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.

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. 

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.

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.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US,” and a lecturer at the University of Tokyo. He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.


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