Tokyo Motor Show: 60 Years of History The Motorization of Postwar Japan

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An Oct. 23, 1959 Yomiuri Shimbun article, reporting on the commencement of The 6th All Japan Motor Show

The “All Japan Motor Show” was put together with the collective effort of the automobile industry from 240 companies from all over Japan. A first event of this scale, the show was incredibly energetic all day. At the show, a conversation could be overheard of a girlfriend saying, “something like this would be nice!” and a sigh of relief after finding out the car costs ¥1 million. (From an article in the Yomiuri Shimbun April 22, 1954, morning edition headlined, “How about a new domestic car? At the World-class Motor Show”)

The “Tokyo Motor Show” has left a mark on history for more than 60 years, starting with the “All Japan Motor Show.” The Tokyo Motor Show acted as a mirror to reflect the recovery of the postwar Japan through the automobile industry. Cars that were unaffordable that a couple of man and women couple would looked at them with sighs would later become called the “my car” in Japanese, and started to gain popularity with the development of expressway networks. And now, “my cars” with advanced safety technologies and environmentally friendly features have emerged.

The Yomiuri Shimbun has watched the growth of the postwar Japanese automobile industry through its coverage. Now that the history of the Tokyo Motor Show has past more than 60 years, we will take a renewed look back at the relationship between cars, the Japanese economy and Japanese people, through past articles and new coverage.

In the United States, the introduction of the first mass-produced vehicle in 1908, the “Model-T Ford” opened the floodgates for the car industry.

In Japan after World War II, cheap and maneuverable scooters and three-wheeled trucks opened the road for motorization, but as production picked up, full-scale manufacturing of trucks also began.

In 1959, Toyota began mass-producing the Crown passenger car after building the first Japanese passenger vehicle dedicated assembly plant. Other manufacturers followed, leading to a rapid growth of domestically manufactured vehicles, pushing the adoption of personal vehicles in Japan.

Around 1965, motorization soared, and the word “mai kaa” from the English word “my car” was born into the Japanese language. With the adoption of cars, the creation of a system of highways and road maintenance sprang up rapidly, changing the appearance of the country in a very short time.
The foundation of the “Car Kingdom” that is modern-day Japan, all started in this era from around 1955 to 1965.

“The Motorization of Postwar Japan” is a rearrangement of the Dec. 3, 2011 article “Showa Period Motorization: Becoming the Car Kingdom” printed in Yomiuri Shimbun.
Any omissions of courtesies; titles, car names and records are from the original article.

The references are as follows;

  • Toyota Motor Corp. “The Engineers That Crafted Toyota”
  • Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association “The 10 Year Course of History”
  • Japan Motor Industrial Federation “The 30 Year History of Japan Motor Industrial Federation”
  • Fuji Heavy Industries “The 30 Year History of Fuji Heavy Industries”
  • Aritsune Tokudaiji “My Memories of Old Japanese Automobiles”
  • Youji Katsuragi “The Day the Ladybug Ran-The Development of the Subaru 360”
  • Japan Highway Public Corporation “The Construction of the Meishin Expressway”
  • Hiroyuki Agawa “The Complete Works of Hiroyuki Agawa, Volume 16”

“Japan Doesn’t Need a Passenger Car Industry”

In 1950, the then president of the Bank of Japan, Hisato Ichimada, insisted that “Japan doesn’t need a passenger car industry”. His reasoning was that the West was at such an obvious advantage in the industry, there was no way that Japan could beat them.

However, there were people within the bureaucracy who anticipated the motorization of Japan, and wanted to focus on nurturing a Japanese car industry. In the “National Car Initiative,” released by the International Trade and Industry Ministry in May 1955, the ministry pushed for the development of “economy cars”.

Nissan Skyline GT challenges the Porsche during the 2nd Japan Grand Prix in 1964.Courtesy of Nissan Motor Co.

In the initiative, the requirements were 1. a top speed of over 100kph, 2. four seats, 3. Gas mileage of 30km/l at 60kph, and 4. a sales price under 250,000 yen.

The car makers had the same views. The “Subaru 360” revealed in March 1958 at Shirokiya in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, by Fuji Heavy Industries, was already in development before the guidelines were put in place. It was nicknamed “Ladybug” due to its distinctive rounded shape, and met almost all of the requirements of the “National Car”, except for its price.

At the time, the Subaru 360 cost 425,000 yen. In its company history, Fuji Heavy Industries lists that the Prime Ministers wage was 150,000 and the starting salary for college graduates was 13,000 yen. They write that “while the price was significantly cheaper than a typical small vehicle, it was still out of reach for most common people”.

However, the car received a lot of enthusiastic support due to its creative design that rivaled even the newest small cars from the West. 10 years from its release, it still remained at the top spot in Kei-car sales, going on to sell a total of 390,000 vehicles. It still remains one of the leading long-sellers in Japanese domestic vehicles.

〈Subaru 360〉

Subaru 360 is a minivehicle debuted by Fuji Heavy Industries in March 1958. Courtesy of Fuji Heavy Industries

A Kei-car revealed by Fuji Heavy Industries in March of 1958. Its length was 1990 millimeters and its width was 1300 millimeters. Even with its extremely small body, there was a lot of creativity put into the vehicle, such as placing the bulky engine behind the rear wheels to make enough space for four passengers. Using experience from its predecessor, Nakajima Aircraft Co. the company was able to develop a lightweight design, which was another unique characteristic of this car. The engine’s displacement was only 360cc, but due to the lightness of the car, it was able to boast performance rivaling typical small cars.

“Taking the Un-walked Road”

A ceremony to mark the production of first generation Toyota Corolla in 1966

Shortly after the end of the war, the Japanese car industry was in a catastrophic state. The Allied General Headquarters (GHQ) ordered first a suspension of production, thus bringing the industry to a halt.

However, the surge in demand caused by the Korean War became a turning point. Truck production was taking a turn for the better, and manufacturers that regained their strength moved to full scale mass production of passenger vehicles, starting in 1952. However, the domestic automakers were still unable to develop vehicles by themselves.

A Yomiuri Shimbun article on Nissan in the Dec. 3, 1952, issue

In December of the same year, Nissan Motor Co. partnered with UK automaker Austin for domestic production of passenger vehicles. Other companies such as Isuzu also started partnering with foreign automakers. The Japanese automakers at the time would license technology from European automakers to build their cars.

However, Toyota opted to take a different path. In January 1952, the company put “the creation of proper passenger vehicles, without the technological help from foreign companies” as its fundamental policy.

However, Toyota too had only mass-produced cars made by placing on a passenger car body on a truck base. Compared to cars from Europe and the U.S., where the roads were well-maintained, the outside may have looked the same, but there was a world of a difference in its driving performance.

Toyota assembly plant around 1958. Courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.

In its company history, “instead of taking the easy road of technological partnerships with foreign companies, we took the un-walked road and developed a purely Japanese vehicle” (“The 30 Year History of Toyota”), and this “purely Japanese vehicle” was proudly announced in 1955.

It was called the “Toyopet Crown”. Using chassis developed by Toyota itself, the car was on par with the newest designs from European and American auto manufacturers. However, the quality and performance was still inferior to its foreign counterparts, and Toyota knew this. In 1957, Toyota began exporting its cars to the US, but the reception was poor, citing the lack of power, and sales were slow.

A streetcar and a taxi are seen sharing a streeting near Matsuzakaya department store in Ginza, Tokyo, in 1959.

Even so, domestically the car was popular with corporations, especially with taxi companies. The lead development officer for the Crown, Kenya Nakamura, spoke on how there were small troubles after its release, but “it felt like the whole country came together to support the car”.

Car critic Aritsune Tokudaiji praises how the first-generation Crown was easy to drive, had a gorgeous interior, and was durable. These all became the qualities of “Made in Japan” products that would later become world renown for these features, and the Crown had all of these from the start.

〈Toyopet Crown〉

A first-generation Toyopet Crown. Courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.

A passenger vehicle unveiled by Toyota in January 1955. It was a four-door sedan with a length of 4285 millimeters, a width of 1680 millimeters, a 1.5-liter displacement engine, with a top speed of 100 km/h. Compared to the current Crown, the car’s size is two times smaller and its engine displacement is less than half of the current model.

The Motorization of Japan by Economy Cars

Popular household appliances in the Showa period

In 1955, the car industry was supported mostly by corporate users such as taxis and chauffeured vehicles. Personal ownership was limited to the very wealthy. But, with the increase in average income and the decrease in manufacturing costs of cars, there was a rapid increase in personal car ownership by the late 1960s. The term “mai kaa” or “my car” came in to use in this period as well.

Following this, the term “Three Sacred Treasures” was used in Japanese culture to refer to the indispensable TV, refrigerator, and washing machine, became the “3C”, referring to “Car, Air Conditioner, and Color TV”.

A Yomiuri Shimbun article on Toyota in the Oct. 21, 1966, issue

Each manufacturer raced to develop more economy cars for the general population. The “Nissan Sunny” and “Toyota Corolla,” both released in 1966, packed 1-liter class engines, which were slightly bigger than the typical engines found in Kei-cars. They were pioneers of the family car, and both were big hits.

The Corolla was especially a huge hit, becoming the top selling car in Japan in 1969 and holding the spot for 33 years until 2001. Eiji Toyoda, the former President and Chairman of Toyota spoke in an interview, “I believe that the Corolla was what created motorization”.

Vehicles waiting to be loaded on a ship in Yokosuka, Yokohama Prefecture, for export are seen in this photo taken in 1971.

Economy cars like the Corolla helped raise car sales in Japan, and the number of registered cars continued to increase after the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. In 1964, the number of registered vehicles was 5 million, but merely three years later in 1967, the number doubled to 10 million. The “my car” era had arrived, and with this, the Japanese auto industry became one of the major industries of Japan.

The government gave many incentives to car makers, and they and the people worked together to strengthen Japanese car exports.

As a result, the export value for cars which was 39.2 billion yen in 1960, doubled to 93.2 billion yen in 1964. By the late 1960s, exports to the US grew immensely, and automobiles became the number one export industry of Japan.

Even after that, the industry continued to grow as a major export business, and by 1980, the Japanese auto industry passed its U.S. counterpart to become the largest in the world.

The Legend of “Suka-G”

Nissan Skyline 2000GT runs through the Fuji Speedway during the Japan Grand Prix in 1968. Courtesy of Nissan Motor Co.

“Even if highways are built in Japan, the cars that will be able to show off their power will be the Fords, Chevys and Mercedes. Domestic cars will just be pathetically driving on the side streets” “I want people to throw out the thought that Japan only needs small cars because Japan is small”

This is what the head of Prince Motor Co., Inou Dan said as he spoke to the House of Representatives, the Chamber of Commerce and the Industry Committee as a witness in July 1955.

Flyers show success of cars in autoraces, playing a part in the spread of the “My Car” boom.

In May 1964, the automaker was put to a challenge at Suzuka Circuit Mie Prefecture to accomplish its goal - catching up with western cars, and overtaking them.

In the second Japanese Grand Prix, Prince’s Skyline GT raced against the German race car, Porsche. During the race, the Skyline was able to get to the top spot for a short while. The Skyline ended the race in 2nd place, but the headlines at the time reported that “A Japanese Car Conquered Porsche”, deifying the car.

Prince merged with Nissan Motor Co. in 1966, but the Skyline badge continued to conquer Japanese races. The Skyline was extremely popular with the baby boomer generation who led the motorization of Japan, and was known by the nickname “Suka-G”. The incredible popularity of the vehicle reached its peak in the late 1960s, and it remained the flagship car for Nissan until the 1980s.

〈Skyline GT〉

Skyline GT, Courtesy of Nissan Motor Co.

The vehicle that Prince Motor Co. developed for the second Japanese Grand Prix was specially created by taking a 1.5-liter class Skyline, stretched out the front-end and placed a 2-liter engine from a higher class vehicle. The term “GT” was taken from European automakers who would use the title to denote high performance vehicles.

Using a higher performance engine, the “Skyline GT-R” totaled 50 wins in various Japanese races. The name lives on today as the “Nissan GT-R” (2007), a car that rivals high performance European vehicles such as Porsches and Ferraris.

The F1 Challenge

Honda F1 race car enters a race, competing against European powerhouses in 1966. Courtesy of Honda Motor Co.

After having great success as a motorcycle maker, Honda made a move to become a car manufacturer and used this as a chance to make an unexpected decision.

In 1964, Honda decided to participate in the world’s biggest motor sporting event, Formula OneTM. This wild decision was made after the founder and then president of Honda, Soichiro Honda, commanded that they need to “aim for the throne at the top”.

Honda advertisement in a Yomiuri Shimbun edition in 1967 shows the joy that Japanese technology could compete in the global stage.

The first proper car that they would tackle would be the ultimate racing car to take on the world. They had little knowledge on cars, and they struggled at the beginning. However, the car with its slim and immaculate ivory white body, the large Japanese flag in front, and an engine developed using technology from their racing bikes was able to demonstrate its ability.

Their first victory was at the October 1965 Mexico Grand Prix. They were the first to take the checkered flag. Until their withdrawal in the 1968 season, they were only able to take two wins.

However, the cars that were released following their participation in Formula OneTM such as the “S600” and “N360” were equipped with high performance engines outperforming other automakers, and the younger generation who had seen Honda in the F1™ admired them.


A race restricted to single-seat cars where the four wheels are exposed. F1TM is paramount in the automotive racing world. The race became an international championship with the help of the International Automobile Federation (FIA) in 1950. The race was restricted to a displacement of under 1.5 liters when Honda participated. At the time, most cars had 8-cylinder engines, but Honda used its experience is developing racing bikes to produce a high-RPM, high-output V12 engine and competed against the European powerhouses such as Ferrari.

The Road to Overcome the “Rough Road”

Athletes run on unpaved roads during an Ekiden road relay race in 1959.

In Japan, before 1955, most of the highways in the country were unpaved.

The Construction Ministry looked to gather the expenses for maintaining roads from loans from the World Bank, so they invited an investigation team. Former US Statistical Society Chairman, Ralph J. Watkins visited Japan and inspected the condition of the roads, and published it in a report called the “Watkins Report” in August 1956.

“The roads of Japan are incredibly bad”. In the report, he further asserts that “No other industrial nation has so completely neglected its highway system”. At the time, only 23% of the nation’s first-class arterial highway system was paved, and 90% of the regional roads were unpaved. The report further stated that the roads were incredibly narrow, and dangerous, and an early maintenance of the road was necessary.

Former Vice-Minister of the Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Ministry, Atsushi Shimokobe, revealed that “Japan used “The roads of Japan are incredibly bad” as an advertising statement, and showed it to the World Bank. The inside story is that we created statistic and showed it to Mr. Watkins” in Yomiuri Shimbun’s “Witness of the Era”.

However, there was no need for exaggeration as the roads at the time were basically as bad as the report stated.

This photo taken in Osaka in 1962 shows traffic jams were becoming chronic in the cities.

An author with thorough knowledge on transportation, Hiroyuki Agawa, traveled around the Tohoku area of Japan in October 1958 with a two-year old Toyopet Crown to see the road conditions for himself.

In his essay “2000 km on the Tohoku National Highway”, Agawa refers to the Watkins Report and describes the terrible road conditions, “Frightful clouds of mud-colored undulations appeared through the air like a surging wave. My car was violently rocking like a boat through a storm”. He wrote that there were jokes on the street making fun of the roads with homophones; Kokudo (meaning harsh road, national road), Kendo (rough road, prefectural road), Shido (dead road, city road), Chodo (penal road, town road), and Sondo (fruitless road, village road).

Speeding Up Domestic Traffic Routes

Many cars and trucks run on the Tomei Expressway in this photo taken in 1979

The Watkins Report and its description of the “incredibly poor road conditions” of Japan was able to help the country receive 28.8 billion yen in loans from the World Bank. Highway construction began with the Meishin Expressway in 1958, connecting Nagoya and Kobe.

Following that, the Tomei Expressway connecting Tokyo and Nagoya and the Chuo Expressway were constructed one after another. Difficult construction continued, but the Tomei Expressway was able to be successfully opened in 1969.

The Toyonaka Interchange on the Meishin Expressway under construction is seen in this photo taken in 1962.

While road maintenance was hurriedly under way, it was used as the Imperial standard in 1953 to create a lawmaker-initiated legislation for a Road Construction Fund under Kakuei Tanaka, who would later go on to become prime minister.

The fund began collecting money through the gasoline tax. As road maintenance improved, the use of cars (hence gasoline) increased, and tax revenue increased with it. As financial resources decreased through the Road Improvement Plan in the 70s, a new Motor Vehicle Weight Tax was established.

This method had a great role in improving the road conditions in Japan. However, most of the huge budget came to be used for the vested interest of diet members and contractors, called the “road lobby”. Roads that weren’t really necessary were being built. Due to this, the Road Construction Fund itself was repealed in the 2009 fiscal year.

Highway through History