Toyota and trust: Was the Akio Toyoda apology lost in translation?
Stung by Toyota recalls, Toyoda had to convey sincerity – and bridge the gulf in communication styles between Japan and America.
Toyota president Akio Toyoda’s testimony before a US congressional committee Wednesday may have been the most public nonmilitary confrontation between the two radically different cultures since American Commodore Matthew C. Perry first “opened” isolationist Japan to trade in 1854. Perry’s awkward meeting with his foreign hosts is recounted in numerous texts, paintings, and illustrations; Toyoda’s was broadcast worldwide.Skip to next paragraph
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I use the quotation marks deliberately. The virtue of openness and transparency in all facets of interaction is very much an American concept – not to mention that more than a century and a half after Perry’s landing, Japan still harbors what many Americans consider archly restrictive and protectionist trade policies.
In Japan, indirection, subtlety, and a degree of opacity have been prized for centuries, and to very specific cultural, ethical and geographical ends.
Confucian models of behavior that Japan inherited from China stress an individual’s obligation to others, motivated not by a mortal fear of divine commandments or the letter of the law, but a strong sense of communal duty, and the shame that accrues when one fails to meet it.
This results in a far more group- and community-minded culture of the like-minded than what we tend to prize in America: opinionated, headstrong mavericks who are often lauded for their capacity to stand out from the crowd. In Japan, rather, it is the individual who can facilitate and sustain maximum harmony among group members – the Japanese concept of wa – who achieves praise for leadership in society.
Mr. Toyoda may be the official president of Toyota Motor Corp., but his title denotes a very different role and set of responsibilities.
Hence, despite Japan’s innovations in technology and engineering, and world-beating brands like Sony, Nintendo, and Toyota, there are no equivalents to a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Martha Stewart. Indeed, a surer sign of a successful corporate leader in Japan is that he (they are almost all men) remains virtually invisible to the public eye, while his organization thrives.
It’s not easy, of course. In any culture, keeping a group of human beings operating harmoniously is a tricky balancing act among competing interests. Face saving, allowing others to maintain their dignity even when they have erred, is tantamount to ensuring that all group members feel respected. Openly admitting a mistake, or forcing another to do so, invites embarrassment and disharmony. Far better to indirectly make or exchange concessions; indirection eludes confrontation, thus avoiding conflict.
Toyoda’s testimony on Capitol Hill was beset by trans-cultural misunderstandings before it even began. His initial decision to decline an invitation to testify and instead relegate duties to the US division probably made sense in Japan, where Toyoda lives and works far from his US-based subordinates.