Photo/IllutrationKintaro Ueno, president of Mercedes-Benz Japan Co., unveils a new GLA model beside a cart with a small dog in Tokyo's Minato Ward. (Satoshi Kimura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Foreign automakers are striving to increase their presence in Japan, a market criticized by U.S. President Donald Trump as being closed to American imported vehicles.

However, German automakers, not U.S. firms, are the ones making the biggest noise. In fact, American carmakers appear indifferent to the market that their president has vowed to open up.

The bottom line is that German companies are exporting high-performance vehicles that better reflect the needs of Japanese consumers.

Unit sales in Japan of Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz hit a record high in fiscal 2016 for the fourth consecutive year.

In April, a small sport utility vehicle (SUV) was unveiled at a Mercedes-Benz Japan Co. showroom in Tokyo’s Roppongi district.

After getting out of the SUV, Kintaro Ueno, president of Mercedes-Benz Japan, showed a cart carrying a small dog in the facility. The model is mainly “catered to parents in their 30s to 40s” who typically keep pets.

Prices for the fully remodeled GLA model start from 3.98 million yen ($35,800), including tax, making it one of the least expensive SUV models of Mercedes-Benz.

The image of the Mercedes-Benz brand has long been “luxury vehicles for wealthy individuals.” Mercedes-Benz Japan is now emphasizing affordability in its strategy for Japanese customers.

The showroom in Roppongi was set up in 2011 as a center to promote the Mercedes-Benz brand. It houses a cafe, and visitors cannot buy vehicles there. A similar shop opened in 2013 in Osaka, and a total of 5.8 million people have visited the showrooms.

Mercedes-Benz Japan has also made available in Japan 1.5 times more models than five years ago.

Inexpensive, small vehicles have been released in Japan since 2013, and 70 percent of consumers who bought a GLA model marketed in 2014 said it was their first purchase of a Mercedes-Benz vehicle.

According to the Japan Automobile Importers Association, Mercedes-Benz Japan sold 67,485 units in fiscal 2016, dominating the imported car market for two straight years. It was its seventh consecutive annual sales increase.

Asked what he thinks of Trump’s claims about the Japanese market, President Ueno asserted he does “not feel” a sense of unfairness toward overseas automakers.

The Japanese subsidiary of Germany’s Audi AG in April began receiving orders for its Q2 model. The small SUV is designed to meet Japanese customers’ demand for more compact vehicles.

The Q2 vehicle is only 1.5 meters tall, so it can fit into a multilevel mechanical parking system in densely populated cities.

German automakers dominated the top five ranks in Japan’s imported car market in fiscal 2016.

Second-ranked BMW marked a record high in sales for the first time in three years.

Figures for all other major German brands, except Volkswagen AG, which placed third but remains tarnished by an emissions-cheating scandal, were higher than those for the previous year.

CAN'T COMPETE IF YOU DON'T TRY

In contrast, U.S. companies have failed to make their presence felt in Japan’s imported car market.

Only 4 percent of all imported vehicles were from the United States in fiscal 2016, meaning U.S.-made automobiles account for just 0.3 percent of all cars sold in Japan.

The big factor behind U.S. automakers’ minuscule market share is not unfairness but indifference.

With the Japanese auto market still sluggish, leading U.S. companies have decided to concentrate their resources on the world’s two leading markets--the United States and China-- where American vehicles are popular.

Ford Motor Co. withdrew from Japan by the end of 2016. Ford and General Motors Co. have not participated in the Tokyo Motor Show since 2009.

However the success of Jeep, a representative U.S. model of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA), proved that American automakers can compete in the Japanese market if they put in the proper effort.

Jeep sales reached 9,742 units in fiscal 2016, up 34 percent from the previous fiscal year and setting a record for the sixth consecutive year. It was the seventh best-selling imported vehicle in Japan.

FCA has taken measures targeting Japanese customers, such as the seemingly obvious step of introducing right-hand-drive cars.

Wrangler, one of FCA’s leading SUV models, has gained popularity among Japanese with its unsophisticated design.

While Wranglers were available at 67 shops in Japan in 2015, the number has risen to 80 by 2017 to appeal to more trend-conscious generations.

“Japanese consumers will not overlook the high-performance and unique products,” said automotive writer Mitsuhiro Kunisawa.