WikiLeaks: Toyota recalls fanned diplomatic tension with Tokyo
Photo credit: Reuters
TOKYO -- Even before Toyota President Akio Toyoda was grilled by Congress about his company’s recent recall crisis, diplomatic tension between the United States and Japan was building over the carmaker’s imbroglio, with officials fearing it might stoke trade friction.
Among the thousands of new diplomatic cables dumped online in August by WikiLeaks, a key dispatch from the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo underscored Japan’s concern that Toyota Motor Corp.’s unwanted acceleration recalls be resolved “amicably” and not rekindle trade disputes.
The leaked file offers a rare glimpse into how the Toyota crisis touched a diplomatic nerve and how Japanese officials remain haunted by the trade battles of the 1980s and ’90s.
According to the unclassified cable, Japan’s then-Transportation Minister Seiji Maehara told U.S. Ambassador John Roos in a Feb. 10, 2010, meeting that his government “wants to ensure that Toyota’s problems do not undermine U.S.-Japan relations nor create obstacles to trade.”
Maehara continued that “the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship is the cornerstone of Japanese international policy, so it is important to resolve the issue amicably.”
Japan’s transportation chief further argued that conducting recalls was not a negative thing for a carmaker to do -- but instead the responsible recourse to take for the sake of consumers.
The U.S. ambassador concurred that the governments must not let Toyota affect bilateral relations. But he also responded: “It is crucial for Toyota to stay ahead of the issue.”
Toyota’s sluggish initial response to complaints about unintended acceleration quickly became a rallying point for the company’s critics. The carmaker eventually recalled millions of cars from late 2009 to 2010 to address possible floor mat entrapment and sticky pedals.
Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, testified before Congress on Feb. 24. Maehara later became foreign minister -- and is often tipped as a future prime minister.
The U.S. cable, created shortly after the Maehara-Roos meeting and released Aug. 26, 2011, also contained the following incisive context for readers back in Washington:
“For many GOJ (Government of Japan) bureaucrats and Japanese auto executives, any and all auto issues seem to trigger memories of bilateral trade friction in the 1980s and 90s.”
The cable added that many Japanese counterparts had informally voiced concerns to the embassy about trade friction in the wake of the 2008 global economic downturn. But Maehara’s message appeared to be an “official expression of those simmering concerns,” it said.
Detailed summaries of Japanese media reports on the recalls were also frequently dispatched to Washington. So too were frequent updates on U.S. efforts to get Detroit 3 vehicles qualified for trade-in under Japan’s cash-for-clunkers incentive program that ran from 2009-10.
Other notable auto-related cables released on WikiLeaks:
June 23, 2009: A Nissan official urges the embassy to seek stability in the U.S. supplier sector and fair competition in the wake of General Motors’ government-backed bankruptcy. He also says Nissan was borrowing “significant money” from the government-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation to partly support its U.S. operations. The funds allowed Nissan to hold down debt and maintain credit lines from private banks during the financial crisis.
Aug. 3, 2007: Honda Motor Co. officials visit embassy to complain that beefed-up customs procedures to counter terrorism unduly lengthen their supply chain and increase inventory.
May 25, 2006: Former Toyota CEO Hiroshi Okuda visits the embassy to bid farewell as outgoing chairman of Keidanren, Japan’s most important business lobby. He tells the ambassador he would use retirement to drive across the United States, partly on old Route 66. And after the meeting, he visits the consular section to get a 90-day visitor’s visa for such a trip.
You can reach Hans Greimel at firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Follow Hans on