Tokyo Notes

Not a Moment too Soon

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Tokyo Notes

Not a Moment too Soon

Toyota’s recall is welcome, but is it too late to save its image in the US?

Toyota’s announcement on Tuesday of the recall of its Prius, Lexus HS250h and Sai cars came not a minute too soon.

Toyota has been giving the impression of a lumbering giant ignoring the severity of its problems by reacting slowly to persistent consumer complaints, an image symbolized by the tardiness with which the company’s president officially appeared before the media.

But Toyota chief Akio Toyoda finally seems to be embracing the sharp public relations learning curve that has been thrust his way over recent weeks. His press conference in Tokyo on Tuesday was more positively received by Japanese media than last Friday’s in which he gave the impression to some writers of trying to make a swift exit before answering key questions.

Instead, on Tuesday he scored points for taking more time to answer questions clearly and in unveiling details of the recall, which relates to 220,000 cars in Japan and ultimately as many as 400,000 cars worldwide.

Toyoda also wrote a piece for The Washington Post on Tuesday in which he assured readers that Toyota was committed to building ‘the highest-quality, safest and most reliable automobiles in the world.’

Making sure he went beyond platitudes to redouble the company’s commitment to its core values, Toyoda spelled out in clear, concise English measures the company will introduce to improve its safety record, such as inviting an advisory panel of experts from outside the company to look at Toyota’s operations.

This piece, and the recall will have gone some way to helping dispel the image of a leader gazing at his navel, but a planned trip to the United States could prove the critical moment for calming the storm should he meet US Transport Secretary Ray LaHood and a congressional committee looking into the recalls.

As the week has progressed, reports in Japan have emerged of an exaggerated U.S. response to the safety issues, fuelled by a desire to see troubled US automakers take advantage of the negative publicity surrounding Toyota.

But if anything, Toyota is more a victim of its own success in having such a seemingly impeccable safety record and in reaching the pinnacle of the world auto market. Being No. 1 and apparently flawless makes you the biggest and perhaps easiest target in the market.

While that provides cover for rivals GM and Honda, who are also engaged in large-scale recalls, it will come as little comfort to Toyota.