TeamAsia’s Managing Director weighs in on the Toyota recall
(CNN) — Akio Toyoda’s appearance before U.S. legislators on Wednesday represents not just a fact-finding mission by committee members and a public relations move by Toyota, but a clash of cultures that in many ways created the recall controversy.
“They turned a rather ordinary recall into a brand-threatening crisis,” said Jeff Kingston, a professor of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus in Tokyo.
Indeed, a key reason why Toyoda is in the hot seat is because the company leadership responded in a very Japanese fashion, Japan watchers say.
“Their decision-making process was painfully slow, but the international media and concerned customers don’t want to wait so long for answers,” Kingston said. “Anytime the public hears ‘brake’ and ‘problem’ in the same sentence, they want quick answers.”
Toyoda’s long silence as the company deliberated what to do is a hallmark of the Japanese culture of consensus building.
“The decision-making process is really the planning process in Japan — you don’t see a lot of rapid response to a strategic issue,” said Michael Alan Hamlin, president of Team Asia, which provides communications advice to multinational companies.
Difficult, too, will be how Toyoda handles hostile questioning, especially since most of his public experience has been before a largely deferential Japanese press.
“There is a huge difference in how Japanese media cover companies,” said Hamlin, who lived in Japan for a decade. “They are careful not to upset or annoy business leaders too much, because they don’t want their access to information or press conferences blocked because of negative reporting.
“In the West, you take Microsoft, Google or GM — once they are big, successful companies, they are targets (of aggressive media),” he said. “That’s the trade-off for visibility and success.”
How the two audiences — American and Japanese — view Toyoda’s performance may be very different because of cultural differences in body language.
“Japanese when in an apology mode — especially before an authority like the U.S. Congress — will be very humble. That means, you don’t necessarily look people in the eye,” said Deborah Hayden, Tokyo managing partner of Kreab & Gavin Anderson Worldwide, a communications consultancy. “From a Western perspective, that can be mistaken as weakness or perhaps trying to hide something.”
Also, Japanese language tends to be indirect — whereas before the committee members are likely to pepper him with direct questions and “be a bit of political theater,” Hamlin added.
“He’s got to walk a very fine line of polite respect — which Japanese have in bucket loads — and the confidence of being head of one of the largest, most respected companies in the world,” Hayden said.
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