When Japanese companies run into deep trouble, the chief executive officer often resigns with a bow and public apology, as Haruka Nishimatsu did during the recent collapse of Japan Airlines.
Toyota Motor Corp. is different. The chief’s family name is on every car, and Toyota is a flagship. Japan, too, is different, and what happened to Akio Toyoda in Washington this week wouldn’t have happened in Tokyo.
To many Japanese, Mr. Toyoda’s treatment by U.S. lawmakers at a widely-watched hearing in Washington would have seemed rude. Rather than demanding he step down from the helm of his grandfather’s company to take the fall for the auto maker’s massive recalls, many industry officials and analysts in Japan and Canada are rallying behind him after his handling of the congressional hearings.
Beside the seeming rudeness, and faced with a declining population, record unemployment and a deep recession, Japanese are particularly wary of a return to the “Japan-bashing” days of the late 1980s, when Americans tried to weaken Japan’s export juggernaut. Dr. Cody Poulton, professor of Japanese literature and head of the Pacific and Asian Studies Department at the University of Victoria, said he has noticed about 300,000 hits online of recent “Japan-bashing” related to Toyota.
Japanese are notably afraid of being scapegoated, or cast out of a group. They call this nakama hazure, literally “torn away from the inner circle.”
Politicians in Japan worry that Toyota’s fallen reputation could tarnish other key exporters. Japanese Trade Minister Masayuki Naoshima said Toyota’s problems could have an impact on the image of Japanese products, and he said he wanted the car maker to win back consumer trust. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada also reflected those concerns earlier in the week. “Although this is a matter of one individual company, we wish to back them up as much as we can as it could become a national issue,” Mr. Okada said.
Dr. Poulton said most Japanese would have been offended by the rude and disrespectful treatment of Japan’s top CEO, and many are feeling sympathy for him. “It was extremely humiliating. Could you imagine the presidents of Chrysler or GM being called to testify before the Japanese Diet? An American company president wouldn’t even do that.”
Many feel the U.S. government is unfairly targeting Toyota because it ousted GM as the world’s largest auto maker. “This conspiracy theory can be true,” said Takashi Sendo, sales process, training and method manager at Nihon Michelin in Japan. “It is not very surprising that some of the government’s constituents are interested in weakening Toyota.” And, added Dr. Poulton, “I’m not saying it’s a conspiracy. But this probably couldn’t have come at a better time for the U.S. auto industry, amid a recession, to find a scapegoat, and Toyota is the perfect scapegoat.”
For more than three hours Wednesday, Mr. Toyoda withstood a barrage of criticism and personal attacks from U.S. lawmakers. For some viewers, the “interrogation” – as one U.S. lawmaker called it – evoked memories of U.S.-led military tribunals in Tokyo after the Second World War. Representative Nancy Kaptur waved a copy of a business book celebrating Toyota’s dedication to quality. “I’m not satisfied with your testimony,” she said. “You said your company grew too fast. Some smart lawyers gave you those words.” Rep. John Mica brandished documents accusing the company of avoiding proper recalls. “I’m embarrassed for you, sir,” he said. “This is absolutely appalling, sir.”
Japanese culture at every level is based on deference and respect for elders and superiors, and the head of Toyota – Japan’s ultimate flagship corporation – would be near the very top of the social hierarchy, perhaps even above the Prime Minister. “Some interest groups will defend Toyota,” said Dr. Poulton, who has lived in Japan on-and-off over 30 years. “They’ll rally to the support of any Japanese individual or corporation that is threatened by the Americans.”