DETROIT (Bloomberg) -- Japanese automakers, rebounding from an earthquake and aided by a weakening yen, cranked up U.S. vehicle production by 36 percent last year while boosting imports from Japan by 19 percent.
Japanese automakers built 3.3 million cars and trucks in the U.S. last year, up from 2.4 million in 2011, according to new data from the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, a Tokyo-based trade group representing that country's major carmakers.
That was the most since 2007, when Japanese automakers produced 3.5 million vehicles in the United States, JAMA said.
As U.S. auto sales reached their highest level last year since 2007, Japanese automakers boosted their U.S. market share to 36.9 percent, from 34.9 percent in 2011.
Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and other Japanese automakers rebounded from Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami that crippled output, cutting off critical parts needed to produce vehicles.
"We're finally seeing recovery from the recession as well as the earthquake and tsunami," said Ron Bookbinder, general director of JAMA USA. "As long as the U.S. economy and U.S. vehicle demand hold up, U.S. production should continue to rise."
Japanese automakers are also benefiting from a yen that has weakened by 19 percent against the dollar since Oct. 31, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a campaign to lower Japan's currency to stimulate the economy. That gives Japanese automakers an extra $1,500 to $2,000 per car and reduces the cost of production in Japan, according to Morgan Stanley.
Auto imports from Japan rose to 1.7 million vehicles last year, from 1.4 million in 2011, according to JAMA. That was the highest since 2008, when Japanese automakers imported 2.1 million cars and trucks into the United States, JAMA said.
The weaker yen also lowers Japanese automakers manufacturing costs in the United States because their cars contain so much content from Japan, said Adam Jonas, an analyst for Morgan Stanley.
He calculates Japanese autos sold in the U.S. contain about 44 percent of Japan-made parts.
"The yen doesn't sell cars, but it deals you a good hand," said Jonas, who just returned from meeting with automakers in Japan. "What sells cars is how the Japanese share the yen with consumers, either in the form of a lower price or a better car at a similar price."
Nissan Motor Co.'s U.S. sales surged 25 percent in May, triple the industrywide gain, after it cut prices on seven models. Honda is introducing a redesigned 2014 Acura MDX with $4,000 in additional features, yet that model's price is only $1,710 higher, Jonas said.
"The Japanese do want to gain share here," said Jonas, who forecasts Japanese automakers share of the U.S. market will grow to 40 percent next year from 39 percent this year. "They know that Abe's got their back. He's not going to let them down. They're not going back to a strong yen because he's got to save the economy."
Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally last week told Bloomberg Television that Japan is "absolutely" manipulating its currency to give its domestic companies an unfair advantage.
"With the currency manipulation, we just have to get back to the place where the currencies are set by the markets and the free trade agreements really are free trade agreements," Mulally said on Bloomberg TV June 20.
JAMA's Bookbinder declined to comment on the yen's effect on Japanese production.
John Mendel, Honda's U.S. sales chief, said the yen-effect is overestimated.
"I'm not going to say it's much ado about nothing," Mendel said in an interview. "But it certainly is not a game changer for American Honda because 90 percent of what we sell here, we build here."
Exports from Japanese automakers' U.S. plants reached a record last year of 335,680 vehicles, up 29 percent from 259,908 in 2011, JAMA said. Most of those cars and trucks go to Canada, JAMA said.