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Why foreign brands aren't celebrating Japan's import boom

TOKYO -- Sales of imported vehicles in Japan, never an import-friendly market, even in the best of times, surged 26 percent in 2010. And in January, they shot up 53 percent.

But no one's popping the champagne in Detroit, Wolfsburg or Stuttgart. That's because nearly a third of those imports are Japanese brands shipped from overseas.

In fact, the No.1 import brand in Japan is Nissan Motor Co.

It takes top honors thanks to the March small car, which Nissan used to make in Japan but now comes from Thailand.

Nissan sold 3,500 imports in Japan last month -- beating its closest rival Volkswagen, which moved 2,758 vehicles. No other importer comes close to that volume, least of all the Detroit 3.

Other Japanese brands are big importers too.

Toyota Motor Corp. was Japan's No. 6 importer last month. It sold 956, up 48 percent from the year before. Those were mostly small commercial trucks from Indonesia. But Toyota still sold more imports in Japan than Ford, Cadillac, Jeep, Chevrolet, Chrysler and Dodge combined.

And yet more Japanese imports will be coming to Japan.

Mitsubishi Motors Corp. starts production of its new global small car in Thailand in the fiscal year starting April 1 and will be exporting that model back to Japan as well.

Non-Japanese imports climbed 13 percent in 2010 and advanced 20 percent in January. But imports of Japanese brands doubled last year and nearly quadrupled last month.

It's bad enough overseas nameplates are such a hard sell in Japan. But it must be doubly frustrating when they get beat at the import game by Japanese re-imports.

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