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Anti-Japan feelings in China won't last, auto executives predict

SHANGHAI, China—Japanese automakers insist that rising anti-Japan sentiment in China isn't crimping sales, but consumers at a major auto show that opened Friday cast a wary eye at Japanese brands.

So far this month, anti-Japanese protests have roiled at least 10 cities in China, and mobs in several of the protests vandalized cars with Japanese brands.

"Some car owners are putting tape over the Japanese logos of their cars. Or they put a sign on the car saying, `We are patriots,'" said Mo Wenhui, 26, a magazine advertising salesman who was perusing the Nissan exhibit at the Shanghai 2005 Auto Show.

Mo said he's sure that protests have deterred some buyers temporarily from considering Japanese brands: "They are afraid people will destroy their car."

Executives from several Japanese automakers said calls to boycott Japanese products haven't affected sales.

"I can tell you that last week our orders were actually running above average," said Stephen T. Odell, the senior vice president for marketing for Mazda. "What I see is that our business is continuing strong."

Independent automotive analysts said they expect any impact on sales from the sudden spasm of anti-Japanese feeling in China to be short-lived.

"We saw a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in the United States in the 1980s. It didn't really affect the market," said Denton J. Dance, a senior director of J.D. Power and Associates, a global marketing firm. "This might be a short-term blip."

Relations between China and Japan—rivals for power in East Asia—are freighted with tensions despite soaring trade. Chinese remain deeply angry with Japan for its brutal occupation of China in the 1930s and `40s.

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Friday tried to dampen the latest outburst of rage in China.

"In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations," Koizumi said at an Asian-African summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. "Japan squarely faces these facts of history in a spirit of humility."

He added: "With feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology always engraved in mind, Japan has resolutely maintained, consistently since the end of World War II, never turning into a military power but an economic power."

Koizumi said Japan was determined to resolve future conflicts "by peaceful means, without recourse to use of force."

The Chinese government's reaction wasn't immediately clear. There was no word, for example, on any decision about whether President Hu Jintao would meet with Koizumi at the summit.

Koizumi's comments were similar to those made by former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995.

China is now Japan's largest trade partner, and China's rapid growth has helped lift the Japanese economy.

All major Japanese automakers built plants in China and view the surging market here as a linchpin of their futures. While DaimlerChrysler and General Motors lead in market share, Toyota, Nissan and Honda see steady rises in sales in China.

Anti-Japanese protests surged following a Japanese decision early this month to revise junior high school textbooks in a way that China claims glosses over wartime atrocities. China also opposes Japan's quest for a U.N. Security Council permanent seat.

Some Chinese at the auto show dismissed an Internet campaign, apparently encouraged by the government, to boycott Japanese products during May.

"Japanese cars are very good. They are economical," said Zhang Amei, a worker at Kirin, a Japanese brewery. "I don't think this is a long-term thing."

Although Chinese leaders initially didn't censor calls for a boycott, China's commerce minister said Friday that a boycott of Japanese goods would damage the interests of China and Japan.

But some Chinese at the auto show saw the boycott as a way to prod Japan over its wartime past.

A public relations expert, Gan Fenyi, said she isn't in the market for a car but vowed to temporarily shun Japanese products.

"I will try to choose local products for one or two months," Gan said.

At a news conference to unveil several new models for the China market, Nissan chose U.S. and Chinese executives to lead the presentation before local journalists.

The frictions will not alter Honda's marketing strategy, a spokesman said.

"The only thing we can do is concentrate on our business, on our Chinese customers," said Masaya Nagai of Honda. Any damage to Honda's sales would unfortunately affect some 20,000 Chinese employees at a Honda plant in Guangzhou in southern China, he added.

Executives from European and U.S. automakers said Chinese consumers likely wouldn't stay away from Japanese carmakers for long.

"Long term, customers tend to be very rational about their purchases," said Ken Zino, a spokesman for Ford for the Asia Pacific region.

A Japanese auto executive, Katsumi Nakamura, concurred that Chinese consumers, many of whom are buying cars for the first time, are unlikely to heed any boycott if convinced that a Japanese car is their best option.

"It's one of the expensive purchases of their life, so it will be a cool decision," said Nakamura, president of the Dongfeng Motor Co., a joint venture in China with Nissan.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AUTO-CHINA

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