Japanese automakers are bracing for a potential consumer backlash should tensions with China escalate after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a shrine memorializing war-dead on former Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) birthday.
Nissan Motor Co said it was “closely monitoring” developments in Japan-China ties after Abe’s visit.
The appearance at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine drew a condemnation from China in less than an hour, with Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) saying that his nation “strongly” protests.
Shares of Japan’s three biggest automakers rose in Tokyo trading yesterday.
“As a company, we have no means to intervene in politics,” Huo Jing (霍勁), a Beijing-based spokeswoman for Nissan, said by telephone. “All we can do is to be better at our job.”
Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co reported their first annual sales declines in China last year after the Japanese government purchased a group of disputed islands from their private owner, sparking nationwide protests and a consumer backlash. Abe’s visit yesterday’s coincided with Mao’s 120th birthday.
“They chose today to visit the shrine, which makes it even harder for Chinese people to accept,” said Cui Dongshu (崔東孰), deputy secretary-general of the Shanghai-based Passenger Car Association. “The signal they are sending is very dangerous. It will deter some buyers as they may worry about the safety issue of their car and even themselves if the political environment worsens.”
Toyota climbed 2.9 percent to ￥6,340 in Tokyo trading yesterday, its biggest gain since Oct. 9. Honda added 0.9 percen,t while Nissan rose 0.8 percent.
Japanese automakers are regaining ground in China, though the recovery has come at a cost as they sacrifice profit for volume, Cui said.
Abe’s visit may spark a repeat of last year when consumers boycotted Japanese cars, he said.
Thousands of Japanese cars were vandalized and businesses attacked by mobs in last year’s demonstrations. Fast Retailing Co, owner of the Uniqlo clothing brand, closed shops in Beijing at the height of the protests.
Two dealerships selling Toyota and Honda vehicles in Qingdao in eastern China were set on fire by anti-Japanese protestors last year, while many owners of Japanese-brand cars pasted Chinese flags or patriotic slogans on their vehicles in the hope of avoiding attacks.