I’m a big fan of Japan, especially the greater Tokyo area. It appeals to the town planner in me. The Japanese have managed to build a megacity with a population of around 13 million people, squeezed in the most impressive transport infrastructure and still have plenty of quiet, civilised, streets; this is a bigger achievement than the wider world has credited.
Globally, people are leaving rural areas and heading for cities. If anybody wants to know how to squeeze lots of people into a relatively small area, while still providing very human-scale districts, quiet areas, an immaculate environment and locally clean air, then Tokyo is the template.
As much as a cliché as it sounds, it really is all about the Japanese attention to detail, meticulous planning and the country's ability to execute complex production and manufacturing processes. As well as the ability to re-build and re-start manufacturing after the Great East Japan earthquake on 11 March 2011 in just six months.
While this could result in a certain soullessness, the things that I own that are Japanese designed and built are far from it. My Nikon and Olympus cameras are beautifully crafted and beautifully built. The sensation in the hand, especially of the big Nikon is exquisite.
Sure, Nikon gets a lot of help from ItalDesign in the exterior design of its top-end cameras, nothing quite beats top-end Japanese consumer goods. So why have these abilities not translated into success for Japan in the booming premium car markets? What Japan delivers in the photographic, audio and consumer goods markets, it has failed to deliver in the automotive arena.
Japanese manufacturer Lexus, launched in 1989, expects to sell around 500,000 cars worldwide this year, with 25 per cent of that figure accounted for by the small CT hybrid hatchback. Audi, Mercedes and BMW will shift three times that number, even though all three German brands were comparatively small fry in ’89.
But its luxury road cars were still well outsold by the opposition, even though they, like much of Japan’s manufacturing, have been exemplars of fit, finish, reliability and refinement. Monozukuri – what the Japanese call the art of making things – is a big part of the country’s DNA.
For some reason, as the developed world has become more and more interested in buying high quality designer goods, the Japanese have failed to take advantage. Japanese products should have been at the core of the premium boom. That they aren’t makes no sense, when Japan’s history of craftsmanship is so deep.
Can it just be that Japanese premium goods somehow lack the essential ‘sexiness’ and the depth of brand qualities of what is produced in Europe? The Lexus Intersect café in Tokyo shows how the brand wants to be seen as 'sassy' and as 'design-savvy' as anything in Europe.
I feel their frustration. Japan’s best cars deserve to be seen as at least as good as Europe’s best. Quite why so few Western car buyers agree is a mystery.