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Continuing our expedition across the land of automotive geography, we head east from Europe. Crossing over Soviet relics and the still emerging vehicles of China we find ourselves in Japan. Japanese cars are often considered some of the most reliable cars in the world. Japanese manufacturers account for 4 of the top 10 global producers of vehicles, with the Japanese Toyota taking the number one position. While many may consider Japanese cars to be slightly less performance oriented than their German or Italian counterparts, there are proven racers to be found coming out of Japan. In this episode of automotive geography, we’ll take a look at the Japanese automotive industry and the amazing vehicles it produces.

The Japanese Automotive Industry – One Of Automotive Geography’s Biggest

Japan is a country much older than anything we find in North America. Scholars can date mentioning of Japan back to the third century AD. Since then, the country has grown to be a very industrious nation capable of great feats, especially considering that the entire country is roughly half the size of British Columbia. Japan has a rich history full of vibrant culture, and has become a world leader in technological innovations, something that definitely finds it’s way into cars. Even despite geological setbacks like earthquakes and tsunamis, and devastation following World War 2, Japan remains as a global leader in consumer vehicles. The Manufacturers Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, Subaru, Suzuki and Mitsubishi all call Japan home. These companies all got their starts as contributors of the war effort, and only really began to come into their own in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Early Stages Of The Japanese Automotive Industry

Japan didn’t get it’s automotive start with any one company. In fact, the first examples of the Japanese automotive industry were as production plants for the big 3. In the mid twenties and thirties the big three were churning out over 200,000 vehicles from Japanese plants, compared to a small 12,000 from domestic manufacturers. In 1936, Japanese legislation was changed to try and counter foreign competition and increase the amount of domestic production. Shortly after, the big 3 had pulled out of Japan. By the start of the Second World War, Japan had shifted nearly all of it’s vehicle production into military vehicles.

One Japanese textile manufacturer began building vehicles for the military in 1936. The companies son eventually split from the textile manufacturer Toyoda Automatic Loom Works and began their own business, lead by Kiichiro Toyoda. In 1937, the company was officially independent as the Toyota Motor Company.

Toyota And The Dawn Of The Japanese Automotive Industry

The translation of the Japanese “Toyoda” is “fertile rice paddies”. Toyota changed their name when the company became independent in 1937 to avoid having a farming image and to appear more modern. The name change from Toyoda also came from redesigning the logo for the new company, which would lead to the new Toyota.

Toyota’s first post war vehicles under the new name were sold as Toyopet models. Toyopet came from a contest held in 1947 to determine a new name for the Toyota vehicles. The name would quickly be dropped when expanding in the US market, as it brought up the ideas of toys and pets. Early Toyota vehicles were smaller than their American counterparts, and were still incredibly reliable.

The 60’s saw the creation of the American “chicken tax”. This tax imposes a 25% tariff on light trucks and SUV’s. This means that any foreign light truck or SUV imported into the United States can’t be profitable, and therefore no foreign manufacturers bring those vehicles into the US. The original idea was that this would protect US domestic production from the threat of foreign vehicles. The tax created a stagnant market in the US, and continues to halt innovation to this day. Companies like Toyota eventually created factories in the United States to circumvent this law.

Japanese Automotive Industry

Toyota is best known in the Japanese automotive industry and globally for their Corolla and Camry models. The Toyota Corolla has the distinct honour of being the best selling car in the world, a title it took in 1997. In 2013, Toyota celebrated the sale of the 40 millionth Corolla. This is more than many other companies have ever sold, including Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes, and Porsche combined. Today, people choose the Corolla as a go to for value and reliability.

Toyota also manages the Scion brand, a line up of affordable but performance based vehicles aimed at younger drivers. This brand helps to further shed the Toyota image of being a “plain car”. Toyota also continued to revolutionize the Japanese Automotive Industry with the Prius, the car that popularized the hybrid vehicle.

Mazda – Reviving The Sporty Japanese Automotive Industry

The Mazda name wasn’t officially adopted until 1984, but all vehicles sold by the company before then had that name. The company originally started as an arms manufacturer for the Japanese military. Post war, the company evolved into the car maker it is today starting the the 1960’s. Mazda is currently the only producer in the Japanese automotive industry, as well as the world, of the rotary engine. It was this different engine design that allowed Mazda to stand out against the other Japanese manufactures, an idea that would pay off greatly.

Mazda’s rotary engine would fall out of favour during the oil crisis in 1973. After consumers had turned to smaller more efficient engines, Mazda was facing bankruptcy. Through some investments and traditional engines, Mazda pulled through and shifted the rotary engine to production of the RX-7 and RX-8. Mazda also began production of a small roadster, known as the MX-5 or Miata.

During Mazda’s brush with bankruptcy, the company was invested in by Ford. Ford and Mazda eventually parted ways, but this partnership allowed Mazda to get back on its feet, a strategy that benefited both Ford and Mazda. Recent reports from Consumer Reports puts Mazda as the second highest rated automotive company overall next to Lexus (a Toyota company).

Honda – A Rival To The Largest

The original founder of Honda tried producing piston rings for Toyota, but was rejected as the parts weren’t good enough. Today, Honda is one of the largest automotive manufacturers in the Japanese automotive industry. While Honda has a long history in motorcycles, their first vehicle came in form of a pick up truck in 1963.

Honda produced small vehicles to comply with Japanese automotive industry Kei car tax laws, meaning the vehicles could cost Honda less to produce. Over the years, the Honda Civic has constantly competed for sales with it’s oldest rival, the Toyota Corolla. While the Civic and Corolla are seen as fairly plain cars, Honda does have some firsts when it comes to production. Honda was the first company to branch off a strictly luxury division of vehicles with the formation of Acura in 1986. The Acura NSX became the first Japanese automotive industry vehicle to use an aluminum monocoque body in a mid-engine sports car, something that has only recently began being replaced by carbon-fibre. In 2013, Honda achieved another first by exporting more vehicles from the United States than they imported.

Aside from producing incredibly durable vehicles, Honda has also pioneered robotics research with the advent of the ASIMO robot. This humanoid robot is being designed to assist in the elderly or the professional in the home or workplace.

Nissan – The Broadest Member Of The Japanese Automotive Industry

Nissan officially began in 1911 as Kwaishinsha Motor Car Works. The company produced their first car, called the DAT in 1914. In 1931, a successor to the DAT was released. The Son of DAT, or DATSON, which was later changed to Datsun. Nihon Sangyo was founded as a holdings company in 1928, and would continue to grow over the next few years. As time went on, DAT was bought up by a series of companies, ultimately being bought by Nihon Sangyo. The name was stylized to Nissan (from (NIhon SANgyo) and the company began creating more vehicles.

While Nissan doesn’t have the global reputation of Toyota or Honda, they do produce some very important vehicles. The Nissan Leaf is a current leader in the affordable all electric market, with a range of over 100km and a price starting at just over twenty thousand dollars. Nissan also produces the GT-R, a car capable of over 600hp and a 0-60 time of 2.7 seconds. Quite a contrast from the Leaf.

Japanese Automotive Industry – Ongoing Masters

The list of information on these high quality manufacturers could go on forever. This list doesn’t even factor in Subaru, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Isuzu, Kawasaki, Daihatsu, or Yamaha. The Japanese automotive industry may just be the most industrious off all nations, providing a wide range of vehicles, from reliable commuters, to all electric future wheels, to intense track monsters. Of course, what else would you expect from a nation that is as industrious and as focused as Japan?

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