TOKYO — Toyota made "hybrid" a household word with the Prius. Honda was the first to bring the electric-gasoline mashup technology stateside, with its first-generation two-seat Insight.
And Nissan and Mitsubishi were industry pioneers in mass-producing full-electric vehicles.
But despite their early advances into electrification, Japanese automakers look like laggards today. The hybrid systems favored by Toyota and Honda seem somewhat yesterday in an era abuzz over a worldwide wave of full EVs. And Nissan and Mitsubishi long ago saw competitors pass them by in battery-electrics.
But now a dramatic policy shift by Japan's government could make the industry newly competitive.
Under an initiative floated this month, Japan's powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is proposing phasing out sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles by the mid-2030s. The plan, first reported by national broadcaster NHK, is expected to be adopted by year end.
The policy, which would still allow for sales of hybrids, is being advanced as a steppingstone toward the bigger target of turning the island nation into a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases by 2050. That goal was unveiled this year by Japan's newly elected prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who took office in September.
Under the framework, electrified vehicles would have to account for a specified percentage of an automaker's product mix, Japan's Nikkei newspaper reported separately. Companies that can't make that happen would have to buy emissions credits from competitors in a carbon-trading arrangement.
The new directive will reverberate through Japan's auto industry.
On one hand, it could be a boon to hybrid leaders such as Toyota Motor Corp. and help jump-start the moribund full-electric vehicle ambitions of Nissan Motor Co.
But an effective ban on new vehicles powered solely by combustion could also trigger a shakeout among smaller players such as Subaru, Mazda and Suzuki, which have smaller R&D budgets and have been slow to go electric.
For those three players, a wholesale pivot to electrification could stoke tighter cooperation with giants such as Toyota.
At the same time, similar pressure likely will mount on Mitsubishi Motors Corp. to tighten its dependence on Nissan, which holds a controlling 34 percent stake in the smaller Japanese carmaker.
Honda Motor Co., meanwhile, is partnering with General Motors on electric and fuel cell technology in a sign it also lacks the deep pockets to completely go it alone.
The ban could also spell big changes for some iconic Japanese models that bank on their engine growl, such as the Nissan GT-R and the revived Toyota Supra. Not to mention a swath of the global supplier sector that is wrapped up in making parts for engines and transmissions.
The proposed 15-year phaseout would give Japanese automakers time to adjust, over two or three product cycles. But if they are slow to make the transformation, it could also open the Japan market to import hopefuls such as GM or Volkswagen, which are more aggressively diving into EVs and should have well-established all-electric lineups by the mid-2030s.
Conversely, Japan's lofty green goals could induce its automakers to step it up in the global EV race.
Other countries, including China, the U.K. and France, are moving ahead with their own restrictions on internal combustion engines. And California aims to ban their sale in 2035.
A new mandate from Tokyo may not only force Japanese automakers into the EV market at home but make them more competitive on a global playing field that's shifting in that direction.
The world's third-largest auto market is already largely electrified. About 36 percent of all vehicles sold in Japan have some form of battery power.
But conventional hybrids rule here. They accounted for 98 percent of the total green car pool, or nearly 640,000 vehicles, from January to June of this year.
Full electrics, by contrast, racked sales of just 6,755 over that period.
But Japanese automakers aren't standing still. Even small players saw the writing on the wall about the need for cleaner cars and were transitioning to electrified lineups.
Toyota, for instance, wants to be selling 5.5 million electrified vehicles a year in 2025. Toyota partner Subaru plans to derive 40 percent of its global sales from them in 2030. And in the same year, Mazda aims to deploy some form of electrification in all its vehicles, including mild hybrids.
Nissan, which could become the only Japanese carmaker selling an EV at home following Mitsubishi's decision to stop production of the all-electric i-MiEV minicar, has staggered targets.
In 2023, it wants 60 percent of its domestic Japan sales to be electrified, 50 percent of its Europe sales and 23 percent of its China sales. Nissan hasn't yet offered a goal for the U.S., where it is less bullish about EV demand.
Mitsubishi, meanwhile, targets electrified vehicles for half its worldwide sales in 2030.
And Honda, the country's No. 3 automaker, plans to derive two-thirds of its global volume from standard hybrids, plug-ins, battery-electrics and fuel cell vehicles by 2030.
Here are the individual plans and outlooks for Japan's major automakers.