1999 Tokyo Motor Show: Big Japan

October 18, 1999

A Shinkansen bullet train whisks itself away from Tokyo’s sleek Ueno train station, bound for the farthest reaches of Japan’s major islands. It uses countless supercomputers and microcircuits to deliver its passengers comfortably and safely, in an environmentally conscious way, all while hurtling them forward at speeds up to 200 mph.

Most of the press horde touring this week’s Tokyo Motor Show won’t step foot on the Shinkansen, but they’ll be surrounded by scaled-down versions of the same aesthetic as they walk the aisles of the Makuhari Messe, the convention center that hosts the biannual Tokyo show. More than its companion international auto shows in Detroit and Frankfurt, Tokyo has a reputation for cornering the market on high-tech advancements in the world of cars. And this year’s show, the 33rd, promises to be no different.

But this year also promises to be a watershed for the Japanese automotive industry.

The biggest car story from the Land of the Rising Sun this year has been Nissan’s turmoil and its partnership with Renault, both of which will figure heavily in this week’s show. Meanwhile, at Toyota and Honda, a string of profitable years has turned them toward the United States in search of new production sites and new models in their lineups. As a running backdrop, the remaining handful of makers – Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Isuzu, and Subaru – are said to be shopping for alliances to secure their futures in a nearly completely globalized industry.

'Le Cost Killer' takes a stab

Undoubtedly, the biggest news expected from this year’s show will come from Nissan – not in the form of the new Z car, which we’ve already seen, but in the form of a massive restructuring aimed at bringing the company’s debt down from the stratosphere.

Earlier this year, Nissan made it known that it was seeking international investment to help it redevelop its line of aging passenger cars, shore up its heavy-duty truck line, and hack away at its estimated $30 billion in debt. After pursuing ultimately fruitless talks with DaimlerChrysler, Nissan found its financial savior in France, as the Renault group, freshly reinvigorated in its own right, agreed to take a 36.75-percent stake in Nissan and create the latest global car alliance.

The first task at hand, both sides agreed, was to get Nissan’s costs under control. To do so, Nissan dispatched its financial guru Carlos Ghosn, dubbed "Le Cost Killer" for bringing Renault’s own finances to rein. Ghosn’s plans for Nissan will be unveiled at a press conference Monday afternoon in Tokyo.

The results could be traumatic for Japan’s sense of pride. Ghosn is expected to recommend between 10,000 and 30,000 job cuts at Nissan, and may also announce another plant closing, an event once considered heresy in the Land of Full Employment. (Nissan broke the unwritten rule against plant closings when it shuttered its Zama plant near Tokyo in 1995.) However, with Renault’s newfound vigor, its acceptance of Nissan’s plans for future cars, including the handsome Z concept, the medicine may be easier to swallow.

One foot firmly in the U.S.

Meanwhile, at Honda and Toyota, the news is considerably more upbeat. Both companies are flush with sales success from almost entirely autonomous American arms. And with a range of new trucks on the market or coming shortly, Honda and Toyota seem to have a firm grasp on what American consumers want – and on what vehicles can ensure their continued profitability.

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