LINDSAY CHAPPELL

The past is no indication of Japanese trade barriers

Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.Lindsay Chappell is the Mid-South bureau chief for Automotive News.
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The free-trade proposal that’s on the table between Japan and the United States and other countries has been a flash point because Japan’s critics have grave doubts that the Japanese government will allow American cars to sell there unencumbered.

If only the Japanese government would stop making it difficult to import autos with regulations and currency manipulation, there would be more Chevys, Dodges and Fords on the streets of Tokyo.

They point to past efforts to sell U.S.-brand vehicles in Japan, and those results were dismal. So there, they say, is your proof.

But the past is hardly an indication of the future.

The past saw General Motors try to sell Saturns there. But it was 1997 -- Japan was in a recession, and Saturn only opened eight stores for the entire country. Not to mention that Saturn was branded as a Japan-fighting “Hooray, we’re American” company. Why would Japanese consumers find that attractive?

In the past, Chrysler exported the Neon to Japan, but it was aimed at a hotly contested piece of the Japanese car market where Toyota already fights tooth and nail to make its money.

Ford tried exporting the Taurus to Japan. It was too big to fit into the typical parking space in Japan, where the biggest market segment is for mini cars that the Detroit 3 had no interest in producing.

U.S. trade representatives pressed Japanese leaders to persuade Japanese car dealers to agree to sell U.S. brands. Many Japanese dealers balked. In that respect, Japanese businesspeople are no different than Americans. Can you imagine the reaction of a Ford dealer if the U.S. government tried to persuade him to take on a Suzuki franchise to help struggling Suzuki compete in the U.S. market?

Are these really trade barriers? Or are they evidence that America’s automakers just -- perhaps -- have always had more pressing interests elsewhere?

You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com.

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