Tokyo represents all that is best about Japan.
Its night time skyline is one of the wonders of the world and the city has an embarrassment of riches in roads, rail and public transport.
But Japan is also bust, with debts that one international newspaper claim are equally to the debts of the UK, Germany and France combined.
New car sales in the country are at 32-year low, with the only glimmer of hope in the sales of the tiny Kei mini cars and hybrids. Drivers in Japan are also seen as a cash cow for the government, which gets over 9 per cent of its total tax take from motorists.
To make things even worse for Japan’s eight domestic manufacturers, the last 12 months has seen a steep rise in the Yen, making exporting cars from Japan increasingly unprofitable.
Little wonder, then, that the 41st Tokyo show will probably go down as the quietest on record. A bi-annual event the number of exhibitors was well below half the number who appeared in the pre-crunch days of 2007.
Moreover, aside from small showings by Lotus and Caterham (made possible by the local importers) no foreign manufacturers appeared at the show.
With the exception of the public unveiling of the Lexus LF-A supercar, the only talk at Tokyo was of reducing the use of oil.
The effect of trailing from one set-piece press conference to another was almost comic. The first word of virtually every industry bigwig as they climbed onto the stage was ‘emissions’.
Even Caterham – a car company with a microscopic global impact – says it wants to introduce either an electric or hybrid car and establish a global one-make ‘zero emissions’ race series.
Typically, Renault-Nissan boss Carlos Ghosn made the most compelling set-piece speech declaring that the ‘race to zero emissions has begun’ and promised ‘zero emissions, zero particles, zero noise and zero oil.’
That was a slight exaggeration, because even Ghosn doesn’t think that, by 2020, electric car sales will deliver more than 20 per cent of all new car production.
Nissan’s Leaf has to be best-sorted pure electric car yet, based on an well-established Golf-size platform, with Nissan’s own slim battery packs packaged under the floor. But it will be expensive and will probably rely on government incentives and tax breaks to make any kind of financial sense.
Aside from a few early adopters, it may be that the Leaf makes most progress, initially at least, with public sector and government fleets.
Mitsubishi dropped in behind Ghosn’s 20 per cent estimate and showed its iMiEV cargo van and promised a self-charging electric SUV by 2013, but not all the Japanese makers placed their faith in electricity.
Mazda is betting on diligent re-engineering of the good old internal combustion engine to make significant gains in economy.
The company says the SKY series of ‘next-generation’ powertrains promises Mazda 2 levels of consumption in the Mazda 3 and 20 per cent better economy in the next version of today’s 2.2-litre diesel. Stop-start and regenerative braking will also appear.
Daihatsu is leveraging its experience in making Japan’s tiny tax-break special Kei-cars to build some of the lightest and most frugal machines around. The e:S concept gets 85mpg through no more than weighing just 700kgs and using a three-pot engine.
It’s a compelling simple and inexpensive formula for urban fuel economy and free of the complexity of electric motivation.
Hybrid technology is now well established and Honda’s six-seat Skydeck mini MPV and CR-Z coupe concepts are welcome evidence that affordable hybrid technology is about to start spreading into new segments.
Back in the mainstream market, Nissan’s big new Fuga rear-drive executive was unveiled at Tokyo, but we’ll know it better as the Infiniti M when it arrives in the UK next year. It comes packed with technology – including the option of four-wheel steer and a new hybrid transmission that promises diesel economy at motorway speeds.
However, it’s styling might not be either characterful or cutting edge enough to convince buyers in the notoriously conservative premium market.
Where uncompromisingly Japanese design was a success was in retro concepts such as the Basket and Cocoa Kei-cars and Honda’s EV-N electric commuting car. Satisfyingly graphic they are all more pure product design than automotive styling.
The Basket concept cast minds back to the Nissan’s low-volume, but ground-breaking, retro Pao supermini, which was unveiled at Tokyo 20 years ago.
The 1989 Tokyo show showed the Japanese industry in its pomp, scaring the life out of the European carmakers with its emphasis on cutting edge technology and radical ideas. It’s easy to forget that Honda unveiled the NSX over a decade and half before Audi managed to build its own aluminium supercar.
20 years on, the Japanese industry is cowed by the global recession and other problems, such as the rise and rise of the Korean carmakers and low-cost production in emerging nations. It remains to be seen whether a combination of back-to-basics transport, electric power and unashamed luxury will keep the lights on in Tokyo’s tower blocks.