Staff writer

TOYOHASHI, Aichi Pref. — Shiny new cars are lined up at a wharf at Mikawa port here, a scene not uncommon in a country renowned for manufacturing and exporting automobiles.

What makes this setting unique from that of other ports in Japan is that those cars are fresh off a vessel, ready to make inroads into the Japanese market, rather than waiting to be loaded onto a ship for sale in other lands.

Earlier this month, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder visited the import centers of DaimlerChrysler Japan Ltd. and BMW Japan Corp. in this port district during a three-day visit to Japan.

Foreign firms, especially German automakers, have selected this midsize, humdrum city in the Chubu region to be their foothold for Japanese operations because they see the potential to grab a competitive edge here.

“We needed land and facilities as an import base,” said Yoshihiro Hori, general manager of Volkswagen Group Japan KK. “We took into consideration cost and spaciousness, along with port functions and the distance to our dealers. It has been proven we made the right decision.”

The firm, a fully owned subsidiary of Volkswagen AG of Germany, founded its headquarters in the Toyohashi district in 1992. It imports all of its vehicles for the Japanese market through Mikawa port and inspects them before they hit the highway.

DaimlerChrysler Japan Co. unloads about 40 percent of its vehicles for western Japan at this port, while BMW Japan Corp. imports vehicles under the Rover brand here.

The three carmakers also operate facilities for vehicle inspection, mechanic training, car silos and auto parts depots along the waterfront district.

Total investment by the three companies, which purchased some 41 hectares of land here, amounted to about 53 billion yen and generated about 900 jobs — roughly 380 full-time positions — according to a report released by the Economic Planning Agency earlier this year.

One reason the firms established themselves here was because of its inexpensive land. But Toyohashi offered them another advantage — access to other automobile-related companies due to the area’s close proximity to Toyota, the hometown of Toyota Motor Corp., Japan’s largest automaker.

“We’re doing labor-intensive work here. We cannot expand our operations by simply expanding facilities,” said Yasujiro Nishio, manager of the Toyohashi plant of DaimlerChrysler Japan. “We have good access to human resources (in the automotive industry) because the industry has traditionally been nurtured in this region.”

While many local governments have been unsuccessful at luring foreign investors to revive their economies, Toyohashi has attracted five foreign firms, including the trio of German automakers.

By using the firms’ import facilities, the Toyohashi Municipal Government and local business circles plan to jointly develop Mikawa port into an international automobile complex by attracting more companies in the industry.

“Although it was not our initial idea to focus on automobile companies and attract them here, automobile companies happened to come here. We hope to take full advantage of the opportunity we have,” said Fumio Kaneko, a municipal official.

However, because of its proximity to Nagoya port, a comprehensive freight-handling facility and one of the nation’s top five, Mikawa knew it needed a niche to survive.

In the late 1960s, the local government hoped to attract heavy industrial firms to the port but was thwarted by an oil crisis that battered the nation’s economy.

But things changed when Toyota Motor opened its Tahara factory, an assembly and exporting base for high-quality automobiles, in the Toyohashi district in 1979. The move paved the way for the city to develop itself as a port for automobiles.

As sales of imported cars rose in the Japanese market in the late 1980s, foreign automakers decided to expand operations to Japan and chose Toyohashi as their landing place.

As a result, Mikawa has been the country’s top port for automobile imports for six consecutive years since 1993, surpassing major ports such as Yokohama and Chiba.

And the streak is likely to continue.

According to Nishio, DaimlerChrysler Japan will start importing cars under the Chrysler brand, currently handled by another firm, through the Toyohashi plant, thanks to the merger last year between Daimler-Benz of Germany and Chrysler of the United States.

In addition, Yanase & Co., the country’s leading importer and distributor of imported cars, is currently building a car pool in the Toyohashi district so it can transfer import operations now conducted at Nagoya port, in January.

These firms all benefit the local community because of all the preparatory work, such as inspections and adjustments, that must be done to meet Japanese regulations before the products are put on the domestic market.

“Of course, we welcome these auto firms,” said Yasuhiro Fujita, president of Moritaya Paint Co., a local firm here. “Although competition is fierce and we do not always get contracts with those companies, they at least can provide us with business opportunities.”

Contracts with two foreign automakers bring Fujita’s company about 50 million yen in annual sales.

However, the economic ripple effect of Toyohashi as an import base for foreign automakers is limited to a small segment of the regional economy, such as cargo handling at the port and other parts of the auto industry.

“If auto-related companies are to mass here, we should welcome that because it may bring business opportunities. But, in reality, those firms do not provide business for us,” said Masashi Noguchi, president of Noguchi Seisakusho Co., a local auto parts maker.

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