Japanese cars strive to be cool again image

As chairman of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Toyota President Akio Toyoda is leading a one-month campaign to preach the virtues of being a motorhead to students. And the presidents of Honda, Subaru-maker Fuji Heavy Industries and Mitsubishi plan to follow.

They are all set to tackle one of the biggest conundrums facing Japanese automakers: how to make cars cool again. Japan’s aging population makes the mission more critical, with passenger-vehicle sales more than 20% down from their 1990 highs and the proportion of drivers in their 20s at half the level when Toyoda’s generation reached an age when they could sit behind the wheel.

“Younger Japanese are quite different from the older Japanese and cars mean much less to many than 20 or 25 years ago,” said Edwin Merner, president of Atlantis Investment Research in Tokyo, who’s been in Japan since the 1970s. “They’re more interested in tech gadgets, like the iPhone. Young people nowadays don’t have the money to buy cars, too.”

The point of these events is to encourage young people to better understand that cars are fun and Japan’s auto industry has great potential, said Masami Doi, a Toyota spokesman. Though dwindling interest in cars is a worldwide trend, falling wages and the aging population mean it’s been steeper in Japan, said Yoshiaki Kawano, a Tokyo-based analyst with IHS Automotive.