Japan hopes Toyoda can clean tainted image

Pundits urging auto chief to soothe U.S. anger in Congress

by Elaine Kurtenbach

The Associated Press

Japan is looking to Toyota President Akio Toyoda’s appearance before U.S. lawmakers this week to help burnish an image marred by a flood of recalls — and to prevent grievances over the issue from fanning broader political tensions.

With his company facing the worst crisis in its 70-year history, Toyoda will appear Wednesday before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee. By issuing an invitation, the committee essentially forced Toyoda, who earlier had said he did not plan to attend, into testifying.

Commentaries in Japan and statements by officials since Toyoda announced he would accept the request to testify reflect the unease over possible wider damage from Toyota Motor Corp.’s troubles.

“I hope Toyota will soon regain the trust of their customers around the world,” Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Friday. “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.”

Other Cabinet ministers also publicly applauded the decision, saying Toyoda should take the opportunity to help reassure and mollify customers angered over the recalls of about 8.5 million vehicles over sticky gas pedals, accelerators jamming in floor mats and momentarily unresponsive brakes.

“We should not make this issue a political matter between the Japanese and U.S. governments,” said Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Masayuki Naoshima, himself a former Toyota group employee.

While so far the recalls remain a safety and business issue, officials are keen to ensure it stays that way at a time when ties with Washington already are strained by the dispute over Futenma air base in Okinawa Prefecture.

Many in Japan have voiced suspicions that the uproar over the recalls might be driven by political motives, given the U.S. government’s stake in General Motors Co. and its costly bailouts of the domestic auto industry.

But opinion favoring Toyoda’s choice to publicly answer questions about the company’s handling of the problems leading to the recalls seems for now to be outweighing dismissals of the crisis as evidence of “Japan bashing.”

“Will Toyota Motor Corp. be able to quell the rising tide of sentiment against the carmaker over its massive recalls? Undoubtedly, the world’s biggest automaker has reached a moment of truth in grappling with its current adversity,” the Yomiuri Shimbun said in an editorial Saturday.

“The planned public hearing is drawing a good deal of attention from around the world, and we hope Toyota will with full sincerity explain its stance on the problem. This in turn would help restore the public trust in its car business as early as possible,” it said, contending that Toyoda could have forestalled much of the criticism by showing his willingness to testify from the start.

In both Japan and in the United States, Toyota has been chastised for a tepid response to the recalls, and Toyoda was accused of being largely invisible as the problems escalated until he gave three news conferences in recent weeks.