Hara Masatsuga, a proud but lonely salesman for Chrysler Japan, is determined to elevate the sullied image of American cars among skeptical Japanese consumers.
Each day he attempts to convince the trickle of potential buyers that the autos have improved, are compact enough to maneuver through Japan's narrow streets, feature the latest safety devices and are reasonably priced.While Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca blasts Japan for failing sufficiently to boost imports of U.S. cars and Japanese automakers exhort Americans to "help themselves by working harder," Masatsuga and his counterparts at showrooms featuring Ford and General Motors vehicles liken themselves to front-line troops caught in the verbal crossfire.
Since President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa agreed Jan. 9 on measures to promote purchases of U.S. cars and auto parts, the bitter fallout has not ignited enthusiasm among Japanese consumers.
Bush's four-day visit was "just like a starting device in a car," Masatsuga said. "We salesmen in Japan have to steer the car to the goal - improved sales.".
"Lee Iacocca doesn't sell them," Masatsuga said. "We have to make the effort."
Heated exchanges between the U.S. and Japanese sides have not helped.
Koichi Kato, Japan's top government spokesman, has moved quickly to quell U.S. fears the Japanese may renege on their pledge to increase auto imports, saying the top five automakers will fully honor their pronouncements.
Kato's assurances were prompted by American outrage over Miyazawa's recent remark that import figures in the non-binding pact reached with Bush were a "target rather than a firm promise."
With autos and auto parts making up three-fourths of the $41 billion deficit the United States has with Japan, Japanese carmakers said they will more than double their purchases of American parts to $19 billion in fiscal 1994.
Under government pressure to help the ailing U.S. economy, the top five - Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. - also said they will increase sales of "Big Three" cars in Japan by 20,000 vehicles a year by 1994.
Neither Japanese nor American officials referred to the figures as firm commitments at the time of the Bush-Miyazawa summit.
Industry leaders say the U.S. car industry should stop whining about the Japanese market, noting the Europeans have invested heavily in establishing their own sales networks in Japan and have steadily boosted their market share.
Kozo Watanabe, minister of international trade and industry, made it clear the success of the agreement depends on American carmakers' ability to tailor their products to Japanese tastes, producing smaller cars with right-hand drive.
"U.S. automakers should help themselves by working harder to sell cars in Japan," said Yutaka Kume, president of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers' Association. "American understanding of Japan is shallow."
Dealers complain about the hard push from the United States, triggered by Bush's inclusion in his trip of a cast of 18 corporate elites. Among them were the chairmen of the "Big Three" automakers who departed dissatisfied with the package of concessions the Japanese regarded as generous.