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Executives at Toyota Motor Corp. and one of its subsidiaries were watching on a big screen video footage of factory workers, in tears and with smiles, sending off the last vehicle manufactured at a plant that was closing.

Masahide Yasuda, 71, Toyota Motor Corp.’s audit and supervisory board member, showed the video to Takeshi Shirane, 68, Toyota Motor East Japan president at the time and currently chairman, and other officials at Toyota Motor East Japan Inc.’s Higashi-Fuji plant, about 18 months before the plant shut down.

But the video was not of the Higashi-Fuji plant in Susono, Shizuoka Prefecture, which closed late last year after 53 years.

It was one that Yasuda shot in Toyota’s Altona plant on the outskirts of Melbourne during the days before its shutdown.

What Yasuda wanted to convey was the way he oversaw the shutdown through to its last day in October 2017 as chairman of Toyota Motor Corp. Australia Ltd.

In early 2014, Toyota announced it would stop manufacturing cars in Australia. Toyota President Akio Toyoda, 64, explained the company’s decision to shut down the plant to 2,500 workers at the factory. And he made one request to Yasuda, “Please close it in a Toyota way.”

Many automakers had already ended production in Australia, starting with Nissan Motor Co. in the 1980s, followed by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. in 2008 and Ford Motor Co. in 2016.

Yasuda said it was a “painful decision” for Toyota. It came after General Motors Co. announced in late 2013 its decision to end auto manufacturing in the country.

Most of those in Australia who reacted to the news of the last remaining automaker leaving the country said it was a pity but understandable. Automakers had suffered from the strength of the Australian dollar, slashed vehicle import tariffs and auto parts makers gradually halting production.

When Toyota officials told Toyoda back in Japan that many of the people who had worked at the Altona plant for years would lose their jobs, he reportedly slammed his notebook on a table and left the room. Deciding to shut down a plant was unbearable for a company that places top priority on protecting employment.

In the 50 years after it started business in Australia, Toyota made various efforts, including work in the local community, to build people’s trust in the brand and become local people’s favorite. Such efforts would count for nothing if the company left without doing anything.

“What is important to maintain our brand is to express our gratitude first and foremost to each and everyone of those who worked for us, those who provided components to make cars, those who bought the cars,” Yasuda said. “We should never forget to show respect to the people. That is the Toyota way.”

In line with Toyoda’s pledge that the company would take care of workers until the factory was shut down, Yasuda helped find new jobs for them, held lunch meetings with senior officials to ease their anxiety and invited employees’ families to the plant.

The employees cleaned up the facility to show it to their family members and maintained high quality work until the very end.

“We also wanted to leave a legacy that represents the factory’s decades of history,” Yasuda said. What used to be the Altona plant now is a training track for drivers and a facility to hand down Toyota’s lean manufacturing system to local companies.

Workers at a Toyota Motor Corp. subsidiary's Higashi-Fuji factory watch the last car manufactured there roll out in December. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN
Workers at a Toyota Motor Corp. subsidiary’s Higashi-Fuji factory watch the last car manufactured there roll out in December. | CHUNICHI SHIMBUN

“The program we made in Australia has become like a textbook for closing a plant in a Toyota way,” Yasuda said, adding that the closure of the Higashi-Fuji plant proceeded in a similar way.

In November, an event was held at the Higashi-Fuji plant, inviting workers’ families and retired employees. It was the first time for family members to be invited inside the factory.

“I have been hearing from my husband about his work, but as I saw him actually working, I realized that he is doing an amazing job,” said the wife of one of the employees.

At a meeting held between workers and managers around the same time, one employee said, “I want the site to remain as a place where we can come back and think this was where we used to work.”

The company plans to construct at the site what it calls the Woven City, a prototype city to test its latest smart technologies, including autonomous driving.

In a message to the plant closing ceremony, Toyoda said, “The Woven City is a city that will be constructed on the site where you worked, on the history you built up. We will keep your passion alive.”

The construction of the city is scheduled to start Feb. 23.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Feb. 3.

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