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Toyota Chief’s Emotional Apology Resonates in Japan

February 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda, gave a tearful apology to U.S. dealers after testifying in Congress over the recall of his company's vehicles. In Japan, Toyoda's decision to appear at the hearing drew positive feedback from many, including the prime minister. Jim Lehrer hears more from reporter Ayako Doi.

JIM LEHRER: Now: the very public apology and tears of Toyota’s CEO.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins with some background.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was a Washington moment fraught with symbolism thousands of miles away in Japan. The head of Toyota grew emotional before his American dealers last night, after a long day of criticism from a U.S. House committee.

AKIO TOYODA, president & CEO, Toyota: At the hearing, I wasn’t alone. You and your colleagues across America, around the world, were there with me.

KWAME HOLMAN: For the 53-year-old Akio Toyoda, grandson of the founder and scion of the automaking dynasty, it was a rare public moment. In fact, the media-shy president originally had planned to send another representative from the company.

But, in the end, Toyoda himself journeyed to Washington, and apologized for his company’s safety lapses, speaking through a translator.

AKIO TOYODA (through translator): I feel deeply sorry for those people who lost their lives or who were injured by traffic accidents, especially those in our own cars. I extend my sincerest condolences to them, from the bottom of my heart.

KWAME HOLMAN: Public apologies from corporate figures are common in Japan. And U.S. audiences, too, are familiar with public figures and athletes giving their own mea culpas.

TIGER WOODS, professional golfer: I am deeply sorry for my irresponsible and selfish behavior I engaged in.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, Toyoda’s statement to U.S. lawmakers yesterday drew attention in Japan. Even the prime minister commented on it.

YUKIO HATOYAMA, Japanese prime minister (through translator): I think it is good that the president himself has appeared at the committee. Really, it is best that the president himself speaks in these situations.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, on the streets of Tokyo, some said the apology was an issue of national import.

MAN (through translator): Toyota became a global company. So, I hope he, as the Japanese president of the company, succeeds in expressing his message well, especially as this is a matter which involves people’s lives.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, Toyoda continued his tour of the U.S., traveling to Kentucky to visit the carmaker’s biggest North American plant.

For the record, Toyota is a “NewsHour” underwriter.

JIM LEHRER: Now, for more on this, we talk to Ayako Doi, an independent journalist, former founder and editor of “Japan Automotive Digest.”

Good evening.

The — apologies have a special purpose and meaning in Japan, do they not?

AYAKO DOI, journalist: Well, I’m not sure whether it’s a special meaning, but apologies are very, very important in Japan, whether it’s a — it’s a corporate scandal, the — you know, the problems like we are facing now, or athletes not living up to their expectation of the country in the Olympics, or something about the — between husband and wives.

The apologies makes society run. And…

JIM LEHRER: And has that always been the case, or it’s just part of the Japanese culture? And where does it come from?

AYAKO DOI: I think it is. It’s been that way ever since I was born in Japan.

The corporate presidents, you know, of course there have been many scandals and misconducts and failures of Japanese corporations, or the plane crashes and things. Every time the president or the chairmen of the companies go in front of the camera and bow deeply, 45 degrees, to express their sincere feelings, contrition, apologies, whatever, without that, corporations cannot survive. It’s — it’s that important in Japan.

JIM LEHRER: And they literally have to bow at least 45 degrees? Is it that — is it that specific?

AYAKO DOI: Well, yes. It usually happens in press conference settings. And the press, the photographers will — will almost demand that, please, give a deep apology to express the — express your feelings to the Japanese public. It’s just customarily done so.

JIM LEHRER: Is it unusual to — also to cry, as — to break down, as Mr. Toyoda did speaking to the dealers last night?

AYAKO DOI: No, it has happened before. I don’t know whether the Japanese are more emotional people than the Americans or what, but it happens. And it’s seen as a — as an expression of their feelings. And people — people expect that. People expect that to happen, especially in the plane crash cases. Or, in this case, it’s auto companies, and people have died.

So, I — I don’t — I don’t have any reason to believe that Mr. Toyoda’s tears today — today or yesterday were not sincere. But it helps soothe the public feelings.

JIM LEHRER: Put — put Mr. Toyoda, his family and his company into the Japanese context. How important are they?

AYAKO DOI: Well, Toyota, first of all, is the biggest corporation in Japan. And it’s not just the biggest corporation, but it’s — it’s in a class of its own.

Toyota comprises — Toyota’s production in Japan, including all the related parts companies and so on, comprises about 1.3 percent of GDP. An, therefore, since the — since this recall scandal broke, even the Japanese government, the economic ministries were sort of unable to make the predictions of what the effect of this to the Japanese economy would be.

So, it’s that — that important in an — in an economic sense. But it’s also, you know, a legendary company founded by a legendary inventor of our Automatic Loom. And it went from there to be the world’s largest authority company. So it’s a — it’s a very important company.

JIM LEHRER: Does it make a difference to the people in Japan, do you believe, that he, Mr. Toyoda, apologized to the American dealers, to the — to the American people, as has — he has not yet done that to the Japanese people, has he? Has he done a similar thing in Japan?

AYAKO DOI: He has appeared in a press conference and said the public apology there, although I should say perhaps the level of anger and concern about the safety may be less in Japan than — than in the United States, partly because the number of deaths and the accidents are much greater in the U.S.

This problem of unintended acceleration, as I understand it, wasn’t much of a problem in Japan. So, you know, it’s — it’s a less of an issue in terms of safety, although they have issued some recalls in Japan.

JIM LEHRER: But there’s no question that Mr. Toyoda’s coming to the United States and his apology is a huge event for the Japanese, correct?

AYAKO DOI: Oh, no question about that, no question, yes.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Ms. Doi, good to see you again. Thank you very much.

AYAKO DOI: Thank you.