TOKYO — The auto industries of Japan and South Korea have remained out of step with the pandemic-beleaguered worlds of North America and Europe in recent days.
As vehicle assembly plants and dealerships shut down in rapid succession from Madrid to Wolfsburg to Detroit, those in Japan and South Korea have been able to continue pumping out and selling cars.
Although cracks began appearing last week, along with mounting calls to lock down social activity, it has been almost business as usual for the two Asian automotive heavyweights in the face of the global health crisis. Factories stayed open, as did much of the rest of society, including bars, restaurants and shopping malls. Springtime revelers in Tokyo were still turning out to drink under the trees for the annual cherry blossom viewing.
But last week, the world’s new economic worries began to prove a contagion of its own here. Soon after the governor of California issued a statewide shelter-at-home order for its 40 million residents, Toyota Motor Corp. last week suspended work at five assembly plants in Japan. Mazda Motor Corp. said it will temporarily stop its two plants here as well, and Nissan and Mitsubishi joined the mix Friday with their own suspensions. Tens of thousands of units will be lost, including production of big export items such as the Lexus NX and Mazda CX-5 crossovers.
Worker safety is always a motivator for Japanese manufacturers. But a bigger part of the calculus is this: What’s the point in churning out the cars if no one is buying them?
In California alone, where Japanese and Korean brands held a 53.4 percent market share in 2019, according to IHS Automotive, dealers have been advised to close some 1,400 showrooms.