I am married to Nicewife, a Japanese national.
Nicewife’s dad has some special friends that he has know from his schooldays that have become legendary characters to me. Let me introduce them. There’s “special car friend” (he owns a car dealership and garage), “special-tomato-friend” (he owns a hydroponic tomato farm), “fisherman-friend” (quite dissimilar from his strong minty-tasting namesake), and “always-wearing-purple friend”. I love the fact that they are named with reference to what benefits their friendship provides – apart from “always-wearing-purple friend” that is, who presumably counters his apparent uselessness with a good social presence.
Late last week we met “special car friend” to take possession of a car that we will be able to use during our gap year in Japan. If there is anywhere in Japan where the car is king, it’s Aichi. The lifeblood of this prefecture is the automotive industry. The largest car manufacturer in the world, the Toyota Motor Corporation, is headquartered here. When I was first living in Japan (about 8 years ago), people were generally driving nice, modern cars that were only a couple of years old, but were yet complaining that they could not afford to replace them because, “the economy is bad”. As an Australian, and being from the State with the oldest car fleet in the country (if we exclude Tasmania – which is a good thing to do generally anyway), I found this pretty amusing.
I was curious about just how things have changed since 2003. In the intervening period the Japanese economy has continued to stagnate. The national public debt has ballooned to about 200% of GDP. The population has peaked and is several years into its forecast near-terminal decline (more people are dying or emigrating than the combined total of those being born and immigrating). The government, with its funds depleted, are facing an expensive cleanup operation in northern Tohoku following the March 2011 Tsunami, which includes yet unknown costs related to the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
I asked “special car friend” how business was going. He sat back in this chair, sucked the air through his teeth, and then gave the following frank assessment.
“The problem with cars nowadays… they don’t break down”, he explained.
“That’s terrible!” I sympathised.
“What about car servicing? Surely that’s a cash co…. um, I mean, surely that’s a vitally necessary public service you can provide?”
“Retirees, housewives, workers who commute by public transport. They’re only driving short distances… 1,000 to 2,000 km per year, so they don’t bother getting their cars serviced very often.”
“I see. What about new car sales?” I inquired.
“Well, you know, the economy isn’t good. People used to change cars every 3 years or so, now they’re holding onto the same car for 5 or even 10 years! And when they do upgrade, they buy privately off the internet.”
These things are all relative, however. Special Car Friend pointed to a white Toyota Crown parked out the front of his office. It was a trade in, about 10 years old with 100,000 km on the clock. Equivalent Camrys in Australia are for sale on carpoint.com.au for around $8,000. How much for this white Toyota Crown? Less than nothing! Contrarily, special-car-friend will have to pay for its disposal.