Toyota's President Tries to Save Face with Bows, Apology

Culture of shame drives many Japanese business executives to suicide.

February 5, 2010, 11:10 AM

— -- Loss of face and shame are powerful forces in Japanese society, and during Friday's hastily called Toyota press conference, CEO Akio Toyoda bowed repeatedly as he apologized for the car company's many product recalls and safety problems.

Toyoda said he was sorry in Japanese and then sent a message to consumers worldwide in English. "I am a little bit worried that while they are driving they feel cautious," said Toyoda. "But believe me, Toyota's cars are [safe] and we're trying to [improve] our product.

The press conference, called on short notice for 9 p.m. Japanese time, was Toyoda's first public appearance since the massive recalls and his bows and apology were seen in Japan as mandatory.

"It's not at all uncommon for executives on the hot seat to resign and then commit suicide," said Roland Kelts, a professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Japanese culture.

At least a dozen Japanese business executives have killed themselves over business setbacks since 1998.

Kelts, author of the book "Japanamerica," noted that Toyoda had bowed very deeply. "The deeper the bow," said Kelts, " the greater respect you show and quite literally you are exposing the back of your neck."

"In samurai days" said Kelts, "you were offering your head, which could be cut off."

Kelts said Toyoda, the 53-year-old grandson of the company founder, is scrambling to save face. "The last straw was the 2010 Prius." But according to Kelts, there is consensus in Japan that the company's problems are the fault of Toyoda's predecessors.

"For him," said Kelts, "the apology may suffice."

Jamie Metzl, executive vice president of the Asia Society in New York, suggested that Japanese culture may also have contributed to possible safety problems with Toyota products by keeping company employees from coming forward.

Said Metzl, "Problems can get papered over because in Japanese society, going with the collective is more important than going against the grain. Individuals would not speak out."

At the press conference, Toyoda failed to answer one of the more pressing questions, which is whether Toyota will recall hundreds of thousands of hybrid Priuses, which may have brake problems caused by a computer glitch. He acknowledged that the company was slow in informing consumers about the problem.

"The public in the meantime is driving around in these vehicles and can be harmed," said Joan Claybrook, former head of the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and former head of the advocacy group Public Citizen.

The Toyota CEO was also asked about allegations from one of his former top US lawyers, Dimitri Biller, who alleges the company hides and destroys evidence of safety problems on orders from Japan.

Biller, who worked four years at Toyota, told ABC News earlier this week that "Toyota in Japan does not have any respect for [the American] legal system."

" Has Toyota withheld safety information from US regulators over the years?" asked ABC News at the press conference.

Toyoda answered that it was the company's intention to "sincerely give 100 percent cooperation."

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