In Japan, Toyota's President Answers To Criticism

Toyota had a news conference Friday in Japan to discuss quality control issues in its vehicles. The automaker has faced intense pressure in the U.S. from government officials and consumers to prove that it can fix the accelerator problems in eight Toyota models. Now it's dealing with problems in some of its Prius models.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer, in for Steve Inskeep.

Toyota is one of the most revered companies in Japan, but the global recall of millions of Toyota cars is threatening its standing even there. In a moment, well visit a Toyota dealership in this country thats begun the big job of making repairs. But first, well hear how the story is playing in Japan, where Toyotas chairman held a news conference this morning after problems with the Prius were acknowledged yesterday.

NPRs Louisa Lim has been following events in Tokyo. She joins us now. Good morning, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So what happened at the press conference?

LIM: Well, this was the first press conference held by Toyotas CEO, Akio Toyoda, since the major recalls began. Until now hes only given a very, very short interview, about a minute long from Davos, so everybody was waiting to see what he would say. The first thing very first thing that he did was to apologize for the worries that Toyota owners are having. But he didnt actually announce a recall of the new generation Prius, as had been rumored beforehand. He said they were still holding investigations deciding what move to take next.

So he said that consumers would be informed when a decision was reached. He did announce a couple of other steps. He announced the formation of a global quality task force, which will be headed by himself. And he said that he would also set up outside experts. And so a lot of it was talking about quality and he was basically just telling consumers to hold on and to trust in Toyota.

WERTHEIMER: Did you get the impression that a Prius recall might still happen or did he rule it out?

LIM: No, he didnt rule it out at all. Its perfectly possible that it may still happen. But its clear that they have decided that so far theyre not ready to take that step yet. There was actually little discussion about what the next move would be, except for the fact that they kept saying they would hold more investigations and come to a decision later on. So at the moment, there isnt really any other advice for Prius owners out there.

WERTHEIMER: Louisa, it looks from here that Toyotas top executives were very slow to respond to this crisis. I know that Japanese corporate leaders are famous for making public apologies if theyre found to be in the wrong. But generally they do it at the end of a crisis. Is that what is happening here, that Toyota is waiting?

LIM: No, well, he did make a public apology today. And that was one thing that people had been waiting for. But it was interesting. I mean, Toyoda, who was the grandson of the founder of the company, he really did seem like he was floundering a bit in the press conference today. The media, especially the Japanese media, were really quiet aggressive and they were asking questions. They were saying it seems that Toyota executives have no sense of crisis, whats going on there. And somebody another journalist asked, well, you keep saying customers first, but are you really putting yourself in customers shoes? He was actually struggling to respond to this criticism, but he did - at one stage he did say this is a moment of crisis for Toyota.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think public opinion in Japan has shifted against Toyota at all in the past few days? Do you think this aggressiveness on the part of reporters signaled something?

LIM: Well, it may be beginning to shift. I mean, its interesting. Todays press have very lackluster coverage of the whole Toyota recalls at all. So that may change. I think there had been a perception that this was a foreign problem. The Japanese people had thought it was only affecting Toyotas overseas. And certainly, with the gas pedals, to begin with, many Japanese thought the problems were because of faulty components made by an American supplier. But as the problems mount and more questions were being asked about the braking systems of the Prius, which has been the best-selling car in Japan, I think these problems are getting closer to home and Japanese will start paying more attention.

WERTHEIMER: Louisa Lim, thank you very much.

LIM: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: NPRs Louisa Lim reporting from Tokyo.

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