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Analysis: Cultures Collide With Toyoda Testimony

Corporate leaders in Japan are affable cheerleaders who solicit everyone's views and avoid confrontation at almost any cost. It's called "nemawashi." U.S. lawmakers are cut-throat partisans who clamor for the spotlight, especially in an election year. It's called politics.

Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda
CNBC.com
Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda

These cultures collided Wednesday in the appearance of a polite man from a distant land before a congressional committee stocked with angry men and women with axes to grind.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda's moment was one brought to us by globalization, the integration of economies and societies through a worldwide network of trade and communications. Toyoda's appearance illustrated two stark realities: Nations are more knitted together than ever, and still oh-so far apart.

A generation ago, it was good politics in Congress to bash Japan and buy American. Now U.S. lawmakers grab campaign money from Toyota executives and scramble to save Toyota jobs in their districts.

Auto workers used to take sledge hammers to foreign cars. Now thousands of them work for foreign companies, and U.S. car dealers wear "I am Toyota in America" buttons to Capitol Hill.

And consider the hearing itself, where American directness confronted Japanese subtlety as Toyoda apologized for life-threatening safety lapses and for a corporate culture that may have made things worse.

The grandson of the company's founder noted that the vehicles bear his name. "For me," Toyoda said in a thin, reedy voice, "when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well."

It was a uniquely Japanese way to lead in crisis. How often do troubled U.S. leaders call themselves damaged goods?

Unlike in the United States, where self-promoting corporate leaders cast themselves as buck-stops-here demigods, the heads of Japanese companies are chosen for their skills at team decision-making. Most climbed the corporate ladder without rocking the boat, and humility is prized.

Their job is to ensure stability and harmony.

Harmony? Not a word usually associated with the U.S. corporate culture. Or Congress.

"This is appalling, sir," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., waving copies of a July 2009 presentation at Toyota's Washington office.

The confidential document bragged of saving $100 million or more by negotiating an "equipment recall" of floor mats involving 55,000 Toyota vehicles in September 2007.

"I'm embarrassed for you, sir," Mica said.

Toyoda, who earned a business degree in Massachusetts, is no stranger to the United States. But he's probably unaccustomed to the impatience —and at times the impertinence — of U.S. lawmakers.

Their questions came "with all due respect," a caveat that paves the way for countless slights on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., pressed Toyoda about whether the company could correct the acceleration problem. Toyoda gave a long, indirect answer — establishing a pattern for the hearing.

"I'm trying to find out," an exasperated Towns said, "is that a yes or a no?"

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who received a $1,000 campaign contribution in December from the president of a Toyota dealership in California, jumped to Toyoda's defense. He explained that a complicated problem required complicated answers.

Toyoda gave his opening statement in heavily accented English. He fielded questions through a translator, but clearly had command of the situation—and used the extra time to consider his answers.

Early on, the company president reached across the table to pull a microphone closer to his translator, and when asked a question, he nodded to her and said, "Will translate."

And so it went, this lively blend of business and political cultures played out before the cameras — globalization in a box, the 21st century condensed into a single Capitol Hill committee room.

But it wasn't pretty. Not with so many lives at risk or already wasted by mechanical defects. Not with so many lawmakers and Obama administration officials hoping the accountability stops with Toyoda and Toyota, sparing them.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received more than 2,500 consumer complaints about Toyota before aggressively dogging the company in late 2009. Congress, which has oversight authority on NHTSA, is only now asking tough questions.

"NHTSA failed the taxpayers," Towns, the committee chairman, said before swearing in Toyoda. "Toyota failed their customers."

Still, after two days of hearings, there is too much we don't know.

Why did some cars accelerate out of control? Why did others not stop? What else might go wrong? Is my car safe?

At the end of the day, Congress and Toyota delivered more theater than answers. Cultures collide. Globalization enters the so-what phase.

Political and business leaders struggle to lead. All true.

But whether in Japan or on Capitol Hill, in a car accident you're just as dead.