Toyota worries about US ties
TOKYO (AP):As pressure intensifies for Toyota's chief to testify before the United States (US) Congress about the automaker's safety lapses, Japanese political leaders and experts worry that the problem - if handled poorly - could damage ties between the two nations.
Relations between Washington and Tokyo are already strained by a dispute between the two governments over the relocation of a key US Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa.
Political tension rose a notch Thursday when a Republican in the House of Representatives said he would support issuing a subpoena to compel Toyota President Akio Toyoda to appear before congressional committees later this month to examine the company's string of safety problems.
Toyota said Toyoda is expected to visit the US in early March, but the company declined to confirm Japanese media reports that he would attend the Washington hearings. Toyota's North American head, Yoshimi Inaba, will appear before the committees, the company said.
Even before the world's biggest automaker announced its latest recall Tuesday of nearly 440,000 Prius and other hybrids, bringing its global total to 8.5 million vehicles for faulty gas pedals and brakes, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada expressed concern that the problem could become a political headache.
"I'm worried," Okada said last Friday. "It's not just the problem of one company but a diplomatic issue," noting that the fiasco comes at a particularly difficult time for the automobile industry, including General Motors Corp's bankruptcy filing.
Japan has also been criticised for its tax incentive programme for 'green' cars that Washington said unfairly excluded American vehicles. The programme has since been expanded to include more US cars.
So far, there's no sign that Toyota's recall has become a contentious issue between the Obama administration and the Tokyo government.
But it could become prickly if the hearings in Washington go badly — if, for example, Toyota executives come across as aloof or US politicians come down in a way perceived in Japan as excessively harsh.
"This is Toyota's problem, but if it's mishandled, it could spread to other areas," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor of international relations at Aoyama University in Tokyo.
To demonstrate responsibility, Toyoda himself needs to appear before the congressional committees, experts say. He also plays a key role as the representative of Japan Inc's flagship company.
"The final authority needs to be there and explain the situation and say what the company is doing to resolve the problems," said Yamamoto.