Japanese Say Akio Toyoda Showed Sincerity

The Toyota scandal is being watched in Japan — especially testimony by the automaker's president Akio Toyoda in a Congressional hearing on Wednesday. Toyoda's grandfather founded the company. Harumi Ozawa, a reporter with AFP, tells Steve Inskeep that the Japanese public seems to be behind Toyoda because his actions seem sincere.

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The Toyota scandal is being watched in Japan, especially yesterday's testimony by Mr. Toyoda. The company his grandfather founded is a Japanese icon and the country's biggest taxpayer. We're going next to Tokyo, to Harumi Ozawa, reporter with the AFP news service. Welcome to the program.

HARUMI OZAWA: Thank you very much. Thank you for having AFP.

INSKEEP: When people follow the sharp questioning of Mr. Toyoda before Congress, did they take this as an embarrassment for their country or for the company?

OZAWA: Not so much as an embarrassment, actually. The - Japan's general public seems to be reacting cool to this, wanting to see him handle this problem with the utmost sincerity. And Japan's Prime Minister Hatoyama says after his testimony, that it was good that the president himself had a chance to speak. And Transport Minister Maehara also said that Toyoda's speaking before Congress should have come earlier. So I don't think of this is an embarrassment, as far as he is reacting with sincerity.

INSKEEP: Now I'm curious - since, obviously, millions of Japanese must drive Toyotas - if Japanese have been raising questions about the safety of Toyota vehicles.

OZAWA: Toyota is the biggest company of Japan, and I think the Japanese people have enough confidence in the quality of Japanese vehicles. I would say that the general public still is taking a side and see what Toyota can do to remedy this problem.

INSKEEP: He did face unprecedented criticism for being quiet in the early weeks of this controversy, didn't he?

OZAWA: Yes, that's right. He did face criticism from the public and also the Japanese Cabinet members, especially the Transport Minister Maehara, was very critical of Toyoda's being quote, unquote, "flip-flops" and whether he's going to stand before the Congress or not. However, the criticism hasn't actually reached to the point of all the newspapers are bashing Toyoda or anything like that. The media reaction is pretty calm, in my opinion.

INSKEEP: Well, given that level of criticism, is there any possibility that Mr. Toyoda will resign?

OZAWA: That would be difficult to predict, actually. Probably, many Americans recall the 2000 testimony by the Firestone chairman who testified before Congress, and then later he resigned. However, I think the president of Toyota will try to avoid, to repeat the same thing.

INSKEEP: Why? Because it's a family-run company?

OZAWA: No, because one thing that we need to keep in mind is the Firestone chairman didn't resign just because he appeared before Congress. And standing before Congress wouldn't necessarily make someone to step down. Toyoda is trying to deal with this issue sincerely, to the eyes of Japanese people. And right now, the public is watching whether the company can really rebuild its quality confidence.

INSKEEP: You know, I've heard in recent days Americans who work for Toyota - Toyota dealers, for example - suggesting that there's been maybe a little bit of extra concern and extra attention heaped on Toyota because it is a foreign company. Do people in Japan feel that their company is being treated fairly by the United States?

OZAWA: I would say that there is mounting concern that the - Toyota is being extra precise because it's not an American - originally coming from America. However, one thing that is actually interesting to pay attention to is that there are some conservative Japanese newspapers that have repeated to remind the Japanese public that there may be a political motive behind this social event in the U.S., which is the mid-term election coming up in autumn. One conservative newspaper described the Congressional hearing as a quote, unquote, "political show." And they're calling it a great faithful performance for politicians, because it is broadcast live to appeal to voters.

INSKEEP: Harumi Ozawa works for the AFP News Service in Tokyo. Thanks very much for your insights.

OZAWA: Thank you very much.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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