TOKYO — Wa. Ma. Waku doki. Wabi sabi.
When it comes to car design, the Japanese are literally speaking their own language these days.
The country's automakers are embarking on a major styling renaissance and digging deep into the local lexicon to describe their upcoming creations. The sensuous curves, avant-garde athleticism and high-tech Zen were on full parade at last week's Tokyo Motor Show.
The amped-up looks come as Japanese brands race to stand out on the global stage amid the commoditization of technology under the hood and an onslaught of new Asian rivals.
Some brands are leveraging Japan's cultural heritage — drawing inspiration from samurai swords and rock gardens or tapping traditional words such as wa, which means harmony, or ma, which means space. Others are channeling the Japanese aesthetic in more subtle ways to explore new segments or forge a more futuristic anime-cool Japan vibe.
Yet the angst is palpable across the board, as design becomes a make-or-break differentiator.
"For us, it's very scary," said Ikuo Maeda, global design chief at Mazda. "So many brands show up from other Asian countries, so being made-in-Japan is very important to us."
Pressure is mounting from new demands for autonomous cars, electrification, artificial intelligence and new mobility. But improved global manufacturing techniques have also leveled the quality gap between Japanese brands and competitors in the U.S., Europe and South Korea.
Japan now sees design as a way to break from the pack again.