TOKYO – American "muscle car" enthusiast Satoshi Kimiwada says his business selling used Chevrolet Camaros, Ford Mustangs other U.S. cars in Yokohama is on the verge of extinction.
But he does not blame the "non-trade barriers" that U.S. automakers say block their access to Japan's car market, or the trade negotiators in Washington and Tokyo whose talks to resolve them have been bogged down in months of wrangling.
Instead points to the brash image of the U.S. brands he has been selling in Japan for 20 years, which clashes awkwardly with mainstream consumer tastes in the world's no.3 car market.
"People gawk at American cars when they drive by here, where green cars are the norm," said Kimiwada, 39, whose small garage is decorated with old Californian number plates and neon signs from U.S. drive-ins. "They're gaudy. The styling sticks out."
"Made in America", he says, in Japan means loud, gas-guzzlers whose big engines attract a high ownership tax rate.
Whilst complaining about currency manipulation and non-tariff measures that they say make Japan the world's most closed car market, Detroit's Big Three seem to have long settled for a narrow, shrinking niche even as European manufacturers stake out a growing presence.
With off-road Jeeps outselling mass-market Chrysler cars in Japan, U.S. makes have been stuck at a dismal 0.2 to 0.4 percent share for a decade, less than a quarter of their mid-1990s peak, when they still attempted to compete for the mass market.
German rival Volkswagen AG
Japan's automakers dominate their home market with more than a 90 percent share, and have also captured more than a third of the U.S. market. American car makers say the playing field is tilted against them.
On the sidelines of drawn-out negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional free trade agreement, U.S. and Japanese officials are discussing a number of barriers in Japan such as noise tests and rules on certifying radio frequencies.
The Big Three are arguing for a slow-paced 25-year phase-out of the 2.5 percent U.S. tariff on Japanese cars and 25 percent on trucks, with an option to re-impose them should Japan violate agreements.
NICHE WITHIN A NICHE
The Big Three insist they have not given up on Japan as they chase fast-growing markets elsewhere in Asia, but on the ground their strategies suggest they are still playing to the decades-old image of American cars.
Kimiwada's sales plummeted from 70 cars a month worth about $240,000 in the mid-1990s to just two or three today, putting the future of his business in doubt.
U.S. carmakers' Japan sales peaked around 1996, when the yen was strong and they offered more than twice as many brands as today, while operating nearly four times as many dealerships and investing in TV advertising.
Since then, Japan has entered a protracted economic slump and the Big Three were engulfed in financial crises and even bankruptcies at home.
General Motors Co , Ford Motor Co and Chrysler, all making their presence felt at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week, skipped November's biennial Tokyo Motor Show for the third time in a row.
"It was a matter of how to best allocate our marketing and advertising costs when considering that import cars are a niche segment to begin with, and even within that we are a niche player," said GM Japan Managing Director Sumito Ishii.
In the five years to July 2013, the Big Three each spent roughly a tenth to a twentieth of Volkswagen's promotional costs, according to Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.
GM Japan, whose official dealership network dropped the Opel and several other brands in the last decade and now only sells Chevrolets and Cadillacs, sees the latter, luxury brand as its best chance to grow, said Gregg Sedewitz, GM Japan sales and marketing director.
Chrysler, which sells Jeep- and Chrysler-badged cars but no longer the Dodge, is focused on promoting the former's off-road image, said Shinji Kuroiwa, spokesman for Fiat Chrysler Japan.
The exception is Ford, which had ditched compacts and sedans in Japan in 2007 to focus on big vehicles such as the Mustang and SUVs. It retreated further in 2008, when it sold a controlling minority stake in No. 5 Japanese automaker Mazda Motor Corp <7261.T> as it rebuilt its finances.
But last year it brought back the Focus and in February it will reintroduce the compact Fiesta for the first time in seven years.
"We had to stop selling them then because of the business situation at our headquarters, but now we are able to offer very attractive cars that match Japanese customers because we have global products," said Hiroshi Kinoshita, Ford Japan's Marketing Director.
Still, only around 4,200 Fords were registered in Japan last year, less than a fifth of its peak in 1996.
That contrasts with Volkswagen, whose Golf in November became the first import to be named Japan's car of the year, beating Honda Motor Co's <7267.T> Fit subcompact and Toyota Motor Corp's <7203.T> Crown luxury sedan.
Volkswagen's total Japan sales of around 67,300 vehicles last year, while still a fraction of the 3 million it sells in China, were nearly five times the combined figure of Detroit's Big Three.
Volkswagen aims to boost Japan sales to 100,000 vehicles over five years, said Yasuo Maruta, Volkswagen Group Japan's communications director, by expanding its dealership network.
"If the non-tariff barriers are gone, that would certainly lessen the burden," said Ford's Kinoshita. "But that won't mean our cars are going to automatically take off."
(Editing by Edmund Klamann and Alex Richardson)