Japan has a long history of producing cars that have been exported around the world. Toyota, Nissan, Suzuki, Mazda, Honda and many other manufacturers have established themselves as important companies. But this wasn’t always the case, as it took a lot of work for Japan to be recognised as a global leader in the automotive industry. We’re looking into the history of the Japanese car industry to see how it started and where it is today.
Commercial vehicle manufacturing in Japan can be traced back to the start of the 20th century, when Torao Yamaha produced a steam-powered bus in 1904. A couple of years later Komanosuke Uchiyama created the Takura, the first Japanese gasoline engine car. The Kuninsue Automobile Works was established in 1910, manufacturing the Tokyo car in cooperation with Tokyo Motor Vehicles.
The industry continued to develop through the 1920s, with companies like DAT Automobile Manufacturing being founded, which would eventually evolve into Nissan Motors. Japanese cars that were built before WW2 tended to be based on European and American models. For example, the first mass-produced car, the 1917 Mitsubishi Model A, was based on the Fiat A3-3.
During these early days, Japanese car companies struggled, especially after the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923. It destroyed a lot of the country’s infrastructure and Yanase & Co imported American cars to help with recovery efforts. American manufacturers like Ford and GM established factories in Japan dominated the market up to WW2.
Post WW2 and growth into world leader
During World War II, Nissan, Isuzu, Toyota and Kurogane built a number of vehicles for the Imperial Japanese Army. Kurogane produced the world’s first mass-produced four-wheel-drive car called the Kurogane Type 95. Although export was limited, the automotive industry steadily grew and by the 1960s, Japanese cars had started to become popular.
This began with the introduction of kei cars, small, affordable vehicles that the average person could purchase. The cars came with tiny engines that were under 360 cc, which kept taxes lower than larger cars. Many Japanese people could now afford a car and sales went up dramatically. A car that stood out during this time was the Subaru 360, often compared to the VW Beetle.
The keis were popular, but they were far too small to accomodate a family. Nissan spearheaded the family car boom with the 1966 Sunny, which led to other manufacturers following the trend.
Car exportation increased rapidly in the 1970s, with Japanese motors becoming popular in Britain. The Nissan Datsun was a best seller because of its reliability and low running costs. Japanese manufacturers started to compete against each other in the domestic market, exemplified by the battle between the Toyota Corona and Nissan Bluebird.
More growth followed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, leading to Japan becoming the largest car producing nation in 2000. Today, Japan is the third biggest car market and automobile export remains one of the country’s most profitable avenues.