Tokyo auto show looks for new thrills

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TOKYO — Glitzy girl J-pop groups, esports tournaments, drone racing, drifting demos and even a cross-dressing celebrity endorsement. Japan seeks to thwart the downward spiral of global auto shows by making its own flagship event, well, less of an auto show.

Indeed, this month’s Tokyo Motor Show is being pitched as a kind of automotive Disneyland.

“We want to provide a theme park for the entire family,” said Akio Toyoda, the Toyota Motor Corp. president who also is chairman of the show’s organizer, the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association. “This festival should broaden the scope.”

While other auto expos have been shrinking over the years, Toyoda wants to boost attendance in Tokyo to more than 1 million for the first time in years.

It’s a long-shot gamble on a new concept in an era where auto shows from Detroit to Frankfurt are battling waning enthusiasm among consumers and exhibitors. Detroit will try to reverse its fortunes by holding its 2020 show in June, rather than frigid January. Frankfurt is reeling after this year’s tepid event, with a slew of no-shows casting a pall over its halls.

Toyoda, as frontman of this country’s industry lobby as well as its biggest carmaker, has been laser-focused on rekindling a love of cars in Japan, the world’s No. 3 auto market.

Resuscitating the struggling Tokyo Motor Show is seen as a key step.

Toyoda said Tokyo needs to change or fade away. He pointed to the trend of automakers bailing on the Detroit auto show to exhibit instead at CES in Las Vegas. CES, he said, embodies the future of interlinked industries.

“We don’t know if motor shows are so efficient in disseminating information to our customers,” Toyoda said. “The significance of motor shows is less and less.”

In a nod to Toyoda’s mission, JAMA broke with its tradition of picking executives from the nation’s big three — Toyota, Nissan and Honda — for two-year rotations as chairman. It announced Sept. 26 that Toyoda, chairman since 2018, will stay on through 2022.

The arrangement allows Toyota Motor Corp. to keep its president front and center during the 2020 Summer Olympics here. Toyota is a top sponsor of the games and expects to use them as a global showcase for its technologies and products.

Throttling up the Tokyo Motor Show will be easier said than done.

Attendance at the biennial event has been falling fast, from 902,000 visitors in 2013 to 813,500 in 2015 to 771,000 in 2017.

This year’s goal of over 1 million paid visitors targets a remarkable 30 percent increase. And several factors make the challenge even tougher in 2019.

First, half of the show’s traditional exhibition center — Tokyo Big Sight on the capital city’s waterfront — is under construction, being turned into the international media center for next year’s Olympics. That means halls for Toyota, Subaru and Daihatsu will be about a half-mile away in a separate location. Buses will shuttle visitors between the venues.

Also, international participation has reached a nadir. The only major global brands participating are Mercedes-Benz, Smart, Renault and Alpine. Participation by Renault and Alpine may be a show of solidarity with their Japanese alliance partners, Nissan and Mitsubishi.

The lack of exotic foreign brands will certainly undercut the show’s draw power.

But Toyoda’s team is thinking outside the box. Thus, the reimagined Tokyo Motor Show will try to lure the masses by any means necessary — even if it means going well off-piste from the cars on display.

The Tokyo show will also rely on freebie activities to bring people downtown. The hope is they will then buy tickets to get into the exhibition halls with the cars.

Sideshow attractions run the gamut, from trendy to techy.

JAMA is trotting out the all-female J-pop group Hinatazaka46, which fields no less than 20 dancers. Meanwhile, an esports tourney will let contestants test their digital driving skills at “Gran Turismo Sport.” And another new fad will also be showcased: aerial drone racing.

The show’s official promotion trailer has a signoff endorsement by Matsuko Deluxe, a plus-size cross-dressing gay columnist and commentator who is all the rage in Japan.

A Future Expo area will exhibit Toyota’s upcoming moon rover and a “flying car” from Japanese electronics giant NEC Corp. Shooting some hoops will be Toyota’s CUE3 humanoid basketball robot. It uses artificial intelligence to sink 100 percent of its shots.

At the same time, in the Open Road sector, visitors can pick from a plethora of futuristic personal mobility vehicles — from electric scooters to pod cars — and give them a spin.

But Tokyo isn’t ignoring the gearheads. Drifting will guarantee billowing clouds of burnt rubber. And there will also be a display of exotic sports cars — for auto fans missing the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, Lamborghini and other big names officially shunning the show.

“The Tokyo Motor Show will have to make a model change,” Toyoda said. “Otherwise, it will keep shrinking.”

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