Japanese automakers sold 319,342 vehicles under the U.S. cash-for-clunkers program this year, almost half of the roughly 677,000 vehicles purchased. About 115,000 of those Japanese vehicles were imported.
Now Japan is running its own stimulus plan designed, in the midst of a marketwide slump, to boost sales of fuel-efficient cars. And the rules shut out all U.S.-brand vehicles.
This disregard for the tenets of fair play is most notable not for the hundreds, perhaps thousands of U.S. cars that might have been sold under the program but for what it says about the Japanese government's turnabout in policies regarding automotive trade.
Officially, U.S. automakers are barred from the program for reasons that originated in actions that were supposed to open, not close, the Japanese market. It's a legal technicality that honors the letter, not the spirit, of those actions.
Japan's cash for clunkers plan pays ¥250,000 ($2,778) to buyers who trade in cars that are at least 13 years old for vehicles that meet Japan's 2010 emissions standards. Buyers with no trade-in get $1,111 if their purchase beats Japan's 2010 emissions standards by 15 percent or more.
But no U.S. vehicle qualifies. Here's why.
The engines of Japanese cars are tuned to meet that country's peculiar fuel economy tests, which don't correspond to any other nation's tests. Such tuning isn't surprising. After all, the engines of U.S. vehicles are tuned to meet U.S. fuel economy tests. But those engines then are sold, for example, in Europe, where the tests are fairly similar to those in the United States.
In a tacit acknowledgement of how out of synch Japan's tests are, years ago authorities there permitted foreign vehicles to be sold in Japan without having to be retested under the Japanese standards, provided the vehicles met their home countries' emissions tests. The idea was to dismantle a clear nontariff barrier.
But now the government says that because U.S. cars aren't tested and proven to meet or beat Japan's 2010 standards, they don't qualify for the government incentives.
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has protested. A spokeswoman says the U.S. government's position "remains that changes are necessary to give U.S. vehicles greater opportunity to qualify" for the incentives.
The issue was raised two weeks ago in Tokyo "at a senior level," she wrote Automotive News in an e-mail, and "both sides have agreed to continue to consult."
Don't hold your breath. Last month, the Japanese government extended the incentive program by six months, to September 2010. The government is fully capable of dragging out consultations until then.
In the 1970s and '80s, Japan closely monitored the pulse of public opinion in the United States regarding automotive trade. If trade became a lightning rod -- say, during a recession -- Japanese trade negotiators would come up with just enough concessions to keep the disputes from flaring out of control. In the most extreme case, Japan accepted voluntary restraint agreements.
This dispute should have been on everyone's radar. It was widely known that Japanese automakers got a huge boost from cash for clunkers in the United States. The rules for the Japanese program were laid out more than half a year ago.
Yet nobody seems to have seen this coming. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk only broached the matter when a Detroit 3 lobbying group prodded him this month, after the program was extended.
Japanese government spokesmen are waving aside criticism with bland declarations that the program is, ahem, fair.
The dispute shows that Japan simply doesn't worry about a trade war with the United States over autos anymore.
Ever since the U.S. side threatened in 1995 to impose 100 percent tariffs on Japanese luxury cars and then blinked, Japan has understood that the United States is a toothless tiger that won't follow through on any trade dispute threats. Japan, therefore, gradually has allowed its auto trade monitoring skills to atrophy.
Japan's government wasn't monitoring this potential dispute for the same reason the United States doesn't have troops arrayed along the border with Canada. On trade matters, the United States is not a threat.
Industry Editor James B. Treece lived in Japan for 22 years and was Automotive News' Asia Editor in Tokyo from 1995 to 2007.