How unique Japanese roads led to the decline of the Japanese auto industry


Long before China was known as a copycat, Japan held the crown. One of my all time favorite cars I realize now was a copycat. The awesome Datsun 240z front end copied the E-Type Jaguar and the 1963 Lotus Elan in back. The 240z’s engine was almost a direct copy of a Mercedes engine. So you get three copies for the price of one. At least it was reliable which is more than you could say for the ones it copied.

The ubercool Datsun 240z
The ubercool Datsun 240z

So when Japan copied, or you could say, took the good and left the bad, (1960-1990’s) times were good. Japanese cars were reliable. Some of them were cool. They took over the world. In rapid fashion.




But a funny thing happened when Japan stopped copying British designs. Japanese cars started to look like boxes on wheels. Exhibit A below

Box Lunch (Nissan Cube)
Box Lunch (Nissan Cube)

Tellingly called “The Cube’ this Nissan was very popular in Japan. But it was one of the many Japanese designs that never made it big abroad. The Cube and other similar competitors, entered the US and European markets in 2009 only to exit in 2011 (from Europe) and 2014 from the US. But they continue being a top seller in Japan and you can be excused from assuming that all cars in Japan are Cubes. Many Japanese cars have a similar look.

Why would Japan make boxy cars? The reason is simple. Boxy cars are the best way to navigate Japan’s unique environment. They are easy to park in a shoe-box. They have fantastic storage capacity for being so tiny. And they are cute. Seeing a cute Japanese girl smiling in her boxy car is one of the joys in life.

Anyway, they fit Japan but nowhere else. All good right? Unfortunately no. Japanese manufacturers are forces to make two whole different car companies essentially. One for Japan and one for the world. That was fine when Japan was rich. And the Japanese market the most coveted in the world. However, that title long ago went to China. And this is the biggest drag on Japanese automobile companies.

Guess where the bulk of Japanese creativity goes? Right. Into their home market.

Having lived in Asia (back and forth between Japan and China) since the 1980’s, I’m a lost cause. I think like Japanese engineers. I actually like and appreciate Japanese boxy cars. They make sense to me. When I see a large car I see only headaches. And recoil when I consider driving an extra 20 minutes daily searching for spaces.

Don't worry! It fits perfectly! It's Japan
Don’t worry! It fits perfectly! It’s Japan

My BMW in Ebisu area in Tokyo only had 3 inches to spare! And if I made even the slightest error, it meant smashing a very kind Irish guys air conditioner off his front wall. Or driving into his living room.

What is the root cause of Galapagos products? In the case of cars, it’s Japanese roads.




Think evolution.

Darwin's Finches Adapted to Environment
Darwin’s Finches Adapted to Environment

Charles Darwin realized that the shape and length of bird beaks differed depending upon their environment and available food sources. If he had time to visit Japan, he would have thought the same thing about their cars. Or maybe it’s just me. Anyway, the Japanese island is cramped, largely mountainous has thin roads and incredibly tiny parking spaces. And boxy, dorky cars, which I like anyway, work best there.

One interesting consequence is that Japanese are the best parkers on the planet. Check the Japanese parking competition videos. They will blow your mind. That’s where the real driving talent goes in Japan. Unfortunately that’s also not exportable…

But it’s not just geography at work here. There’s more. There’s stubbornness and tradition. When a friend of mine, Dr. Bungo Ishizaki developed residential properties in Australia during the Japanese Bubble of the 80’s, he was dismayed to realize that the developers he’d picked, simply could not comprehend Australia’s massive size. They had build houses cramped, with little space between, tiny staircases in the middle of massive open land. That they owned!

So the mindset in Japan does not change easily. Either of manufacturers, developers or lawmakers. However, Japan’s population is rapidly aging and space is opening up as whole neighborhoods fall into ruin. Japan suddenly has space. But guess what they do? Make roads the same size as before. And parking spaces that are so tiny you’d have nightmares.

Widen the roads and spaces, to save the industry. Japan can no longer afford to make two sets of cars. In fact, it’s rumored the Elon Musk himself proposed this to Prime Minister Abe in their last encounter. And it makes sense.

It’s a race to the death.

  • Tesla has a generous lead.
  • Japan is disorganized. Driving every which way. Trying to win two races at once.
  • Volkswagen was in front till last year but their new line of electrics are towing an enormous heavy diesel. Thus keeping them out of the lead but they are still dangerous.
  • China, until now a nobody, is the real black horse. They back in the clubhouse working on an electric (they hope) masterpiece. They are betting the the shift to electric will be their once in a lifetime chance to catch their rivals Japan. They see themselves as having an advantage as they are no invested in gasoline cars (something like the shift from analog to digital for camera’s). This is their lucky break and they aren’t going to waste it.

Japan is a race for it’s life and the shift from gas to electric requires the best minds, all focused on a single goal, that they have to offer. As soon as the Japanese bureaucracy sees the situation that Japan is in, they should immediately set their sights on setting global standards for roads and parking spaces. And Japan’s incredible engineering minds will immediately go to work to solve the task at hand.

In the end, Japanese government regulations and create Galapagos products. And doom Japanese industry to making two products. One for Japan and another for the world. But as we’ve seen in industry after industry (cell phones for example) this takes its toll. It’s just too expensive to have a company in two markets competing against all others in one: the world market.

It’s time for Japanese regulators to wake up and standardize regulations on roads, cell phones and many other Galapagos industries.

PS: Please don’t standardize culture as the Japanese seem to be trying to do prior to the Olympics. Japanese culture is fine just as it is.


Hope you enjoyed that. For more article on topics that I find fascinating, check out my blog at

Thanks and love to hear your thoughts.


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