For years and decades, foreign observers have cried foul over various barriers — both existing and perceived — to the Japanese economy. Their main target is usually the keiretsu, the closely knit business networks automakers exclusively maintain with groups of 200 to 300 suppliers.

These so-called vertical groupings were regarded as the main hurdle for foreign companies doing business with Toyota & Co. But this seems to be changing.

Over the past 12 months, announcements by Toyota, Honda and other automakers have sent shock waves through the rings of keiretsu suppliers. More importantly, the first organizational changes have actually begun.