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Green cars rule Tokyo Motor Show, but eyes turns to China

Green cars enjoy the limelight at Tokyo Motor Show. But car makers – including Japan's – are increasingly looking to China, India, and other nations with greater growth potential. Could this new focus curb green cars' innovation?

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Koichiro Imoto, who writes about Japan's auto industry, says overseas interest in the show has plunged, except for a handful of manufacturers like Volkswagen AG that do good business in Japan.

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"Technology is the only thing Japan has to cling to so the show is trying to highlight those strengths," he said. "Selling the technological superiority is the only way left for Japan."

Toyota President Akio Toyoda was outright emotional at his presentation when he said Japan was going through hard times after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan.

Japanese automakers, including Toyota Motor Corp., were forced to scale back production as parts suppliers in northeastern Japan were damaged.

That battering was followed by a smaller but similar problem when suppliers got hit by flooding in Thailand, Toyoda said.

"Japan has been plunged into sadness," he said, often gesturing with his hands to emphasize his points.

Toyota must do all it can to work with the people of northeastern Japan and Thailand to propel a recovery, he said.

"Our messages are 'Fun to drive again,' and 'Never give up,' " he said, using English phrases for the mottos.

Mamoru Katou, auto analyst with Tokai Tokyo Research, believes the most interesting models at the show are the ones close to being commercial models.

On display at Toyota's sprawling booth is the plug-in version of its hit Prius hybrid, which will start at 2.75 million yen ($35,200) with subsidies in Japan.

Toyota began taking orders in Japan for the plug-in on Tuesday. In the U.S., where Toyota has already started to take orders online, the car starts at $32,000 without subsidies, which will vary by state.

Toyota, which has sold more than 3.4 million hybrids worldwide so far, is targeting Prius plug-in sales of 60,000 a year globally. The car is set for delivery in Japan in January.

Toyota is also showing an electric car and a fuel cell prototype.

"Overall, interest is going to be diminished because the economy isn't doing so well around the world," Katou said. "But there's still interest in Toyota cars."

Carlos Ghosn, chief executive at Nissan — which has been aggressive on electric vehicles with its Leaf car, but has been a straggler with hybrids compared to Toyota and Honda — said no single green technology was going to dominate.

In about a decade, electric vehicles will make up 10 percent of the auto market as concerns grow about global warming, and governments in the U.S., Japan, Europe and China encourage their sales, he said.

"Zero-emission cars are going to become more and more popular," Ghosn said on the sidelines of the show. "You need to prepare the technologies."