Akio Toyoda "took the helm of Toyota at a time when Toyota was having very extreme downturn," said Emily Parker, a senior fellow at the New York-based Asia Society. "Part of motivation for bringing him in was perhaps to send the message that Toyota was going back to basics, to send this message that Toyota was going back to the family."
But Toyoda's value to the company also came from his Western experience, she said. He earned an MBA from an American school -- Babson College in Massachusetts -- and spent years working in the United States.
It's been noted that his personal style contradicts that of the staid, stereotypical Japanese businessman. At a 2004 auto show in China, Toyoda reportedly donned a white silk suit.
"He could be seen as merging this Western experience with more traditional Japanese values," Parker said.
Not that Toyoda is flamboyant. Indeed, a former grad school classmate, Mike Crehan, remembered him as friendly but unassuming.
"I think people knew him because of his name, but he wasn't a big man on campus," he said. "He wasn't treated like a rock star and he didn't act like one either."
Perhaps the one way Toyoda did stand out was through his car, which was always, of course, a Toyota model.
"He usually had the nicest car," Crehan said, "but you can't damn someone for that."