TOKYO — Back in its crazy, hazy heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Tokyo Motor Show was the place to be.
Japan's automotive juggernauts used their hometown expo as a launch pad for global conquest, unveiling the latest, greatest models they would soon unleash on the world.
Foreign rivals flocked to marvel at whacked-out vehicles with names such as the Naked Be-Pal. Americans and Europeans alike raced to cash in on a go-go economy fueled by gold-flaked champagne and $200 taxi rides. General Motors was selling close to 50,000 cars a year in Japan back then. Tokyo was like a magical mirror gazing into a neon-lit Blade Runner future.
Even in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as Japan's economic miracle deflated, the show sustained much of its allure. But then it was unceremoniously knocked off-kilter by a brutal one-two punch.
The first was the global financial crisis. When the biennial show opened in 2009, almost all international players were no-shows. Organizers even contemplated calling it off.
The second was the country's deadly 2011 earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster. Japanese automakers, ailing from production shutdowns that lasted much of the year, were in little mood to celebrate. German automakers returned, but the Detroit 3 sat out again.
Things hardly improved in 2013, when the event was disastrously scheduled in a way that overlapped rival shows in Los Angeles and Guangzhou, China.
The Tokyo Motor Show has struggled to regain relevance ever since, and other shows hope to avoid enduring such a precipitous decline.
The organizer, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, has fiddled with the show's timing and duration. It changed venues, moving closer to downtown Tokyo. It has tried to lure visitors with special sneak-peek tickets, futuristic themes and even test drives.
But several unrelenting trends make it an uphill battle.
The first is that Japan is a market in decline, thanks to the country's rapidly aging and shrinking population. It is still the world's No. 3 auto market, behind China and the U.S. But volume is stagnant, and the long-term outlook is for a downward trajectory.
Foreign brands are fighting for a smaller piece of a shrinking pie in a market saturated with eight well-entrenched homegrown brands. They have to be more surgical. Those that have skipped the Tokyo show, such as GM and Jaguar Land Rover, say their money is better spent on regional shows in other cities, such as Osaka or Nagoya — or, increasingly, China.
Indeed, the rise of the giant next door has drained enthusiasm for Tokyo. Auto expos in booming Shanghai and Beijing are bigger, if not wilder, than the Japanese show ever was.
Automakers can hardly pass on the riches and sheer size of China. If bean counters say the budget covers only so many shows in Asia, it is a no-brainer about which one to drop.
JAMA hopes next year's Tokyo show gets a big bounce as a kind of international kickoff party for the Summer Olympics coming here in 2020.
Still, organizers hope to invigorate the program with pop-up events around the city.
And next year's show will be headed by Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda, who takes over as JAMA chairman this summer. As Japan's top car-guy ambassador to the world, Toyoda takes a personal stake in the show's success.