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Japan's automakers inject a little spectacle back into Tokyo show

Richard Johnson is managing editor of Automotive News

The weird, wacky wonderfulness of past Tokyo Motor Shows is trying to make a comeback.

Just look at Toyota's Fun-Vii concept, which Akio Toyoda called a "smartphone on wheels," or Honda's stylish small electric sports car concept, the EV-STER.

But much has changed since my first Tokyo show 20 years ago.

In the fall of 1991, Japan's bubble economy had not quite burst. The nation's carmakers were still fearlessly, shamelessly upbeat.

Fertile-minded designers, engineers and product planners threw down the gauntlet in 1991, rolling out concept and production models that filled every conceivable niche and created a few new ones.

Makuhari Convention Center was packed with prototypes and production cars -- so many new models that in the weeks before the show Japanese companies ran out of days in which to preview them. Toyota had to launch the Aristo and Crown Majesta models on the same day.

Indeed, Tokyo was king of the hill.

Nissan's Pivo3 concept electric vehicle debuts at the Tokyo Motor Show on Wednesday. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Now Beijing and Shanghai have the allure. And the Seoul show has moved into the front ranks, too, drawing over 1 million visitors every other year. Tokyo stands in the shadows.

But after the 2009 show, when almost every major foreign manufacturer stayed home, Tokyo is recapturing some of its old sparkle. The show is being held at a new location, the Tokyo Big Sight convention center.

Carmakers are showing lots of interesting and amusing concepts.

"We must go for the quality -- and the concept cars that are fun." said a wistful senior Toyota public relations executive who was there with me at the 1991 show. "But we're never going to be what Beijing and Shanghai are. They just have too many people."

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