THE TOKYO motor show in 1989 was a massive display of the economic power of the Japanese automobile industry. The automakers set out to display their power to the word, and they succeeded. There were dozens of new production cars that would be on sales within weeks. There were scores of prototypes, including the next generation of cars, trucks and minivans.
The western world was stunned. It was another example of the clear superiority of the Japanese auto industry. There wasn't a single auto executive from around the world who didn't consider it the biggest wake-up call in history. They said the Japanese were playing unfairly and would have to be stopped. If they couldn't be stopped competitively, governments would have to stop them.
Now it's a decade later. Just 10 short years, and how the world has changed. This year's show started with another sort of bang. The day before the show opened to the press, Carlos Ghosn, representing Renault's interests at Nissan, announced that Nissan will cut 21,000 jobs, close five plants and sell its interest in most of the hundreds of suppliers in which it has an investment. It was stunning, but it was only the beginning for Japanese auto industry.
At the show, it was apparent that Mitsu-bishi is scouting around for a partner. Some companies think Fuji Heavy Industries, which makes Subaru, would be a fine acquisition. And Ford is in the driver's seat at Mazda where Jim Miller is at the wheel.
It's a revolution that didn't really have a lot of outside pressure. The bubble just burst. That great economic bubble of the 1980s popped in the 1990s and has disrupted just about everything in Japan. It's no longer business as usual - not by a long shot.
It seems unlikely that any nation or industry that was so invincible just a few short years ago could be facing the number and types of problems that they have in Japan.
The strange part is that the Japanese business in North America is, for the most part, pretty good. The investments have been made, and a lot of manufacturing now is solidly based in the USA, which is paying off with little or no effort from Japan.
Toyota and Honda are rolling along, although even mighty Toyota is getting a little concerned about the rising age of its buyers. Sound familiar? Honda, which relies more heavily on markets outside Japan, is still very successful with its mix of motorcycles and automobiles.
Tokyo was an interesting show, not for what was shown but for the dramatic change in an entire nation and its auto industry. But don't underestimate the Japanese. They are still tough competitors, and they always will be.