Tokyo: Anxious Toyota workers in the automaker’s hometown rallied behind their president after he faced a grilling from US lawmakers over the company’s safety problems, but many fear the crisis is far from over.
Thousands of miles away in Washington, Toyota Motor Corp’s chief Akio Toyoda appeared before a sometimes hostile congressional panel, where he apologised for any accidents Toyota drivers have experienced.
The panel appearance of Toyoda, the 53-year-old grandson of the company’s founder, was a dramatic turn in a safety crisis that broke a month ago with a series of recalls over unintended acceleration and braking problems that now includes more than 8.5 million vehicles globally.
Hours before Toyoda appeared before the congressional panel, some residents spent a nervous evening at a bar in Toyota City, located in Japan’s industrial heartland in central Japan.
“We are not just drinking. We are drinking while being worried about what’s happening. We cannot help drinking because we are worried,” said Hidemi Miyaji, who as a sales manager at Aicello Chemical works closely with Toyota.
Many of the city’s 420,000-plus residents rely directly or indirectly on Toyota for jobs. It has nearly 26,000 people working at seven Toyota plants and more than 1,400 industrial plants, more than 30% of which are auto-related.
“There were some tough questions, but I think he answered them earnestly,” Shingo Mori said of Toyoda’s panel appearance. Mori works at Toyota’s Kamigo Logistics Center, which handles parts for export to the United States.
“He took responsibility for what happened. Now we all need to work together to meet our customers’ needs and try to regain the trust that we’ve lost,” said Mori, who has worked at Toyota factories in several states in the United States.
One Toyota subcontractor said criticism of the company had gone too far, putting businesses like his own at risk.
“Not just Toyota, but everything made in Japan, seems to be under attack and the situation seems to be a bit hysterical,” said the head of the firm, who declined to give his name.
“I had some hope for the future of our business, but now I am very concerned.”
Others also backed Toyoda’s decision to go to Washington, but agreed with their company chief that the automaker had allowed quality standards to slip during a period of fast growth.
“Each of us needs to be more careful and improve our quality,” said Hiromi Kawae, a 34-year-old Toyota factory worker, adding that the series of recalls has disgraced Toyota’s brand.
“I am worried what’s going to happen to us from now on,” said the uniform-clad Kawae as he spoke outside a Toyota factory.
He wasn’t alone in his fears.
“This city became big because of Toyota and without Toyota’s revival, our economy won’t recover,” said 53-year-old city council member Masatoshi Hieno.
While some critics have questioned whether Toyoda was up to the job, loyal Toyota fans in the city also said the challenge he faces would make him a stronger leader.
“The pinch is the chance. With this incident, Toyota’s cars will become even safer,” said Kazutoshi Kamiya, a Toyota City council member who runs a business hotel in the city.