TOKYO -- When Jim Lentz, the head of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., sat before Congress this week, Japanese media all but ignored him, focusing instead on things like Olympic figure skating.
But that quickly changed when Akio Toyota, the homegrown “prince,” took the stage. Especially when the family scion turned on the tears during a speech to a group of U.S. dealers.
Footage of Toyoda choking up midsentence was aired repeatedly in Japan, where executives have a history of scoring extra sympathy through misty-eyed contrition.
The Japanese optimistically speculated whether Akio won similar reaction stateside. Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said Toyoda’s decision to also appear before Congress on the company’s recall crisis was a step in the right direction, adding, “It was good that he testified.”
The presenter on Japan’s national broadcaster NHK said Toyoda’s visit won “certain appreciation” but that many lawmakers remained frustrated by unanswered questions.
“To the American people, Toyota is a manufacturer representing Japan,” he said. “If this issue drags on, trust not only in Toyota but in everything ‘made in Japan’ may become shaky.”
It’s hard for many Japanese to shed the idea that America is overreacting.
In the editorial “Shadow of politics behind Toyota bashing,” the Yomiuri newspaper, Japan’s largest daily, said the hearings were a political show staged for U.S. lawmakers to win support before midterm elections. “U.S. unemployment lies behind the bashing,” it said.
But some politicians in Japan also started asking more questions.
Transportation Minister Seiji Maehara warned that the government here would look into domestic complaints about unintended acceleration as well. There are only 38 such complaints about Toyota cars in Japan filed between 2007 and 2009, and Maehara said that was not out of line with Toyota’s market share. But the extra vigilance was still a departure for the ministry.
Meanwhile, Toyota’s Japanese rivals are already rushing to distance themselves.
Carlos Ghosn, head of Nissan Motor Co., and Takanobu Ito, his counterpart at Honda Motor Co., both have come out in recent days to tout their own quality-control systems.
Ito told reporters Honda has avoided criticism in its own recalls by acting fast. “With respect to customer complaints about defects,” he said, “I’ve told local units to react as quickly as possible.”