At Shanghai show, Japan automakers woo lost sales

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SHANGHAI (AP) — Japanese automakers promised special Chinese designs and green technology in addition to the usual flashy fanfare at this year’s Shanghai Auto Show, trying to woo back sales that crumpled during a territorial dispute over East China Sea islands late last year.

China is the world’s biggest auto market by number of vehicles sold and crucial to the growth plans of global automakers. Japanese manufacturers such as Toyota lost market share to U.S., South Korean and German rivals as their sales plummeted and now, even as tensions between Japan and China abate, they continue to languish.

The dispute over control of the Japanese-administered islands, called Diayo in China and Senkaku in Japan, set off riots in China and a boycott of Japanese cars. Sales of cars from Japanese manufacturers plunged at one point to half of what they were the previous year. Latest figures show sales of Japanese brands are still declining while other automakers push deeper into a market that analysts predict will have annual sales of 32 million vehicles by 2020 — the equivalent of the United States and Europe combined.

Japanese automakers suffered a 17.8 percent sales decline in March overall, while total vehicle sales in China surged 13.3 percent, according to Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book. “Until the territorial dispute is resolved, it appears as though Japanese automakers will continue to face challenges in the still growing Chinese market,” he said.

The show, in a sprawling exhibition center, opened to the public Sunday and runs until April 29.

Nissan design chief and senior vice president Shiro Nakamura acknowledged China sales should be growing, not just returning to the previous year’s levels. He stressed that Nissan can’t afford to lose in China.

In contrast to developed countries, China’s potential remains vast even if the growth of overall sales has slowed from 2009 when it reached a heady 45 percent. For every 1,000 people, car ownership is at 800 people in the U.S. and 600 in Europe and Japan, but a mere 50 in China.

Big business is expected in what are called second and third-tier cities, less developed than Beijing or Shanghai, and where people are just starting to think about owning cars as incomes rise.

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