San Diego — About half of all car imports in Japan are Volkswagens.
''So we have 50 percent of nothing,'' sniffs Dr. Carl Hahn, chairman of the board of management of Volkswagenwerk AG. In 1981, only 38,110 automobiles were imported by Japan, 65 percent of them from West Germany. The US share of the pie was 20.3 percent, including 11.6 percent by General Motors and 7.7 percent by Ford.
At the same time, Japan's exports to the United States alone are limited to 1 ,680,000 cars a year because of the two-year voluntary sales curb, which expires at the end of March.
Japan is expected to extend the curb for a third year and now is being pressured to set the figure at a much lower level because of the continuing poor performance by the US auto industry.
In contrast to the Japanese success in the US, ''the Japanese market in Europe,'' according to Dr. Hahn, ''has come to a standstill and the used-car prices for Japanese vehicles are very bad.''
Nonetheless, unhappy with its annual 20,000 new-car sales in Japan, VW now has an agreement with Nissan, Japan's No. 2 automaker, which calls for Nissan to produce, under contract, 60,000 Volkswagens a year.
''Most of this,'' Hahn said, ''will be for the domestic Japanese market and will be distributed by both the Nissan organization in Japan as well as by VW's own dealership organization in the country.''
Despite the small numbers, however, it will allow VW to size up the market and see how much of a sales opportunity exists.
VW also plans to export the Santana (4-door Quantum) to markets outside Japan , but on a very limited scale - at least to start. ''After gaining the experience,'' Hahn said, ''we can hopefully go farther on.'' It would put VW in a good spot to keep an eye on mainland China for any hint of an auto market sometime down the road.
Are VW and Nissan likely to jointly produce vehicles in other parts of the world?
''In theory we would be prepared to do this,'' Hahn replied. ''In practice, however, Nissan has a factory coming up in Tennessee. Also, Nissan has a manufacturing facility in Spain. So we do not see any practical possibility of doing this.''
Even so, VW is probing for any new automotive markets that might develop anywhere else in the world.
Volkswagenwerk AG, for example, is casting a long hungry look at Spain which now blocks non-domestic producers from the marketplace. If it were to reach an accord with the Spanish carmaker Seat, it not only would gain access to the Spanish auto market, but also provide vehicles for the rest of Europe as well.
While Fiat, the Italian automaker and conglomerate, is withdrawing from its deal with Seat, the Spanish company will continue to make Fiat-based products for sale through Fiat dealerships in Europe till 1986.
''There would be no joint venture or capital tie (between VW and Seat), rather a 'contractual cooperation,' '' according to Automotive News, the trade weekly.
The Spanish auto market is expected to be the most fertile in Europe by the late 1980s, especially if Spain joins the Common Market.