JAMES B. TREECE

Japanese auto leaders stand strong as survivors

COMMENTARY
James B. Treece, a news editor at Automotive News. was based in Tokyo for 12 years as Asia Editor.
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TOKYO -- The 2013 Tokyo Motor Show was an unprecedented love fest.

Last month on the afternoon before the first press day, the bosses of each member of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association stood shoulder to shoulder on the same stage, as the sound of a revving engine from each of their lineups roared in turn.

It was an unusual show of solidarity. And it wasn't the last.

The next day at the show, Toyota President Akio Toyoda, sitting astride a Honda motorcycle, smiled and waved to the cameras along with Honda Motor CEO Takanobu Ito. That's like the head of Ford happily posing behind the wheel of a Chevy Corvette.

Japan's automakers have bonded as survivors.

It's one thing to get through a sales downturn. It's quite another to be struggling through the worst global financial crisis in 80 years, battered by a currency rate that turns the exports you rely on into money-losers -- and then see your factories, and those of your rival countrymen, devastated by an earthquake.

At that event, top executives from Japan's five largest automakers took turns on the stage talking about their experiences in the quake, their appreciation of monozukuri (making things) and their hopes for the future. For example, Nissan Vice Chairman Toshiyuki Shiga recalled being in a videoconference when the quake hit. He spent the night at Nissan's disaster response center.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda sits on a Honda motorcycle in a display of solidarity with Honda Motor CEO Takanobu Ito during the Tokyo Motor Show. Japan's largest automakers used the Tokyo show to demonstrate that they have bonded as survivors. Photo credit: Bloomberg

The gathering also partially reflected a shared awareness that the Tokyo show was being eclipsed on the international stage by auto shows in Shanghai and Beijing. The top executives wanted to remind the international press it's still worth coming to Tokyo, both in seeing vehicles and new technology and in having access to executives.

But the theme of survival was never far from the conversation.

Take the "Pine Tree of Hope."

That was the name given to the lone surviving pine tree, from a grove of some 70,000, on a spit of land hit by the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami.

To commemorate it, 14 Japanese automotive manufacturers joined to produce a scale model of the tree using car sheet metal, some salvaged from cars damaged by the catastrophe. Metal craftsmen carefully shaped more than 1,000 pine needles, plus cones and bark.

They didn't approach the task lightly. A final assembly team of seven younger staff members, drawn from about a half-dozen companies, traveled to the site to view the tree in person. Upon return, the guy who had shaped the tree's bark tore up his work and started over, to get it just right.

In any country with multiple automakers, those companies are both fierce rivals and, to some extent, colleagues with a shared destiny. For now, Japan's industry leaders are standing shoulder to shoulder more than usual.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.

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