Thursday, December 11, 2008

Good news from Japan

I have been carrying a newspaper clipping around with me for nearly six months, meaning to write a post about it sometime. The article is particularly salient this week as the US Congress debates whether taxpayers should provide a bridge-loan to the American automakers.

Newsweek reported that in Japan -- ever a global trend-setter -- new car sales have declined by about one third since 1990, and Japanese spending on autos has started to decline even more precipitously in recent years:

Cars are increasingly just a mobile utility; the real consumer time and effort goes into picking the coolest mobile phones and personal computers, not the hippest hatchback. The rental-car industry has grown by more than 30 percent in the past eight years, as urbanites book weekend wheels over the Internet. Meanwhile, government surveys show that spending on cars per household per year fell by 14 percent, to $600, between 2000 and 2005, while spending on Net and mobile-phone subscriptions rose by 39 percent, to $1,500, during the same period.

For Japanese car companies, the implications are enormous. "Japan is the world's second largest market, with a 17 to 18 percent share of our global sales. It's important," says Takao Katagiri, corporate vice president at Nissan Motor Co. The domestic market is where Japanese carmakers develop technology and build their know-how, and if it falters, it could gut an industry that employs 7.8 percent of the Japanese work force.

While surging exports, particularly to emerging markets, have more than offset the decline in domestic sales so far, companies are looking for ways to turn the tide.
Two points. First, cars are an environmental nightmare. Second, Japanese consumers tend to be trend pioneers.

Now, if the Japanese are turning away from cars, that can only be good news for our environment. That's a big story, right?

Not according to Newsweek. The actual storyline does not concern the benefits fewer cars sold by Japanese automakers could mean for the global environment, but rather the problems this development seems likely to entail for the auto industry and the Japanese economy. The journalistic style serves as a reminder that "good news" is too often defined by the mainstream media as whatever appears to be good for the bottom lines of global corporations. Apparently, nothing else is supposed to matter from the reader's perspective either.


  1. I sent several letters to members of Congress and posted on Obama's Vision site.
    I told them that the 3 companies spent $25 Billion just on advertising in a 2.5 year period. This year GM added $1.5 Billion for new Internet ads.
    The UAW has on their site a very informative chart. Looking at it, I noticed that other than for Michigan, the largest percentage of workers to be affected are not in parts and assembly but in the dealership area, which I guess means sales.
    I also said that the crucial question is: how many more automobiles can we permit on an already congested planet?
    Our world has been designed to support the use of automobiles and it actually costs our society trillions to support the use of automobiles.
    We must rethink issues of mobility.

  2. So much of the money will be going to support jobs in sales and marketing?! The indirect costs to society of auto sales are something nobody talks about.

  3. I'm an Eagle Scout, so believe me when I say that ecologically sound policies mean a lot to me. But what viable alternatives are there to autos, especially in places like Los Angeles where I grew up? Having a vehicle there is equivalent to having a job. Some people can use mass transit, but most people aren't served by it, and no practical ideas for expanding mass transit have forward in nearly three decades. I want to see the mountains from my Mom's house, but I also want people to be able to put food on the table.

    What ARE the alternatives?

  4. J-P,

    I think LA ought to look to Holland. That country has dedicated bicycle paths going everywhere.

    But with its present infrastructure, I imagine it would be hard to thrive in LA without a car today.


Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.