prospects in newly developed cars. Exhibit B: The Chevrolet Cruze.

The Nihon Keizai even held GM up as an example of how Japan should deal with its own struggling giant, Japan Airlines -- which was recently bailed out by the Tokyo government.

"In its restructuring efforts, JAL should emulate General Motors, which managed to list its stock in less than two years after filing for bankruptcy by pushing through radical cost-cutting and restructuring of its sales network," it said in an editorial.

But the biggest edge cited in Japan is GM's surge in emerging markets. Exhibit C: China.

GM's partnership with China's Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. is seen as a kind of uber-alliance. It gives GM solid footing not only in China, where it outpaces all Japanese rivals, but also in India. GM and SAIC are partnering to develop cars for that rapidly rising market too.

The fear is Detroit may rise from the ashes by doing an emerging market end-run around Japan, while it is preoccupied with maintaining its lead in industrialized countries.

My, how times change.