Where’s Japan’s EV Market?

Green.TV’s Founder, Ade Thomas, shares his experience of the EV scene during his recent trip to Japan.

What happened to the Japanese car market and EV?

I came to Japan to take a look at this super important local market for myself. It’s interesting and remarkable. When you arrive in Japan, it’s like EV time stood still. First of all, there are no absolutely EVs available for hire at the airport car rental from the major rental companies. None. I found a single Toyota Prius. That’s it.

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So, my journeys around Osaka, Japan’s third largest city, were cab-based, combustion cab-based. The closest I got to engaging with anything EV was on a TV screen, the back of a cab, for a Japanese EV charging company. In my one week in Osaka, I did also see one pure EV:  a second generation Nissan LEAF.

My first investigation into public EV charging, at the car park of the popular Osaka city centre tourist attraction, Osaka Castle, and there was one charge point with one solitary CHAdeMO (Nissan) connector. This, in a car park capable of handling a couple of hundred vehicles and in the wealthy city centre of Japan’s third city. The same car park had two drinks vending machines.

Try to book an Uber with an EV option. Nope. At a central Osaka hotel, again, no electric vehicle charging whatsoever. This, in a very, very large hotel with six restaurants, two swimming pools and a health centre – a living space comparable to a small town. In downtown Osaka, it’s like EVs don’t exist. This, in a country that brought us the first mass market EV, the Nissan LEAF. 

On the roads of Osaka, Toyota hybrid vehicles are very visible, through, clearly demonstrating that this is where the Japanese thought the tech would head.

And what of the wider EV context in Japan?

According to Nikkei Asia, the leading Japan-based English-language weekly news title, as of April 2023, EVs accounted for just 2.1% of new passenger car sales in fiscal 2022, compared with nearly 20% in the dominant markets of China and Europe.

Minicars, or Kei cars – vehicles defined as having engines of 660 cc, or smaller, in the case of gasoline models – are driving what little there is of Japan’s EV market growth. While sales of regular electric passenger cars jumped 47% to 35,559 units, these mini car sales surged more than 48-fold to 41,679 in just that single category. Nissan’s Sakura, its first electric minicar, is leading the charge.

In December 2022, the Sakura, alongside the Mitsubishi eK X EV, was awarded as the 2022–2023 Japan Car of the Year. Clearly, a big cultural shift is needed, here in Japan, and it’s being led by local forces. This tiny car as a range of 80 km (110 miles) delivered by its 20 kWh lithium-ion battery. It’s equally small on price with a  2.54 million yen price tag (circa $19,300 / £14,900).

But why?

Well Japan has one of the oldest working populations in the world and the older you are in Japan, with its hierarchical approach to work, the more senior you are. As with other sectors, such as the integration of new utility scale software systems, this has led to the slow take-up of disruptive new ideas and technologies. This slow change at the top companies of Honda, Toyota and Nissan is well documented.

All this, in a country where climate change solutions are badly needed. I arrived in Japan at a time when the country is experiencing record-high temperatures (like the rest of the world). In the Yamanashi Prefecture, on the main island of Honshu, the mercury hit a sweltering 38 C, according the Japans’s Meteorological Agency. In Tokyo, 167 patients with suspected heatstroke were hospitalised and and Ambulance Shortage Alert system was set up, issued when 80% of ambulances have been dispatched. This is a country that badly needs to decarbonise its cars.

This is a big car culture country that really needs to shift its mindset, and to do so, fast, with greater levels of engagement from its OEM big hitters. Perhaps now that Toyota, the biggest hitter of all, has just announced its solid state battery programme, that shift is now underway. Japan’s climate, and all of our climates, need it.

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