The domestic market environmentThe number of vehicles in use increased slightly over the last years, despite a shrinking population, indicating a sustained demand for personal mobility. While rural prefectures have a high car ownership per household, citizens of metropolitan areas rely on a highly developed public transportation network.
The Japanese road network ranges in quality from unimproved, narrow roads to well-built, chargeable expressways. Despite differences in road quality, the number of traffic accidents reported over the past decade decreased, thanks to meticulous traffic regulations, a license point system, and vehicle-integrated safety systems.
The government supports the domestic development of new technologies such as autonomous driving, for example, by amending these regulations. Therefore, auto-pilots for traffic jams capable of 'level 3 autonomous driving' have become street legal in Japan; Honda was the first to offer one hundred luxury sedans equipped with a certified system for lease.
Small cars – big salesTo better cater to the country’s particular characteristics, such as limited space, an aging society, and an increase in single households, the Japanese automotive industry opted for a niche approach to vehicle manufacturing: kei cars. After their market launch, light motor vehicles, how this vehicle class literally translates, quickly gained popularity. Mini vehicles are an affordable alternative to regular motor vehicles, satisfying the steady demand for maximum convenience in a tiny space. In 2020, the most-sold passenger car in Japan was not a ‘normal’ but a kei car, exemplifying their appeal.
Although many mini vehicles are passenger cars, a significant number of them are mini-trucks and other special-purpose vehicles. Moreover, kei models are increasingly hybrid electric as this technology has become more affordable. However, at the time, full electrification of vehicles – small or large, light or heavy – seems unlikely since most Japanese manufacturers focus on standard hybrids. Accordingly, government-industry deliberations resulted in targets also allowing new hybrid vehicle sales in Japan after 2035.