Nikkei's take on bailout: Japan saved GM

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TOKYO -- Did the U.S. taxpayer save General Motors? Or was it really saved by the missteps and misfortunes of Japan's automakers?

An interesting line caught my attention in a recent article in the Nikkei newspaper, Japan's version of The Wall Street Journal and the official chronicle of Japan Inc.

It came from a story about how Japan's brands are turning on the heat in the United States to boost sales and market share.

The underlying implication was that for years Japan's brands had been fighting with one arm tied behind their backs. And the Nikkei pulled no punches when it came to GM:

"GM went bankrupt in June 2009 and went through a revival restructuring after that, but Toyota's recalls, Japan's earthquake, the strong yen and the Chinese boycott of Japanese products are mistakes and handicaps that also helped rescue it."

In other words, it wasn't just a pared brand lineup, plant closings, slashed labor costs and the cleansing benefit of bankruptcy that aided GM's turnaround.

Granted, this is just a sentence in a news analysis, not a quote from a Japanese auto executive or trade official. But the statement speaks to an underlying sense in Japan that GM got a free pass -- first by being bailed out and then by rebuilding itself while its Japanese rivals lay wounded on the sidelines.

The Nikkei article goes on to talk about how Japan is squaring off against stronger U.S. brands in North America and China.

But another main focus of the report is Detroit's opposition to a free-trade agreement with Japan. Japan's automakers are desperate for Japan to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership pact now under discussion.

Not surprisingly, the Detroit 3 say Japan should be held at bay until Tokyo eases market barriers to foreign brands in Japan.

And lately, they have denounced what they call currency manipulation by the Japanese government meant to spur exports.

The Nikkei's take on the Detroit 3's opposition: "They aim to protect tariff against Japanese cars."

What do you think about the newspaper's theories?

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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