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Japanese Dismiss Concerns Over Toyota Recalls

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Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized Friday two weeks after reports of problems with gas pedals and floor mats led to the recall of more than 5 million vehicles. But Japan is very much in denial that its national icon is in turmoil.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

In Japan, the bow of apology by the head of a beleaguered company is a ritual act of contrition and shame. And so it was today, after the recall of more than seven million cars and two weeks of near silence, that the chief of Toyota Motors took his turn.

NPRs Louisa Lim was watching in Tokyo.

LOUISA LIM: This is a moment of crisis for Toyota. And if anyone should doubt that, those words came from its president, Akio Toyoda, the grandson of its founder. In his first press conference since the massive recalls, he made his apologies.

Mr. AKIO TOYODA (President, Toyota Motors): (Through translator) I apologize to the customers for the troubles and worry theyve suffered in various areas and because of various recalls. Lots of customers may be wondering whether their car is okay, and so I organized this press conference to talk directly to them.

LIM: He insisted that Toyota cars are safe and announced the formation of a global quality task force that he himself would head with independent experts acting as extra quality control. Toyota repeated his customers first mantra to the doubtful and sometimes aggressive press. But when it comes to the is-my-car-okay question, there were no clear answers about the future of the third generation Prius gas hybrids, Toyotas flagship vehicle.

Safety regulators in the U.S. and Japan are investigating braking problems with the Prius and other hybrids including the Lexus. Report say Toyota is considering a recall. But no recall was announced today. As for what is happening, Toyota executive Shinichi Sasaki had this to say.

Mr. SHINICHI SASAKI (Executive, Toyota): (Through translator) Were looking into the situation and inspecting, verifying to conclude which is the best way to fix the problem. We wont take long during this investigation. We havent reached a conclusion and as soon as we do well share it.

(Soundbite of hammering)

LIM: That vague advice doesnt worry Kogi Hirosawa(ph) even though he drives a Prius taxi. The Prius is Japans top selling car. And Toyota, whose watch word has been quality, is a source of national pride. Hirosawa, like many other Japanese, admits to being baffled by the idea that Toyota could've done anything wrong. And he says, through thick or thin, he's still a fan.

Mr. KOGI HIROSAWA: (Through translator) I have no worries at all. I really enjoy this car. The gas cost and efficiency are good and it's well designed. My personal opinion is that Toyota is still the number one automaker in the world.

LIM: Toyotas making headlines everywhere else. But the tears of a retiring sumo wrestler knocked it from todays front pages in Japan. So far the multiple vehicles havent been given much coverage. Analysts say Toyota is a major advertiser. So these problems may have been played down at home. And some believe these same problems are being played up overseas to the benefits of the American car industry.

Ryoichi Saito is an auto analyst at Mizuho Investor Securities. On the issue of the Prius, he says 200 complaints against the third generation Prius is normal, given the 300,000 cars on the road. He's questioning whether normal procedure was followed with the other recalls.

Mr. RYOICHI SAITO (Auto Analyst, Mizuho Investors Securities): (Through translator) What I can say is the reaction of the U.S. authorities was different from their normal behavior. Maybe they are tougher on Toyota. Some of the media are also reporting that.

LIM: Japan is still very much in denial that its national icon is in turmoil. So far many are standing behind the company that provides cars to their emperor and prime minister. But if the recalls affect models driven at home in Japan, Toyotas faithful fans may have their loyalty tested.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Tokyo.

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Toyota's President Apologizes For Safety Woes

Toyota President Akio Toyoda, left, i

Toyota President Akio Toyoda (left) said, ''I sincerely apologize for causing concern to many of our customers over recalls for multiple models in multiple regions.'' Kyodo/AP hide caption

toggle caption Kyodo/AP
Toyota President Akio Toyoda, left,

Toyota President Akio Toyoda (left) said, ''I sincerely apologize for causing concern to many of our customers over recalls for multiple models in multiple regions.''

Kyodo/AP

The president of Toyota Motor Corp. apologized Friday for safety problems that have led to massive worldwide recalls of its vehicles, as the company considers its options for addressing brake pedal problems in the 2010 edition of the top-selling Prius hybrid.

Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, promised to strengthen quality control, review consumer complaints and listen to outside experts in an effort to head off the deepening crisis.

"I'd like to apologize to the customers for the troubles and worry they've suffered in various areas and because of various recalls," Toyoda said at a news conference at the company headquarters in Nagoya, Japan. "Lots of customers may be wondering whether their car is OK, and, so, I organized this press conference to talk directly to them."

Beginning the news conference with a customary Japanese bow, Toyoda said his company's cars are safe, and he announced that he will lead a global quality control task force with independent experts acting as extra quality advisers.

He promised Toyota will quickly make repairs on the sticking accelerator pedals that let to a global recall of 4.6 million vehicles. "Believe me, Toyota cars are safe," he said.

Heard On 'Morning Edition'

Industry experts said Toyoda, who has not previously commented on his company's mounting problems, had to take a stand to prevent the world's largest automaker's image from further damage.

Masaaki Sato, who has written books about rival Japanese automakers Toyota and Honda, criticized Toyoda for waiting so long to come forward — and for not acting in the U.S. without prodding by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

"He should have come out a week ago," Sato said. "After all the foot-dragging, he was pushed into a corner."

Toyota has recalled 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. because of a problem that causes accelerators to stick when the pedal is depressed.

U.S. dealerships started receiving the parts to fix the gas pedals this week, but they may soon be dealing with another problem.

Toyoda acknowledged that the company is reviewing more than 200 complaints by Japanese and U.S. drivers who say they've experienced a short delay before their brakes engage in the Prius hybrids — a problem that can be addressed by a change in the software programming. He said the company is cooperating fully with investigations by safety officials in the U.S. and Japan.

The company has fixed the programming glitch in Prius models that went on sale since last month but has done nothing yet for 270,000 Prius cars sold last year in Japan and the U.S. The remodeled third-generation Prius went on sale in May last year.

Toyota is also investigating possible brake problems with its luxury Lexus hybrid and the Sai compact sedan, both of which use the same brake system as the Prius. Toyota has not received any complaints about the Lexus HS250h and the probe is to ensure safety, it has said. The Sai is not sold outside Japan.

Japanese Transport Minister Seiji Maehara has urged Toyota to consider a recall for the Prius brake problem. The Transport Ministry oversees recalls and other auto regulation.

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said Toyota's problems may cause a crisis of confidence in consumers all over the world.

"Diplomatically, it's not an issue of a single company," Okada said, Kyodo News agency reported. "The issue is about trust in Japan's entire auto industry and Japanese products overall."

Indeed, Toyota shares have fallen as much as 23 percent since the automaker reported problems with gas pedals and earlier problem that involved gas pedals getting caught in floor mats.

In addition, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has scheduled a hearing for Wednesday to investigate the safety issues plaguing Toyota. It's the first of two congressional hearings schedued for this month.

Written by NPR's Deborah Tedford; reported by Louisa Lim, Giles Snyder and Frank Langfitt with additional reporting from The Associated Press

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