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date: 16 December 2018

The History of Motorization in Japan

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History. Please check back later for the full article.

In 1907 the first Japanese-made motorcar was unveiled. A century later, the phenomenon of kuruma banare [車離れ], literally “turning one’s back on the car,” but often translated as “de-motorization,” appeared in the international press. Falling sales suggested that Japan’s domestic car market had reached full capacity reversing an almost continuous historical trend of increasing car ownership. In the 1960s and 1970s, personal car ownership changed the social and cultural fabric of everyday life and transformed the urban environment and landscape. However, the automobile also became the focus of anxieties about traffic congestion, air pollution, noise levels, and safety and by the end of the 20th century was seen as ultimately damaging to community, social harmony, and the environment. While reports of the death of the motorcar turned out to be exaggerations, Japan became the “Asian pathfinder” for setting ultimate limits for the growth of fossil-fueled automobiles worldwide. Historiographically, the focus on the astounding success of Japan’s major automobile manufacturers in international markets drew attention away from the social and cultural history of the car itself in Japan. Yet the story of how Japan was transformed from an essentially wheel-less society at the dawn of the 20th century into the first industrial power to have achieved almost full-capacity car ownership is no less remarkable and sheds light on current dilemmas surrounding car use and sustainability in developing countries such as China and India.