TOKYO — Wa. Ma. Waku doki. Wabi sabi.
When it comes to car design, the Japanese are literally speaking their own language these days.
The country’s automakers are embarking on a major styling renaissance and digging deep into the local lexicon to describe their upcoming creations. The sensuous curves, avant-garde athleticism and high-tech Zen were on full parade at last week’s Tokyo Motor Show.
The amped-up looks come as Japanese brands race to stand out on the global stage amid the commoditization of technology under the hood and an onslaught of new Asian rivals.
Some brands are leveraging Japan’s cultural heritage — drawing inspiration from samurai swords and rock gardens or tapping traditional words such as wa, which means harmony, or ma, which means space. Others are channeling the Japanese aesthetic in more subtle ways to explore new segments or forge a more futuristic anime-cool Japan vibe.
Yet the angst is palpable across the board, as design becomes a make-or-break differentiator.
“For us, it’s very scary,” said Ikuo Maeda, global design chief at Mazda. “So many brands show up from other Asian countries, so being made-in-Japan is very important to us.”
Pressure is mounting from new demands for autonomous cars, electrification, artificial intelligence and new mobility. But improved global manufacturing techniques have also leveled the quality gap between Japanese brands and competitors in the U.S., Europe and South Korea.
Japan now sees design as a way to break from the pack again.
Swords and gardens
Fresh looks and Japanese DNA were common threads at the Tokyo show.
Mazda unveiled two elegantly sculpted concept cars that preview the next generation of the company’s acclaimed Kodo design language. Maeda said the subtly rounded lines and concave sides were inspired by the slightly curved edges, or sori, of Japanese samurai swords.
Honda clarified its vision for electric cars with a Sports EV Concept, a funky futuristic counterpart to the Urban EV Concept that debuted last month in Frankfurt. Both cars get a high-tech gadget feel, like something straight out of Tokyo’s Akihabara electronics town and counterculture haven.
Toyota meanwhile tested the ground for a new segment with two boxy SUV-cum-family vans, one a futuristic fuel cell vehicle, the other a rugged hybrid.
Even Mitsubishi and Subaru used the home market auto expo to showcase new design directions they hope will inject more emotion and help stoke sales.
Nissan touted its Japanese roots when it unveiled its IMx concept, a model that closely telegraphs the future look of Nissan production vehicles.
Outside, the all-electric crossover gets a fantastical feel with a plethora of slits and creases that match its next-generation drivetrain and autonomous driving technologies.
But inside, Nissan strives for all the serenity of a Buddhist temple. The woodgrain dashboard was inspired by Japanese shoji sliding screen doors, while the flooring and seat fabric motif drew from the karesansui patterns of meticulously raked Japanese rock gardens.
The headrests evoke kumiki, or Japanese interlocking wood puzzles.
“It reflects the Japanese tradition of harmony, or wa,” said Alfonso Albaisa, senior vice president in charge of global design at Nissan.
Hello Kitty harmony
Despite being a Cuban-American transplant at the helm of Nissan’s Japanese design studio just south of Tokyo, Albaisa is among the most vocal champions of the Japan aesthetic.
At the Car Design Forum, a gathering of global stylists on the eve of the Tokyo show, Albaisa delivered a lecture expounding on the origins and virtues of the country’s concept of beauty. He peppered the address with the key concepts he said capture the Japanese spirit.
Such words as utsuroi — the Buddhist concept of impermanence; iki — simple and refined sophistication; and wabi sabi — a less-is-more beauty seen in imperfection.
“I’ve asked all the studios to look into the Japanese DNA of design and tell me what it is. All of them, even in Brazil. And now it’s starting to show up everywhere,” Albaisa said. “It’s also definitely the moment we’re living in — with the rise of electrification and autonomous vehicles. I want to reach into that Japanese DNA and make sure it imbues what we’re doing.”
Minimalist simplicity is a key element of the new Japan look.
And few designs express that better than Honda’s new EV creations, unadorned white appliancelike runabouts where form follows function but is also friendly.
Think: Hello Kitty meets Asimo, the Honda humanoid robot.
Honda’s Sports EV Concept exemplifies the minimalist simplicity that is a key element of the new Japan look. Says the car’s designer: “We want to make these cars simple and easy to understand.”
“We have come up with this cute-looking front, as well as simple and soft plane designs. Cars are becoming more high-tech, but they become friendlier to people,” said Sports EV Concept designer Jun Goto. “We want to make these cars simple and easy to understand.”
Toyota too wants more compelling designs that bond drivers to their cars.
Japan’s biggest automaker also has a homegrown word for the experience it is trying to achieve: waku doki, something akin to heart-pumping excitement.
On the design front, Toyota looked to pioneer new territory in Tokyo with its boxy Tj Cruiser hybrid activity vehicle and its Fine-Comfort Ride fuel cell rolling lounge. Not quite SUVs, not quite multipurpose vehicles, both concepts push the wheels to the corners for maximum interior space.
Didier Leroy, Toyota Motor executive vice president, said the vehicles play in a space that could potentially become a new segment.
“Unless cars are fun, they are not really cars,” Leroy said. “There is a big risk that the car will become a commodity, and we don’t want to let the car become a commodity.”
Yet, the biggest design statement at the Tokyo Motor Show came from Mazda.
Styling boss Maeda worked for two years on the new look that debuted in the sporty Kai hatchback and the sleek Vision Coupe. Their next-generation styling moves into production cars starting in 2019, timed to the release of the company’s Skyactiv-X engine.
“We have set out a design philosophy which encapsulates a distinctively Japanese kind of beauty,” Maeda said. “Much of Japanese traditional culture is based on the minimalist concept of ‘less is more,’ where the emphasis is on removing or minimizing elements.”
Maeda devised Mazda’s Kodo design language in 2010. It was key to the brand’s revival, imbuing the new Skyactiv line of engines, transmissions and chassis with a sexy aura.
The new look drops today’s sharp creases for sensual curves. The result is a rounded, voluptuous surface that reflects in shape-shifting ways as light glides over the undulating body. The goal, Mazda says, is vehicles “that look truly alive” as the viewing angle changes.
The race car-driving, goateed Maeda is as serious about his art as he is about autos.
His father was the veteran Mazda designer who penned the RX-7 sports car. And the younger Maeda created the RX-8 before taking over as global styling chief.
But Maeda isn’t shy about looking further afield. His not-so-secret ambition is to create a line of Mazda-branded design goods to help elevate the brand.
He has already churned out an avant-garde chair, sofa and bicycle. And on the eve of the Tokyo show, he released his latest work: a Mazda-branded designer fragrance.
Automobiles might evoke the aroma of rubber and gasoline for most people, but Mazda’s Soul of Motion claims to achieve a woody-rose-leather bouquet — for those willing to splurge $ 130.
Mazda wants to step ahead of the crowd by raising transaction prices, slashing incentives and boosting resale values. Creating a near-premium buzz with better-appointed interiors, sexy sheet metal — and now, possibly, must-have merchandise — may help. But why fragrance?
“It is another kind of artist who creates something invisible like a smell,” Maeda said. “That is so interesting to me. It energizes me with new ideas.”
Lindsay Chappell and Naoto Okamura contributed to this report.