[Viewpoint] Toyota bows to its image problems

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[Viewpoint] Toyota bows to its image problems

When I heard the news of Toyota Motor’s chief executive rushing to China to apologize for a range of quality problems, I gasped at how mighty China has become in the business world. Then I shuddered at the Japanese automaker’s prompt response to the world’s fastest growing auto market. One thought led to another, and I grew relieved that he hadn’t stopped here.

Akio Toyoda flew to Beijing just after having endured questioning by U.S. lawmakers over safety problems related to the company’s vehicles and a mass recall. He invited over 600 Chinese reporters and apologized several times. He bowed deeply - a full, waist-deep 90 degrees - and made a “sincere apology” five times during the one-hour conference.

His posture in Beijing was more humble than his awkward, short bow to U.S. consumers. He corrected himself by bowing longer and deeper when the American media questioned the sincerity of the shorter bow he’d made during his first public apology at Toyota’s Japanese base in Nagoya.

Moreover, Toyoda willingly made the Beijing trip, while he more or less had to be dragged into the Congressional hearing. He had at first opposed testifying himself, planning instead to send the head of Toyota’s U.S. operations. But he relented after evaluating the media’s response.

Compared to the over 2 million recalls in America, and the total of 8.5 million around the world, Toyota’s recall in China stops at 75,522 sports-utility vehicles sold in January. Instead of heading to greater recall-targeted Europe, he went straight to China to “apologize and reassure Chinese customers in person.”

Toyoda, grandson of the automaker’s founder, may have learned a hard lesson. He had kept total silence when his company’s recall woes began and was heavily criticized for exacerbating the crisis by staying dismissive.

He may have wanted to avoid a misstep in the Chinese market, where the carmaker has fared well despite a loss of confidence elsewhere in the world.

But the top executive may have had a more complicated motive. Anti-Japanese sentiment is deeply rooted among the Chinese. He had to be more humble and express his sincerity more clearly to the country.

China still bears deep resentment against Japan, haunted by memories of its wartime aggression. Nothing Japan does can easily be overlooked by China. When Japan stirred controversy in 2005 by glossing over its wartime brutalities in new school textbooks, the Chinese hit the ceiling. Citizens attacked Japanese companies, staged indignant protests and boycotted Japanese brands. Asahi beer took a heavy beating after one of its executives publicly supported politicians paying their respects to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japanese war criminals. Honda Motor teaches its dealers to be particularly respectful to Chinese customers.

Bill Emmott, former editor of The Economist, in his latest book, “Rivals: How the Power Struggle between China, India, and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade,” wrote that China and Japan both have historical differences - if not outright hatred toward each other.

Toyoda was heading Chinese operations at the time anti-Japanese sentiment was at its peak. He has seen it with his own eyes. In 2003, Toyota’s attempt to launch the new SUV Prado in China caused an uproar, with a photo of a stone lion kowtowing to a Prado and the slogan: “You have to respect Prado.” The Chinese were enraged by the demeaning of the stone lion, which is representative of China’s dignity. The car’s name also came under fire. It was dubbed “Badao” in Chinese, meaning “aggressive.” The Chinese fumed over the image that rekindled the bad memories of Japan’s invasion. Toyota apologized and abandoned the ad campaign altogether. It also changed the Chinese name of the car to Pu La Duo.

Toyota has taken pains since then to appeal to Chinese consumers. As result, it became the second largest car seller in China by 2008, recording sales of 600,000 vehicles.

Toyota says it has no apology scheduled in Korea. I guess we should be glad. The automaker has so far been high-handed against Korean consumers. The Lexus here is sold at a higher price than anywhere else in the world. Consumers have complained, but the complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Toyota has shrugged them off as if its cars sell well in Korea regardless of the higher prices. It was equally lax on recall demands in Korea. But Toyota’s arrogance could be a windfall for Korean carmakers. Potential customers are closely watching Toyota’s recall crisis and its attitude toward the problem. Local automakers may be praying that Mr. Toyoda doesn’t pay us a visit.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yi Jung-jae
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