Japanese Automakers See Opportunity as Long-dormant Drivers Return to Streets

As Japan’s COVID-19 crisis worsened, more and more employers are providing cars to their essential employees to avoid public commute and maintain social distancing. Despite describing himself as a “poor driver,” Ryota Kawamata wants to buy a new car so he can avoid public transport. The 32-year-old engineer hadn’t driven for more than a decade.

“There are places where I can’t go without a car,” said Kawamata, who recently paid 30,000 yen ($280) for a five-hour refresher course to hone his driving skills.

As Japan recovers from its coronavirus lockdown, local businesses like restaurants and offices are practising social distancing, but public transport doesn’t require it. People like Kawamata who use public transport daily are an untapped pool of potential car buyers. Like many others, Kawamata is known as “paper drivers” because they have a license but don’t own vehicles.

Japan Cars Coronavirus

Japan’s car companies can have a small but much-needed boost amid a global slump in car-buying is people like Kawamata, and more employers need cars.

In the United States, China, and other countries, demand from lapsed drivers is also increasing while social distancing is strictly implemented. This situation can also help soften the coronavirus blow for carmakers.

According to Japan’s National Police Agency, about 45 million people have gold-class driving licenses, issued to people with no traffic violations for at least five years. Although there are no statistics about the number of paper drivers in Japan, the above data still shows that there millions of drivers without cars.

Akitake Sawamura, a manager of a driving school that offers refresher courses to inexperienced drivers, estimates that around two-thirds of gold license holders are paper drivers. The number of these types of people increases over the years as more Japanese use public transit due to traffic, safety, and fuel cost.

Car sales in Japan have fallen from a peak of 7.8 million vehicles in 1990 to 5.2 million last year. Part of the decrease is the use of public transport by many commuters.

“There’s been a pickup in people attending courses since the emergency was declared in April,” Sawamura said. Recent students, he said, have included a healthcare worker treating COVID-19 cases and an office worker who moved out of Tokyo and bought a car to get around his new town after he began telecommuting.

Roads are becoming more crowded and demand for parking, particularly in Tokyo and other populated cities, had increased during coronavirus crisis. This is based on the data provided by Akippa, a smartphone service that uses an app to find parking spaces.

Akippa spokeswoman Ayako Ishikawa said that the demand for spaces more than doubled nationwide and jumped by five times in parts of Japan’s capital during the state of emergency declared in April compared with February, before the coronavirus crisis took hold.

Ishikawa added that people are still commuting to work by car and they have been joined by others since the emergency ended.

The increase in drivers is not a secret to the government but says it is not concerned about congestion or other issues.

“The number of vehicles on the roads is currently less than it was before the coronavirus pandemic began. Going forward there will likely be some impact,” said a roads bureau official at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. “We don’t yet know what that balance will be between new drivers and those not travelling because of teleworking.”

Kawamata’s co-worker, Keisuke Kai, 25, who also drives a rented car to work said he is hesitant to buy a new car due to the cost and parking fees but enjoys driving.

“We would welcome any increase in the number of drivers on the road,” a salesman at a Toyota dealership told Reuters.

Both manufacturers and dealers around Tokyo hope more “paper drivers” take action and buy cars.