Trucking In Japan

By Norman Chapman

On a recent tour of Japan, I got to see how their transport system works and how the infrastructure looks, as well as learn about its unique idiosyncrasies. As you might expect, its state-of-the-art infrastructure is similar to most modern-day countries, but unlike some other countries, this particular one has endured some unimaginable hardships and still persevered to become one of the most powerful and productive countries on the planet.

Japan is an archipelago consisting of 6,852 islands. The four largest are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, which make up about 97% of Japan’s land. Honshu is the seventh largest island in the world, stretching 810 miles long and 143 miles across at its widest point (about the size of California only half the width). The population of Japan is about 127 million, with the capital city of Tokyo having 9 million people. The main religions are Shinto, followed by Buddhism and, interestingly, a small number of people are Christian. Honshu has a multitude of shrines and temples for both main religions, Samurai castles, museums, bullet trains and mountains, with the highest being Mount Fuji, at 12,338 feet.

A Paleolithic culture around 30,000 BC is the first known habitants of the Japanese islands, followed by many cultures and rulers, including those infamous military Shoguns who ruled in the name of the Emperor from the 12th century until the mid-1800s. In 1947, Japan adopted a new constitution emphasizing liberal democratic practices, and in 1956 they were granted membership into the United Nations.

Japan is a constitutional monarchy with an Emperor with very limited power. The current Emperor is Akihito, who acceded to the throne upon the death of his father in 1989. Executive power is wielded chiefly by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, while sovereignty is vested in the Japanese people. Japan is the third largest national economy in the world, after the United States and China, in terms of GDP. Japan’s major industries are motor vehicles, electronics, ships, machine tools, metals, chemicals and processed foods. Some major Japanese companies include Canon, Toshiba and Nippon Steel. Japan is the third largest auto producer in the world, and is home to Toyota, the world’s largest automobile company. The Japanese consumer electronics industry, once considered to be the strongest in the world, is currently in a state of decline as competition arises in countries like South Korea, the United States and China.

A resilient country, Japan has had its fair share of tragedy. A 9.1-magnitude earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, about 43 miles off Japan’s coast. It was the most powerful quake ever recorded in Japan, and the fourth most powerful in the world since record-keeping began in 1900. The quake triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached heights of up to 133 feet and traveled six miles inland. The earthquake moved Honshu (the main island of Japan) 8 feet east and shifted the Earth on its axis by about 4 to 10 inches. The earthquake killed almost 16,000 people and triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster, one of the worst disasters in the history of nuclear power.

No trip to Japan can exclude the sad page in this country’s history when the two cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic bombs. This act, in August of 1945, effectively ended Japan’s involvement in the Pacific War. In 1949, a design was selected for the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the closest surviving building to the location of the bomb’s detonation, was designated the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. In Nagasaki, some of the rubble was left as a memorial, including an arch near Ground Zero. New structures were raised as memorials, such as the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum, which was opened in the mid-1990s.

The Japanese approach to heavy road transport is quite partisan – the vehicle owners are very loyal to their homegrown products. It looks like the “Big Four” Japanese truck makers are in an enviable position, for now, shutting out the competition of imported trucks. That said, there were a small number of Dutch DAFs, Scandinavian Volvos and German Mercedes Benz trucks running around on the Honshu highways. The “Big Four” manufacturers in Japan are Hino, Isuzu, UD Trucks and Fuso. Global markets are very important, and these four manufacturers are no strangers to the US truck scene.

Hino, as part of the huge Toyota Motor Corporation, is the largest truck manufacturer in Japan. The company can be traced back to 1910, with its formation being centered around the domestic gas industry. Their first lightweight truck was introduced in 1917. After several mergers, the outfit became part of Automotive Industry Co. Ltd., and in 1941 it became Diesel Motor Industry Co. Ltd. A year later, the name was changed to Hino Heavy Industry. Hino, like all manufacturers, focused on the war effort and built a large number of vehicles for the Japanese military. When the war ended, and after a few name changes, the company became Hino Diesel Industry Ltd. At that point, the company began to focus entirely on the commercial manufacture of buses, trucks, trailers and diesel engines. In 1975, Hino entered the US market and has since established a firm footing Stateside.

The Isuzu company history began in 1916, when the Tokyo Ishikawajimi Shipbuilding Company drew up a cooperation plan with Tokyo Gas and Electric Company to diversify into the building of motor vehicles. The introduction of a light truck followed, and after merging with DAT Automobile Manufacturing some years later, the company became part of Automobile Industry Co. Ltd. As mentioned previously, Hino was another company in this conglomerate, and in 1942 they separated from the group. The company, which we know as Isuzu, launched two truck types in 1945. Isuzu has had short-term collaboration links with both Mitsubishi and Nissan in the past. Parting from these two resulted in General Motors becoming their new partner in 1971. This long-term association is still in existence today, with lightweight models of smaller trucks being produced for the US market.

UD Trucks, which began as Nihon Diesel Industries Ltd., recently celebrated their 80th anniversary. The company made engines, at first, and gradually started manufacturing trucks in 1940. The name was changed in 1950 to Minsei Diesel Industries, and the product line became quite comprehensive. The company also made a two-stroke engine known as the “Uniflow Diesel” which is where the UD name came from. The company, however, says the moniker “Ultimate Dependability” is what the letters stand for. Volvo of Sweden acquired UD in 2007 and entered into a cooperation deal with Mitsubishi Fuso.

At one time, Fuso was just an incidental add-on name on trucks built by Mitsubishi. The term “Fuso” was derived from the ancient Chinese word that translates to Hibiscus, which is what the Chinese called the country of Japan. The branding was changed some years ago, with the Fuso lettering being displayed on the front of the trucks, along with the understated Mitsubishi three diamond logo. The company was formed in 1932, building buses, under the company name of Mitsubishi Shipbuilding Co. Two years later, the name became Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The first truck was produced in 1941. In 1949, the Fuso Motors Sales Company was established, which was renamed the Mitsubishi Fuso Motors Sales Company in 1952. By 1971, links were formed with Chrysler in the US. This lasted until 1985, but Fuso continued to build lightweight trucks for the American market. Today, Daimler owns 89% of the Fuso Company, which accounts for about 20% of the truck sales in Japan.

One of the most recognized transport organizations in Japan is Nippon Express. This global company, which was formed in 1937, does it all – road, rail, air and sea. The company even has a division which specializes in just the movement of fine art. Milestones of note for this division include the moving of the Venus de Milo statue in 1964, from Paris to Japan, as a feature for the Olympic Games held in Tokyo, and the transport of the Mona Lisa painting in 1974.

Most of the trucks in Japan are either eight- or six-wheelers. They run on wheels with eight lugs and are mostly rated at between 21 and 25 tons GVW (the heavier rated types of trucks have ten lugs). The eight-wheelers, at first glance, look like closely-coupled tractors and semi-trailers, but on closer inspection, the trucks are bobtails, and most of them have “gull wing” bodies. These types of bodies have drop sides, about a third of the way up, and the rest opens up, via hydraulic rams, front and rear. The picture of the UD sales brochure paints a more vivid picture than words can accomplish.

A host of Japanese haulers are obsessed with chrome and lights, and a lot of trucks in Japan have various cab panels, fenders and wheel trims made out of the shiny material. The Dekotora (an abbreviation for “decoration truck”) is a type of extravagantly decorated truck in Japan. Commonly displaying neon or ultraviolet lights, these trucks have extravagant paint and stainless or golden parts, on both the exterior and the interior of the vehicle. These Dekotoras may be created by workers out of their work trucks for fun, or they may be built by hobbyists for special events and shows.

Overcoming diversity and domestic brand loyalty are the two things that really stuck out for me while in Japan. I enjoyed my time there and was impressed by the proud people, the vibrant cities and their efficient trucks. And those wild Dekotoras, well, there’s certainly nothing like them anywhere else in the world!

About Guest Author