Honda's subtle tantrum: David Bowen questions the real depth of Japanese public reaction over BAe's decision to sell Rover

Click to follow
IT TAKES a lot for the Japanese to display their anger in public. They fight their corner hard, certainly, but they fight subtly. Sumo is subtler than all-in wrestling, Go is subtler than chess.

So Honda must have been steaming furious when BMW stole Rover away from under its nose. Only that can explain yesterday's tantrum, when it took up the Go board and threw it in BMW's face.

There is something else about Japanese companies: they act as one, as Japan Inc. Hurt one company and you hurt them all. In snubbing Honda, therefore, British Aerospace was putting at risk the flow of life-giving investment that had been pouring from Japan into Britain's sclerotic industrial veins.

But all is not as it seems. National stereotypes are dangerous things, because they contain a good helping of truth, but never all of it. The Honda-BMW-Rover debacle makes the point. It is true that Honda managers were shaken when British Aerospace announced it intended to sell its 80 per cent share in Rover to BMW. It would be unthinkable for a Japanese company to make any substantial move without consulting a long-term partner, and it would be unthinkable for it to sell off a subsidiary just to raise cash.

'Big enterprises are considered to belong to society, not to particular people, even though their shares are traded on the stock exchange,' a London-based Japanese stockbroker said yesterday. 'Personally, I can understand why Honda was shocked.' But he makes another point: 'Honda has a reputation for being an international company in Japan - it and Sony were both founded after the war and are considered to be the two most westernised groups in the country.'

Honda is much smaller overall than Nissan or Toyota, yet it became more important than either in the US. It now employs 10,000 people in North America, and for three years running - until 1992 - its Accord was the best-selling car in the States. Suddenly the belief that Honda has been navely caught out by wicked British wheeler-dealers looks implausible. It would have known well that Anglo-Saxon deals are done privately and fast: you do not have drawn-out negotiations with all and sundry, because that could play havoc with your share price. It may be a bad system (it probably is) but Honda knew all about it.

Rob Golding, motor analyst with SG Warburg, the stockbrokers, says he asked senior Honda executives four years ago what they would do if another company came in with an offer for Rover. 'They said in that instance we would have to take notice: they were well aware of the risk.'

The reality is that Honda was not playing the game by a different set of rules: it was playing the same game as BMW - and it lost.

'Honda misjudged BAe's intention,' the Japanese stockbroker said. Mr Golding is more forthright: 'Most right-thinking Japanese would say Honda made a muck of it. They were sitting there with a star turn and they let some fraulein snatch it away.'

Now the Japanese are concentrating on the end-game. Honda knows that if it withdraws all its licensing agreements, and refuses to let Rover use its technology, BMW will find itself with an embarrassing hole in its small car range. It does not want to be linked with BMW, which it sees as a future rival, but it also knows that by behaving like a bear with a sore head it can extract its best advantage.

'The more strident it is now, the larger the royalty fee it will be able to extract for its technology,' says John Lawson of DRI/McGraw-Hill, the business consultancy

The Japanese are still sensitive about their political status in Europe (even though their big row now is with the US) and are unlikely to press this advantage all the way. 'I don't think Honda, even in its present grisly mood, will exercise all the power it has to pull the plug,' Mr Lawson says. In other words, Honda is manoeuvring to make the best of a bad job - as any well-managed Western company would. The cultural gap is a side issue.

Mr Golding believes that Honda could be playing an even harder game. 'Maybe, just maybe, this was the excuse they were looking for.'

Honda, like all the Japanese car- makers, is not having a happy time. The sharply rising yen and recession at home and abroad has put pressure on the company, and its Rover link does not seem to be doing it many marketing favours. Even though it now has its own factory in Swindon, its UK market share has not risen - not least because where there is a Honda and Rover version of the same car, the Rover sells better. It is possible, Mr Golding says, that Honda had in any case decided it was time to stop 'sleeping with the enemy'.

Will the affair damage future Japanese inward investment? The question would be greeted with hollow laughter in the Japanese motor world. 'The Japanese are at a watershed,' Mr Lawson says. 'They are discovering that investing in Europe is not a bed of roses.'

Nissan has cut production at its Sunderland factory and has had to recapitalise its Moto Iberica plant in Spain. Suzuki is threatening to bankrupt the Spanish factory where its four-wheel-drive Vitara is made. Though Toyota's Derby plant is still building up production, no one will now bet that it will reach its planned 200,000 output by 1996. As for Honda, it will have to decide whether to invest heavily to make its Swindon factory viable, or to withdraw: Swindon could be the chief victim of the BMW affair.

There is investment away from the motor sector, though, and the signs here are that the Japanese are unlikely to be swayed by the Honda spat.

'As far as we are concerned, there is no damage at all,' said Yoshihiko Fujisawa, chief representative for Europe of Toray, which has just opened a gigantic textile plant in Nottinghamshire. 'We are established for the long term and we would like to expand.' He says he would probably have been annoyed if something similar had happened to Toray, but understands the forces beneath which British public companies must bend. 'Shareholders in Japan do not put much pressure on management so long as they commit for the long term,' he says. 'Here, the pressure from shareholders is very strong.'

The attractions of Britain to Japanese who want to invest in Europe are still strong: industrial relations are calm, labour is cheap, the Government is helpful, and it has the right language.

'The only foreign language the Japanese can understand is English,' the stockbroker says. 'If they are building a factory which will employ quite a few workers, most companies would still choose the UK for ease of communication.'

Perhaps most importantly, the Japanese have already delivered their most valuable contribution to the British economy. British factories can now build cars - and bits of cars - as well as anyone else. They were taught by the Japanese, but now they have knowledge: the Japanese-revived British motor industry should remain healthy, come what may.

(Photograph omitted)