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Japan auto show returns, playing catchup on EVs

TOKYO (AFP) – Tokyo’s rebranded auto show returns this weekend just as China looks set to overtake Japan as the world’s biggest car exporter after Toyota, Nissan and others got stuck in the electric vehicle (EV) slow lane.

Since the last edition in 2019, the EV market in Japan has been sluggish and the country’s automakers have been late to tap a growing appetite elsewhere.

Just 1.7 per cent of cars sold in Japan were electric in 2022, compared with around 15 per cent in western Europe, 5.3 per cent in the United States and nearly one in five in China.

Japanese firms fared badly in a recent Greenpeace ranking on phasing out internal combustion engines, with Suzuki last and Toyota – the world’s biggest carmaker by revenue – third from bottom.

Fewer than one in 400 Toyotas sold are EVs, the environmental group said.

People attend the press day of the Japan Mobility Show in Tokyo, Japan. PHOTO: AFP

Japanese manufacturers have long bet instead on hybrids that combine battery power and internal combustion engines.

Foreign EVs “feel like products from the previous generation”, Chinese car industry employee Gao Yulu, 32, told AFP at a recent auto show in Beijing.

“For Japanese brands, there are very few products to begin with. And their product strength isn’t strong in terms of price and performance,” she said.

Like in Europe and North America, Chinese EV makers are now trying to gain a foothold in Toyota and Nissan’s backyard.

One of the only three foreign auto firms exhibiting in Tokyo will be BYD, which is vying with Tesla to become the world’s top-selling EV maker.

Although export figures are skewed by Japanese companies having major factories abroad, becoming number-two to China this year, as expected, will still hurt for an industry that itself was once the disruptor, experts said.

“It’s kind of reminiscent of what happened to Japan in the 1980s, when they started exporting a lot of automotives,” said auto analyst at CLSA Christopher Richter.

Japanese automakers have vowed to up their game, with Toyota aiming to sell 1.5 million EVs annually by 2026 and 3.5 million by 2030. It has invested heavily in battery technology.

On show will be a number of new Japanese EVs, although they will mostly be concepts such as a car and motorbike from Honda made of recyclable acrylic resin.