Is Japan-bashing behind Toyota’s U.S. woes?

by Mari Yamaguchi

The Associated Press

Despite the criticism leveled against Toyota over car safety, Japanese still largely view the world’s largest automaker with pride — so much so that some wonder whether pressure on Toyota in the U.S. is a ploy to boost American automakers and undermine Japan Inc.

“I think the Americans are going overboard,” said Hirouki Komiya, 40, a Tokyo restaurant employee. “Maybe it’s Japan-bashing, because the trouble at Toyota, which has the world’s No. 1 share, is a big opportunity for its American rivals.”

That notion may seem far-fetched to the millions of Toyota owners in the United States and around the world whose confidence in the company has made it the world leader — and are now simply worried about the safety of their cars.

The days of irrational fears of Japanese products that emerged during its economic boom of the 1980s are long gone. Toyota, Honda and Sony are some of the most-trusted brands in America. Toyota makes more of its cars and trucks in the U.S. than it imports there. Last month it had 14 percent of the U.S. market, third behind General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co.

Despite Toyota’s problems, an ABC News poll taken at the end of January showed that 63 percent of Americans still rated Toyota favorably. The poll also found that 72 percent of respondents saw the gas pedal problem as an isolated incident and the same percentage said it would have no effect on whether they consider buying a new Toyota.

The Jan. 28-31 telephone poll surveyed 1,012 people randomly across the U.S. before Toyota acknowledged a design flaw in the braking system in its popular Prius hybrid. The poll had a 4-point margin of error.

In Japan, public and media reaction to Toyota’s problems has been rather muted, largely because there have been no recalls here — although there have been complaints about the Prius brakes.

Some in Japan have criticized Toyota as slow to respond to the safety problems and people acknowledge that the brand — and Japan’s image — has taken a hit. But the prevailing mood is that Toyota — the flagship of Japan Inc. — has been unfairly singled out.

“Toyota is so big and famous, so it’s an easy target,” said Masahiro Yasunaga, a 24-year-old tech company employee.

“Its brand image has been hurt, but the media reports are too much.”

GQ’s Web site, for example, drew a parallel between the reversal of fortunes of Toyota and golfer Tiger Woods, whose image has been tarnished by extramarital affairs.

Some Japanese suspect U.S. political forces are behind the criticism of Toyota, coming at a time when the U.S. government owns 60.8 percent of General Motors following its bankruptcy reorganization.

Others in Japan say Toyota’s sheer size made it hard to respond quickly to the crisis, which has involved recalling more than 7 million cars in the U.S., Europe and China over a sticky accelerator and floor mats that can get caught in the gas pedal.

“It’s typical of a huge corporation, where everything had to go through a lengthy process,” said Yumi Sato, 32, an operator of a customer call center. “I kind of sympathize with Toyota.”

Japanese have periodically worried about the revival of Japan-bashing, which emerged during the country’s rise as an export power in the 1980s, when U.S. politicians and automakers accused Japan of unfairly blocking access to its market and stealing American jobs.

That has subsided as Japanese companies moved factories to the United States and brands like Honda and Sony grew to be widely accepted by Americans, and as China has eclipsed Japan as the key challenger to U.S. economic supremacy.

But Japanese were concerned about a renewal of the sentiment when Toyota passed GM as the world’s largest automaker in 2008.

That is not to say Toyota has escaped criticism at home.

Transport minister Seiji Maehara, who oversees auto regulation, has urged Toyota to consider a recall for the Prius brake problem and said the automaker needed to pay more heed to vehicle owners.

The leading financial paper Nikkei warned that Toyota should resolve the problems quickly, given that U.S. protectionism is rising, the newspaper contends, as the country heads into midterm elections.

“Foreign manufacturers could come under attack,” it said in an editorial.