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The miracle of the automobile in Japan

The automobile industry represents the first industrial pole in Japan and Japan is after the U.S.A. the second producer of automobiles.

Nothing predestined Japan to be one of the automotive leaders in the world. We are going to tell the tumultuous saga of the automobile in Japan.


Mitsubishi Model A, the first Japanese car - 1917


The first vehicles circulating in Japan were imported from 1898. In 1902, Japan began assembling vehicles imported from the USA. But the number of cars mounted in unimportant. It was not until 1927 that Mitsubishi was created and produced the Model A inspired by a 1912 Fiat for the army. In March 1918 the Japanese government implemented the "Military Vehicle Subsidy Law" (Gunyo jidosha hojo-ho) which gave the military authorities the possibility of distributing subsidies to vehicle manufacturers. They can then produce civilian vehicles (trucks and cars) in times of peace as long as these can be converted into military vehicles during a period of war and used by the army. It is in fact the first industrial policy concerning car manufacturing in Japan.



In 1923, there were 12,700 motor vehicles running in Japan, only a thousand were built locally, all the others were imported. 95% of imports come from the United States, with Ford in the lead, followed by GM.


Small commercial vehicles were very practical and they multiplied from the beginning of the 1930s. It was not until 1932 that the first Japanese luxury car was built by an association of several companies, including Toyoda Loom Company (future Toyota). The purpose of the Atsuta is to compete with locally built Fords and GMs. The project is not profitable and is abandoned. Nissan is born and begins to export its Datsun automobiles to Asia, America and Australia.


It was in the 1950s that Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno, returning from the United States where he was shocked by waste, replaced the Taylorist concepts of "just in time" with kaizen (continuous improvement of quality). This new concept is applied thanks to the empowerment of the operators by enriching the tasks, by improving the supply of the stations by the Kanban system (information system indicating the level of the stocks of the parts along the chain), while preserving costs. These concepts will impose themselves throughout the world from the 1970s. Moreover, strong in their mastery of electronics, the Japanese do not hesitate to “gadgetize” their cars to the great satisfaction of customers. Unfamiliar with the Diesel engine, the Japanese firms (Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Toyota) invested heavily in the petrol engine, bringing decisive progress in terms of power and pollution control with the development of multi-valve engines, electronic intake control, and the use of lean mixtures.


Japanese companies are formed by what is called Keiretsu (Japanese term designating a set of companies in various fields). In the automotive industry, a keiretsu is overseen by the manufacturer. At the top of the pyramid, it is he who assembles the final product, the vehicle. Below the first tier suppliers are called OEMs. The latter are responsible for supplying the manufacturer with finished products such as engines, suspensions, electrical parts, tires, etc. Critical tasks are the responsibility of the manufacturer and the equipment manufacturers.


In 1981 in Japan, there are 11 car manufacturers and 9500 suppliers. Among these suppliers, around 500 are considered top-tier in view of their turnover, the level of technology and the relationships maintained with manufacturers. The secondary suppliers do most of the work while the small suppliers carry out the tasks requiring more labor (foundry, pressing, molding, machining, welding, painting, etc.). In times of high demand, small suppliers delegate work to workshops or garages. They serve as a buffer base for small suppliers with whom they negotiate directly. The small suppliers carry out the work requested by the second-tier suppliers who themselves depend on the first-tier suppliers who have special relationships with the manufacturers. The equipment manufacturers are generally subsidiaries of the manufacturers. In 1990, out of 167 spare parts suppliers, 53 had car manufacturers as main shareholders. It is an equitable relationship of co-dependency even if the manufacturer is the “boss” of the supplier. The manufacturer needs its suppliers for technological advances and to ensure optimal and constant quality. The supplier depends on manufacturers to sell its products and generally also for its financing capital.


Compared to American manufacturers, the Japanese only deal with a limited number of equipment manufacturers, favoring a relationship of trust over the long term.


Japan has not only known how to organize its production with a winning recipe, but also created to meet its international needs, but also its own needs, in particular by creating a new category of vehicle: the Keijidōsha, 軽自動車, or "light vehicle " in Japanese. These are (all) small cars, sold in Japan. They are called "K-Cars" in English or sometimes "Midget" in French, and are part of various advantages, such as reduced taxes or low insurance rates. Surprisingly, in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants, you can only buy a car if you have a parking space. Keijidōsha are therefore a real commercial success and societal phenomenon: in some large Japanese cities, more than 50% of cars are keijidōsha. In a country where there is a lack of places, these small cars have their place, to this, Japan has also been able to create a car culture and acquire notoriety.


All of its orientations have taken Japan from a simple car assembler to a co-leader in automobile manufacturing, whose development model has become a textbook case, passing from assembly to copying to become a perfectionist and before - guardian. An inspiration for the automotive industry in Algeria.

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