"Young Japanese just aren't as interested in fast cars," the guy at the Honda dealership says, flipping through a Honda Civic Type R brochure. "They all want eco cars or minivans."
Even if there seems to be a lack of interest in real cars, Japan is still very much keen on virtual ones, with early reports for the newly released Gran Turismo 5 indicating strong sales. The game boasts over 1,000 in-game cars that players can buy, tune and race.
Japan has always had a love affair with cars. In the years before World War II, U.S. automakers had Japanese factories in places like Yokohama. And during the years following the war, homegrown car companies either emerged or came into their own. Two-door sports cars tore up the Japanese expressways and mountain roads. But, according to many who follow the Japanese car industry, that love affair is getting older and older as Japan focuses more and more on green energy.
Cars like the Civic Type R, which went on sale three years ago, is out of production and will be off the market in a month. The car failed an upcoming emissions test and is going to be replaced by a new quieter and cleaner Civic hybrid, with a CR-Z Type R coming next year. In an age of economic uncertainty, one thing is certain: hybrids sell.
During the mid-point of the last decade, Toyota's Prius was met was strong sales and general acclaim. From Hollywood stars to housewives, the Prius became the car. Other Japanese car makers responded with eco cars of their own. The future of automobiles is green.
Eco cars like hybrids and electric cars are good for the environment, and that's a good thing. However, they don't smell like cars, they don't sound like cars and are a departure from what people for decades and decades have thought an automobile is.
"Every Japanese car company is focusing on eco cars," a Subaru dealer laments. "It seems like only us and Mitsubishi are the only ones making performance cars." That's not entirely true (Mazda still makes sports cars!), even though, it might seem that way. There are exceptions, of course, like Nissan's GT-R (a super car version of the Nissan Skyline GT-R with computer software designed by GT5 developer Polyphony Digital) and small builders like Ken Okuyama designs (Okuyama designed the Enzo Ferrari). Those two cars are, however, high-end performance cars for older, more affluent customers.
"The only people who buy the Fairlady Z," a salesman says in a glistening Nissan showroom, "are middle-aged men. Younger guys aren't interested in two-seaters or driving cars without mufflers. They're spending their money elsewhere." Maybe they're spending it on Gran Turismo 5. Digital cars don't harm the environment, you know.