Japan Doesn't Get it

One of the most striking turns in the fall of Toyota is how the recall scandal is playing with much of the Japanese public: as a bewildering American frenzy. Yes, they are concerned about the recall, but many assume Americans must have some malign reason for kicking up a fuss, when in fact recalls happen all the time. Some read the recommendation from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to Toyota drivers--"stop driving them"--as proof of a Japan-bashing Washington conspiracy. They are quick to point out that the faulty brake pedals were actually made in Indiana, not Japan. And until very recently, at least, they seemed convinced that the frenzy would fade away without lasting damage to Japan. Look at BMW: its 2008 recall of 200,000 cars for possible airbag failure left no marks on Germany's engineering reputation.

Note to Japan: you don't get it. Recalls for minor technical problems are common, but recalls of millions of vehicles for problems that can produce nightmarish, fatal crashes are not. Toyota's recall of 6.6 million cars is the sixth largest in U.S. history so far, and one of the scariest. Most automakers have learned to handle these PR disasters forthrightly, but Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda performed a duck-and-denial routine not seen since Ford tried to evade responsibility for exploding Pintos in the 1970s before he belatedly apologized last week. Americans have also long since given up on Japan bashing, have lionized Toyota as the ultimate in manufacturing quality, and have welcomed Japanese plants, even in the Deep South. Toyota would never have conceded, before the recall, that its vaunted quality controls did not cover its U.S. operations, so it's a bit disingenuous to blame "American made" parts now.

This is a global company. It needs to take global responsibility. The investigation has targeted not only those Indiana-built accelerator pedals, but floor mats and computer systems, too. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still investigating. And now Japanese officials are beginning to investigate, and sentiment in Japan seems to be turning, perhaps a bit too late. Gene Grabowski of Levick Strategic Communications, which advises firms facing recalls, calls this "the worst-handled auto recall in history," and that's saying something. The exploding Pinto became a symbol of the U.S. quality problems that allowed Toyota to flourish in America, and the runaway Prius may mark another turning point, this one less auspicious for Japan.