Models and their children walk past Toyota Motor Corp.’s “Deco Prius”, which is decorated with rhinestones, crystals and stickers, during an unveiling of the vehicle at the automaker’s showroom in Tokyo, Japan, July 20, 2009
More than 300 young women, sporting curly chestnut brown-dyed hair, heavy make-up and manicured nails crowded into a Toyota Motor Corp. showroom, peering at a Prius hybrid, painted candy-apple red and decorated with rhinestones and heart-shaped pink stickers.âIâm not really interested in cars,â said Erika Horiki, 23, wearing a cowboy hat, fringed boots and denim shorts. âBut by making us think these cars are cute, itâs a step toward becoming curious.â
Cars have lost their âcool factorâ in Japan among young people, contributing to a decades-long decline in sales. To attract women into showrooms, Toyota came up with the âDecoPrius,â inspired by the jewel-covered âDecoDenâ mobile phones. Honda Motor Co. has enlisted the help of Cozy Tomato, a book and magazine illustrator, for story-telling events centered around cars for young mothers and their children.
âIf we donât challenge ourselves and do something that may seem weird, thereâs no point,â said Tomio Tsukagoshi, a spokesman for Amlux Toyota Co., which manages the showroom on Tokyoâs Odaiba island. âWe need to be attracting these types of people.â
Cars ranked 17th among the 25 most popular products and services among current university students, according to a survey by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association in March. Computers, clothes, portable music players, communication devices such as mobile phones and travel topped the list.
Cars ranked much higher, seventh, among survey respondents in their 40s and 50s who were asked to reflect on their preferences as college students, with the electronic devices ranking lower.
âKind of embarrassedâ
Toyotaâs DecoPrius was also promoted by Shiho Fujita, 24, a celebrity entrepreneur and self-proclaimed âgyaruâ, Japanese slang for chick. Her views on cars are what Toyota is trying to change.
âIf I was with my friends and my boyfriend pulled up in a car to pick me up, Iâd feel kind of embarrassed,â she said. The idea that having a car is cool âis kind of outdated.â
Neither the carmakers group nor the Japan Automobile Dealers Association breaks down sales by age group. Among women, 58 percent of college-age survey respondents said they have a drivers license, compared with 65 percent of 40- and 50-year olds when they were students.
Toyota gained 1.1 percent to 3,790 yen at the close of trading in Tokyo Monday. Honda rose 2.8 percent to 2,745 yen.
Demand for vehicles in Japan peaked at 7.78 million units in 1990 and is expected to drop to 4.3 million units this fiscal year, according to the carmakersâ group. A declining birth rate is part of the reason: Japan is the worldâs most rapidly aging country, with more than one in five citizens older than 65 and the lowest ratio of citizens younger than 15. China surpassed Japan as the worldâs second-largest auto market in 2006.
âJapan is becoming more and more of a mature market and public transportation is also well developed,â said Honda Motor Co. Executive Vice President Koichi Kondo in an interview.
About 90 percent of Prius buyers are men and about 70 percent of buyers are in their 50âs, according to Yoshiaki Kawano, an auto sales analyst at CSM Worldwide in Tokyo.
Not all women spurn cars. Miou Shirayama, a 37-year-old doctor and housewife, insisted her husband buy a Toyota Estima minivan to ferry around their three children.
Moms with minivans
âIf you have children, you need a car,â said Shirayama. âI have the right to make the final decision because in our household as in most families, women control the purse strings.â
At Honda, showroom staff are targeting mothers with Cozy Tomatoâs illustrations, which are also used in books on child-rearing. The monthly story-telling event at its showroom in the Aoyama district in Tokyo explains the workings of the hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity fuel-cell vehicle.
Honda also caters to female tastes by offering ways to customize and decorate cars with items such as pink polka-dot seat covers.
The decline in car sales has forced Japanese automakers to reconsider the number of models and variations sold in the domestic market, compared with overseas.
Honda sells 28 models in Japan, compared with 18 in the US and nine in China, the two biggest car markets. Toyota sells 59 models not including its Lexus brand in Japan, 17 in the US and 19 in China. Nissan Motor Co., Japanâs third-largest automaker, sells 28 models domestically, 19 models excluding its Infiniti brand in North America and 11 in China.
Too many models
âI definitely want to cut down the number of models,â Hiroshi Kobayashi, Hondaâs Japan sales head, said in an interview.
The company plans to eliminate some of the 10 models exclusive to Japan over the next five or six years, he said. The move would help Honda cut development costs, which run from under 10 billion yen (US$105 million) per model to adapt an existing platform to over 50 billion yen for a luxury model, according to Credit Suisse Group AG.
Carmakers donât expect the market to ever return to the demand of 20 years ago. Fujita, the woman who doesnât want her boyfriend to show up in a car, occasionally does drive herself when visiting friends in her hometown. However, her experience there is the ultimate in uncool for a hip Tokyo girl â“ she borrows her dadâs minivan.