TOKYO - Japanese carmakers have been much more wary of the Internet's potential impact on their business than automakers in the United States.
The tale of one-time Toyota loyalist Makoto Kuroda is one reason why.
Japanese laws favor the status quo and hence large corporations, as small foreign outfits trying to crack the Japanese market have often discovered. Japan's Product Liability Law, which went into effect in July 1995, has not shifted the power balance significantly in favor of consumers in their battles with large companies.
The Internet, however, can change all that.
FIXING A DENT
When Kuroda, 28, drove his Toyota MR-2 back to his dealership on May 8, he didn't realize that he soon would be wielding the power of the Web against Toyota Motor Corp. He just wanted a slight dent on the right front fender repaired.
Kuroda is fussy about his MR-2. A manager at a used-car store, Kuroda bought the car in December 1997; by August, 1999, its odometer showed only 373 miles.
He asked that the sheet metal be repaired, not replaced. When he wasn't satisfied with the paint job after the repair, he sent it back to the dealer, Netz Toyota Tokyo K.K.'s outlet in the Minami-ohizumi district of Tokyo. When it came back the second time, the fender had been replaced.
Kuroda hit the roof. Complaining that the replacement made it appear that the car had been in an accident, he demanded a new car for just 500,000 yen, or about $4,762 at current exchange rates.
Netz Toyota Tokyo refused, although they offered a cash payment of $950 as an apology. The two sides went back and forth, in vain. 'We began to deal with the matter in early June, but we did poorly at first,' said Tadashi Koizumi, senior managing director in charge of sales at Netz Toyota Tokyo.
When Kuroda discovered that his front bumper also had been replaced without his knowledge, his anger rose. He fired off two letters to Toyota Motor Corp. honorary chairman Shoichiro Toyoda, denouncing his treatment by Netz Toyota Tokyo, which is wholly owned by Toyota. By then, Netz Toyota Tokyo was offering to buy his MR-2 for $19,050, but money was not the issue, Kuroda said.
On July 30, after yet another unsatisfactory phone conversation with the dealership, he decided to open a Web site to vent his complaint to the world. 'If (the general manager of Netz Toyota Tokyo) had made a sincere response, I would not have opened my home page,' Kuroda told in an e-mail message. He opened the site on Aug. 14.
Stung, Netz Toyota Tokyo backed down. On Sept. 3 and 4, both Wahei Egawa, a director of the dealership, and the head of the Minami-ohizumi store visited Kuroda at his home. Bowing low, they apologized and agreed to his demands. Among them: Netz Toyota Tokyo carried an apology on its own home page for a week, while offering a link between the dealership's site and Kuroda's. In return, Kuroda shut down his Web site 20 days after the week-long Internet apology. By then, his site had collected 612,840 hits.
'Such protest methods may prevail in the Internet age,' Kuroda said in his e-mail to . 'This is an undoubted right given to individuals.'
Netz Toyota Tokyo's Koizumi saw it a bit differently. Allegations made on the Web are 'unilateral,' he said. 'How to respond to this is a difficult task for corporations.'