Japan from the inside out

Cars losing cachet in Japan?

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A NEW SOCIAL TREND in Japan? The Japanese Automobile Manufacturers’ Association revealed the results of its FY 2007 market trend survey showing that younger Japanese are less interested in car ownership than ever before.

Still driving an Isuzu

Still driving an Isuzu

The key figure in the survey is the percentage of primary drivers younger than age 30 in all households that own cars. (The primary driver is defined as that person with the greatest frequency of automobile operation in the household.) This percentage slid four points from the survey conducted five years ago to 7%. That’s the first time this percentage has ever been in single digits.

An association source says this percentage stood at 19% in 1995. Those in the 20-29 age group also accounted for 19% of the population that year. They now account for 14%. Therefore, the decline in primary drivers in that age group has been steeper than the drop in the ratio of that group to the overall population during the same period.

A similar survey conducted by the Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living of men in their 20s uncovered a parallel trend. When asked what they would spend their money on, 31% of the guys in 1996 answered cars. That figure fell to 16% in 2006.

These surveys do not show a corresponding decline for people in their late 30s and older.

An analyst from Demeken (an abbreviation of the Japanese for Digital Media Research Institute) says this represents a shift in the attitude of the generation who grew up in the Internet era amidst the detritus of the collapse of the bubble economy in the 1990s. The people in this age group, he suggests, place more importance on use rather than ownership.

He notes that many in the youngest adult generation view cars merely as a means for transportation and not as a status symbol, as they were for previous generations of postwar Japanese.

Buttressing this analysis is the 35% increase in the number of rental cars in Japan during the 10-year period ended in 2006. Meanwhile, automobile sales fell during that period. (The largest decline occurred from 1995 to 2001).

The Nishinippon Shimbun, the newspaper in which this article appeared, views this as a matter of concern. They’re based in Fukuoka, and local governments and business organizations in northern Kyushu have been lobbying hard—with great success—to attract companies in the auto industry.

The article failed to provide a breakdown by region for these figures, however. It’s a lot easier to get around without a car in Tokyo or Osaka than it is in an area with a lower population density. With the exception of those who live in Fukuoka City, most people in Kyushu would find a car-less life quite inconvenient.

Nevertheless, there has been a noticeable shift in the attitude toward automobiles compared to the early 80s, when I first came to Japan. In those days, it was still the rule for people to work on Saturdays (at least half a day). I was surprised then at the number of people in their 20s whose idea of a good time on Sunday was to go on an all-day automobile jaunt. They had no specific objective for their trip, such as to attend a concert or sporting event. After driving a few hours in one direction, they’d have something to eat, fool around a little bit, and then turn around and drive back home.

That doesn’t seem to be the case now.

4 Responses to “Cars losing cachet in Japan?”

  1. Durf said

    I do some consulting work for a major automaker and this is a trend the industry is watching very closely . . . There are other demographic segments they’re quite happy to pursue for the time being, mainly (1) wealthy older people with lots of savings and time to go on the drives they never took when they were working hard in the boom years and (2) safety- and family-conscious people (primarily women) in their parenting years. (Take a look at the car ads on TV these days and you’ll see many more targeting these folks; not so many targeting the hard-driving youngsters.) But over the long term this is a domestic market development that concerns them almost as much as environmental stuff.

  2. Chris said

    Great news in my opinion.

  3. James A said

    It’s rather ironic that the country with the most successful car producers in the world has a shrinking domestic market.

    I’d love to hot rod in a GT-R, but the price, insurance, and the smog checks effectively dissuade me from owning an auto here anytime in the future. Plus, being 25 minutes by train from Shibuya helps.

    I wonder if mopeds and motorcycles are still selling steady compared to four-wheelers.

  4. tornados28 said

    That may be a good thing.

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