April 9, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Detroit's auto pain hits Japan

Dependence on U.S. sales sends industry's problems overseas

Tokyo -- Five of Japan's eight automakers are expected to post significant losses in the next few weeks. Demand for their cars and trucks in the United States, their biggest market, has plunged nearly 35 percent in the past year. Scores of suppliers are on the brink of bankruptcy. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and many are losing their homes.

These are challenges Detroit has been struggling with for years.

But this is not Detroit.

This is Tokyo, where laid-off auto workers are sleeping in parks, financiers are fretting about the impact of a General Motors Corp. bankruptcy on already weak parts makers, and the heads of once-invincible automakers like Toyota Motor Corp. are watching sales decline and losses mount.

The crisis in the U.S. automobile industry has hit Japan like a tsunami. And everyone in the Japanese auto industry -- the engine of the nation's economy -- is worried that it could get much worse if GM or Chrysler LLC fail.

"It is very serious. It is not only a U.S. problem," said Toshihiro Iwatake, executive director of Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association Inc. "Your problems have become our problems."

The fear is palpable from here to Hiroshima, prompting many to drop their objections to a U.S. government bailout of GM and Chrysler for the sake of some stability in the auto industry.

The Japanese are worried that the failure of either company, or even a major U.S. parts manufacturer, could disrupt the global supply chain and idle their factories in the United States. There also is growing concern that such developments could trigger a protectionist backlash or spark a new trade war.

"Japanese automakers don't want to see GM or Chrysler disappear," said Akira Kojima, senior fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research. "It would create social and political problems. Toyota and others are concerned about the impact this would have on public sentiment."

Addicted to U.S. sales

The crisis in the U.S auto industry is already having a major impact on public sentiment in Japan.

If Detroit's sin was its over-reliance on big truck and sport utility vehicle sales, Japan's sin has been its dependence on the U.S. car market. As demand for vehicles collapsed in the United States, so did Japanese exports.

During the Japanese fiscal year that ended March 31, 2008 -- the most recent year for which numbers are available -- approximately 75 percent of the 22 million vehicles made by Japanese manufacturers here and abroad were sold outside of Japan, according to the Japanese government. Americans bought nearly 5.4 million of these cars and trucks -- more than anyone else in the world.

But cars and trucks are not the only products crossing the Pacific. During the same year, Japanese suppliers provided $35 billion worth of parts to manufacturers in North America, accounting for 10 percent of their total business.

"We depend too much on the U.S. market," Kojima said. "To reduce their inventories in your market, Japanese manufacturers quickly began to reduce production. They also began to cut temporary workers."

That began last fall, and Kojima said it dealt a massive blow to consumer confidence in a country that still viewed employment as a lifetime guarantee. The drop in sales also dealt a big blow to the bottom lines of automakers and suppliers.

Five of Japan's eight automakers are expected to post losses for the last fiscal year, which ended here on March 31. Only one of Japan's major automakers -- Honda Motor Co. -- is projecting profits, and then only because it is still making money from its motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle operations.

Japanese suppliers are also in trouble.

"The shrinking of the auto market in the U.S. affects the Japanese economy quite a lot -- particularly the parts suppliers," said Iwao Nakatani, director of research at Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting Co. Ltd., one of Japan's biggest financial firms. "If the situation lasts longer than a year or so, some Japanese suppliers will go bankrupt."

Japanese parts manufacturers have a major presence in the United States, supplying not only Japanese plants but also American automakers. They also provide parts to U.S. suppliers and rely on some of those same companies to provide parts for their components.

"The parts manufacturers are mutually dependent," said Takehide Takahashi, executive managing director of the Japan Auto Parts Industries Association. "If there is a major disruption among the tier one companies in the United States, we will be swimming in a sea of blood." Tier one suppliers sell parts directly to automakers.

Some consolidation already has occurred in the Japanese parts industry, he said, adding that some suppliers are expected to ask the Japanese government for aid as early as this month. Takahashi's group has welcomed the decision by the U.S. government to make aid available to Japanese parts manufacturers in the United States.

Government plays big role

While government intervention is creating a brave new world in Detroit, the Japanese government has long played an active role in this nation's automobile industry -- largely through the auspices of the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI.

Few men wield more power inside the ministry's heavily guarded tower than Akira Matsunaga, director of METI's automobile division. He has an impressive view of the Tokyo skyline from his office, but these days his gaze is fixed on the crisis in Detroit.

"It's already having an impact," he told The Detroit News. "Japanese automakers in the U.S. are depending on U.S. suppliers. We also share dealers with the Big Three.

"We have some concerns about that because, if they closed, our sales power in the United States would decrease."

Matsunaga said the U.S. government's efforts to save GM and Chrysler are a violation of World Trade Organization rules, which prohibit nations from unfairly supporting domestic products. But it is a violation he is prepared to ignore.

"So far, that is not a problem," he said. "We are not against such policies. Our concern is not the bailout, but the confusion in the U.S. market.

"Our hope is that the U.S. automakers will become sound so that the market can stabilize."

Both the Japanese government and Japanese automakers worry that market conditions in the United States will continue to deteriorate, and they are still struggling to find a way through the crisis.

Many believe that will require some consolidation of the Japanese auto industry, or at least closer cooperation between manufacturers.

"There are too many players in Japan," said Mitsubishi UFJ's Nakatani. "If companies merge or consolidate, productivity would go up. But Japanese companies are more patient and able to endure losses. It's bad for shareholders, but the competitiveness of Japanese industry has been fostered by this industrial structure. They have had to reduce costs and improve quality in order to survive."

The failed merger of Chrysler and Germany's Daimler AG has soured most manufacturers on the idea of marriage. Matsunaga believes that "soft alliances" are a better route for Japan's auto industry.

He and others are also encouraging Japanese carmakers to diversify their international operations and shift their focus from the United States to emerging markets like China, Russia and South America. Japanese automakers are also redoubling their efforts to develop cutting-edge green technologies in an effort to maintain their lead over other car companies.

That highlights an important point that underlies most discussions about the future of the global auto industry here, even amid all of the talk about saving Detroit: The Japanese do not want to see American automakers fail, but that does not mean they want them to succeed.

Many here say privately that Toyota and Honda would like nothing more than to see the U.S. government keep GM and Chrysler on life support without forcing a fundamental restructuring of the U.S. auto industry.

"The Japanese automobile industry has an advantage over the American Big Three," said Haruhiko Kudo, who covers the auto industry for The Nikkei, Japan's leading financial journal.

"If Chapter 11 eliminates the legacy costs, the U.S. automakers will become more competitive.

"They don't say this aloud, but the Japanese automakers hope the U.S. automakers will survive in their current form, without becoming more competitive."

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