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New auto sales in Japan plummet 37% after disaster

By Brian Walker, CNN
New vehicle sales in Japan plunged 37 percent last month, the largest drop in March since the collection of data began in 1968.
New vehicle sales in Japan plunged 37 percent last month, the largest drop in March since the collection of data began in 1968.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New vehicle sales fall 37% in Japan in March 2011, compared to March 2010, new data shows
  • Toyota is the worst hit firm, with sales down 46%; Honda and Nissan are also suffering
  • Parts shortages, power outages and plunging demand led Toyota to close 16 of its 18 factories
  • A Toyota spokesman notes that the company's donations to help those afflicted by the disaster

Tokyo (CNN) -- Auto sales in Japan have hit the brakes sharply since last month's natural disaster and ensuing nuclear crisis, according to fresh figures released Friday.

New vehicle sales within the East Asian nation plunged 37 percent in March, compared to data from the same month one year ago, according to data from Japan's Auto Dealer Association.

That's the largest sales drop in March since the industry trade group began collecting data back in 1968.

Toyota was hit the hardest, showing a 46% drop in sales -- a decrease that did not include its luxury Lexus brand. Nissan sales skidded 38%, while Honda saw its figures slashed by more than a quarter at 28%.

It's not clear what percentage of the drop can be attributed to dealerships destroyed or closed down temporarily in the March 11 mammoth earthquake and subsequent tsunami and how much is due to Japanese consumers clamping shut their wallets.

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Still, it helps paint a sobering picture of the economic hammering that manufacturers are taking in what Prime Minister Naoto Kan has called the worst disaster to strike Japan since World War II.

The assessment of how Japanese automakers have fared in terms of their manufacturing output and export sales is still being compiled.

Still, the travails of Toyota -- the world's biggest automaker -- illustrates the diversity and severity of the problems faced by other firms like it in Japan.

Parts shortages, power outages and plunging demand have prompted Toyota to shut down, at least temporarily, 16 of its 18 factories.

"We are having difficulties having our supply system keep up with demand in the present environment," said Toyota spokesman Dion Corbett. "Our priority is sustaining steady production at our plants and putting emphasis on producing hybrid cars because they are in heavy demand overseas."

But Toyota isn't only looking after its own bottom line, Corbett notes. The automaker is also making an effort to help government officials and private citizens affected by the crisis.

The Aichi-based company is providing 100 cars to the governments of Japan's worst-hit prefectures, and has donated 300 million yen ($3.64 million) and the use of nearly 500 corporate apartments to house people displaced by the earthquake and tsunami.

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