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.
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But in the US, his response seemed arrogant and aloof. A subsequent written invitation, sent by committee chairman Rep. Edolphus Towns (D) of New York, effectively allowed Toyoda to save face at home: he reversed his decision as an appropriate response to a respectfully formal request.Skip to next paragraph
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To many Americans at the testimony or watching on TV, Toyoda’s answers, delivered in articulate and thoughtful Japanese, sounded unnecessarily obtuse and verbose – much like the language itself, which rarely contains personal pronouns or direct, declarative syntax. In one memorable outburst, Chairman Towns asked Toyoda: “What I’m trying to find out: Is that a yes or a no?”
To Toyoda’s Japanese colleagues, media and viewers, many of the American lawmakers may have seemed impertinent at best, crude, immature, and insulting at worst – openly disrespectful of an invited guest and honorable shacho, or company leader.
Openness of the American kind is often frowned upon not just in Japan’s corporate culture, but in society at large. A direct “no” is hard to utter or obtain in even the most casual interactions. Invitations to social gatherings may be met with a modest response along the lines of “Oh, how nice,” or “I appreciate that, thank you,” – that may really mean “no, thank you.”
The Japanese language contains two distinct words to specify modes of behavior – tatemae, or public etiquette, and honne, or true feeling – that every Japanese by birth is expected to know and understand. On an archipelago slightly smaller than California, roughly 30 percent habitable, and host to a population nearly half that of the United States, getting along in limited public space is a top priority.
But does this aversion to openness mean that most Japanese prefer face-saving lies to honesty and sincerity, echoing the racist stereotype of a two-faced, double-dealing people in World War II propaganda?
Hardly. Displacing American-style openness and transparency in Japan is a virtue that is largely unspoken and meant to transcend both: trust.
When one lawmaker questioned the sincerity of Toyoda’s remorse at yesterday’s hearing, the president seemed stunned. He had come from Japan to express his sincere remorse, he replied, and he would now have to reflect very seriously on her skepticism.
“All the Toyota vehicles bear my name,” he had said in English in his opening statement. “For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well.”
Minutes after the hearings, Japanese TV broadcast video of Toyoda addressing a roomful of American dealers and employees. In thanking them for their support and calling for renewed confidence, he suddenly paused, choked up and in tears.
Damaged trust is very hard to restore, of course. And whether you express it openly or suffer in silence, it still hurts.