Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TOKYO | To get around the city, Yutaka Makino hops on his skateboard or rides commuter trains. Does he dream of the day when he has his own car? Not a chance.

Like many Japanese of his generation, the 28-year-old musician and part-time maintenance worker says owning a car is more trouble than it’s worth, especially in a congested city where monthly parking runs as much as 30,000 yen ($330), and gas costs $3.50 a gallon.

That kind of thinking — which automakers here have dubbed “kuruma banare,” or “demotorization” — is a U-turn from earlier generations of Japanese who viewed car ownership as a status symbol. The trend is worrying Japan‘s auto executives, who fear the nation’s love affair with the auto may be coming to an end.

“Young people’s interest is shifting from cars to communication tools like personal computers, mobile phones and services,” said Yoichiro Ichimaru, who oversees domestic sales at Toyota.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association predicts that auto sales in Japan will fall to 4.86 million in 2009 — the first time below 5 million in more than three decades.

This year, sales are projected at 5.11 million, the worst since 1980.

Vehicle sales peaked at 7.78 million vehicles in 1990 during the nation’s heyday “bubble” economy. After that burst, Japan was mired in a decade-long slowdown, which squelched consumer spending and sent car sales on a decline. A surge in gas prices, which has subsided in recent weeks, also eroded sales.

“The changes in individuals’ values on cars came cumulatively over time,” said Nissan Chief Operating Officer Toshiyuki Shiga. “The change in young people’s attitude toward cars didn’t happen overnight. So we have to keep convincing them cars are great.”

In an effort to do just that, Nissan Motor Co. has dealerships featuring colorful accessories for cars meant to appeal to Japanese women’s penchant for “cute” things and has signed major league baseball star Ichiro Suzuki for splashy TV ads for a new sporty model, among other efforts.

Toyota, the nation’s biggest carmaker, has hosted test-drive events, taken part in fashion shows and even developed its own suburban shopping mall that houses a dealership to reach out to buyers.

About half the autos produced in Japan are sold in Japan, while the other half are exported. But the U.S. market - where more-profitable models such as light trucks tend to be popular - is more lucrative.

Still, this nation’s disenchantment with cars is cause for concern. Americans, after all, are expected to start buying cars again, eventually, partly because of the inadequacy of mass transit there.

It’s a different story in Japan’s cities, where streets are clogged, but trains are efficient. The domestic market also is shrinking because of a drop in population.

Mr. Makino, the young man who plays what he calls “organic folk music,” is typical of the new breed, scoffing at the sportscar-idolizing culture of the older generation.

He and his friends see cars as nothing more than a tool, much like a vacuum cleaner, not a reflection of their identity, tastes or income level. Mr. Makino’s father owns a car, but he has never owned one. And he doesn’t know a Honda Fit from a Toyota Vitz.

“I don’t believe that having more things enriches you,” Mr. Makino said in a recent interview at his apartment, sitting among shelves of wooden crates. “If you stay happy in your soul, then you can be happy without money.”

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