TOKYO — Japanese brands slid mostly sideways in the U.S. last year. But in China, their business is booming.
Two automakers, Mazda Motor Corp. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., sold more vehicles in China last year than in the U.S. where they have toiled for decades.
The rapid growth of Japan's brands in China, led by double-digit percentage sales jumps at Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., foreshadows a looming shift as China begins to supplant the U.S. as the most important market for Japanese auto companies.
It's a remarkable turnaround for the Japanese brands. Only five years ago many had their China sales shrivel amid a massive consumer backlash against Japanese products triggered by a territorial dispute between the governments in Beijing and Tokyo over islets in the East China Sea.
Last year's big increases by the Japanese contrast with a slower 4.4 percent sales increase for General Motors and a 6 percent decline for Ford in China.
Through November, Honda was China's No. 2 selling brand, Toyota No. 3 and Nissan No. 6. Volkswagen topped the list, Geely was fourth and Buick No. 5, according to LMC Automotive.
For Honda, Nissan, Toyota Motor Corp. and Subaru Corp., the go-to U.S. remains the biggest — and typically most profitable — market. But to be determined now is whether growing sales will force the Japanese to reassess everything from global production footprints to product development.
Last year, Mazda reached the tipping point. Its light-vehicle sales in China grew 8.3 percent to 309,407. But in the U.S., Mazda's sales slid 2.8 percent to 289,470.
Mitsubishi's sales in China also eclipsed their U.S. results, growing 56 percent to 129,160.
Honda's light-vehicle sales there climbed 16 percent to 1.46 million last year, compared with American Honda's 0.2 percent increase to 1.64 million.
Nissan's light-vehicle total in China increased 12 percent to 1.27 million last year, while Nissan North America added only 1.9 percent to 1.59 million. Toyota's volume rose 6.2 percent to 1.29 million in China; Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. dropped 0.6 percent to 2.43 million.
The big outlier is Subaru, the only major Japanese carmaker with no local production or domestic joint venture partner in China. Subaru's sales there slid 35 percent to 30,029 vehicles, just a fraction of the whopping 647,956 it sold stateside, where volume rose 5.3 percent.