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Toyota chief's tears win over forgiving Japan

Toyota President and Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda  speaks before dealers and team members during a town hall at the National Press Club after he testified at Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 24, 2010.
Toyota President and Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda speaks before dealers and team members during a town hall at the National Press Club after he testified at Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 24, 2010.
Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press

TOKYO — He hasn't bowed in apology. He hasn't resigned. But this week Toyota President Akio Toyoda did perform one of the typical rituals of a Japanese executive under attack: He wept publicly.

The image of Toyoda choking up during a meeting with American dealers is winning accolades in Japan, a society that has always had a soft spot for such displays of emotion.

The footage was broadcast over and over on TV news Thursday. Toyoda, 53, was barely able to finish his sentences at the meeting with dozens of Toyota dealers in Washington — a far more receptive crowd than the skeptical American lawmakers who had grilled him about the automaker's safety lapses and massive recalls at a congressional hearing.

A photo of his sobbing face was on the front page of the evening editions of the Yomiuri and Tokyo Shimbun newspapers. "Toyota president offers apology, thanks, tears," said a headline in the Asahi.

"People are going to feel sorry for him because he had to go through a theatrical ordeal overseas, a very unusual situation for a Japanese executive," said Kuniyoshi Shirai, executive adviser at A.C.E. Consulting in Tokyo.

Japanese protocol for corporate chiefs under fire usually starts with a deep bow, perhaps a resignation to take responsibility — both of which Toyoda skipped — and sometimes sobbing.

A show of heartfelt remorse goes a long way in consensus-oriented Japan, where intentions, not just results, carry meaning.

While tears would be a sign of weakness for an American executive, the Japanese public are swayed by emotions because empathy for a weak person is valued as an honorable trait, says Tatsumi Tanaka, president of Risk Hedge, a consultant for major companies.

"It's a special Japanese aesthetic," he said. "It's a virtue to acknowledge one's mistakes and mend one's ways, and crying is seen as a symbol of that."

Even with rigid social definitions of femininity as a soft dependence and masculinity as a stoic silence, high-profile men crying in public draws not only surprise but also favorable reviews.

Athletes and other male celebrities often win extra marks from public weeping — in circumstances such as winning an Olympic medal or mourning death in the family.

The most memorable case in the history of Japan Inc. by far was Shohei Nozawa, once president of Yamaichi Securities Co., who outright bawled at a news conference when his brokerage went bankrupt in 1997, and begged the public to show mercy to his employees.

In Japan, he was widely praised as an ideal executive.

The tears were a little more subdued for Toyoda after his appearance at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He had initially delegated testifying to his top U.S. executive but decided to attend after getting a formal invitation and amid media criticism.

"At the hearing, I was not alone. You and your colleagues across America, around the world, were with me," he said in English to the Toyota dealers, shaking his head and his face scrunching up as the crowd broke into applause.

Later, when a dealer told him they stood behind him, Toyoda was so overcome with emotion he practically broke down and cried.

Keiko Hamada, a 56-year-old college official, found it touching.

"I'm so worried about him. As a Japanese, I was so moved," she said. "As one Japanese, I'm rooting for Toyota."

Japan is increasingly nervous about Toyota Motor Corp.'s unfolding recall crisis, which has ballooned to more than 8.5 million cars being fixed for faulty gas pedals, floor mats and antilock braking.

Concerns are growing that electronic glitches, still relatively new turf for the industry, may be behind the cases of unintended acceleration that have led to deaths and horror stories of runaway cars on highways.

Toyoda's appearance before Congress was a top news item for major Japanese broadcasters.

News shows, including those on public broadcaster NHK, showed clips of Toyoda reading introductory remarks in English and answering questions from lawmakers described as "tough."

A colorful Fuji TV morning show, which mixes entertainment and social news, characterized Toyoda as the "prince under attack," a reference to his almost royal status as grandson of the company's founder.

Some analysts gave Toyoda passing marks for his performance.

"By Japanese standards, he was doing his best," said Ryoichi Shinozaki, a crisis management expert at Kyodo Public Relations Co., noting Toyoda at least avoided blatant gaffes. "He answered the questions, and he appeared comfortable."

But the company's crisis is deepening because of possible defects in the electronic throttle, new investigations by federal authorities and concerns there may be cover-ups, according to Shinozaki.

"The problems aren't going away," he said after watching the hearing on TV. "The hearing is over, but the crisis is only getting more serious."

Tears and apologies will only get him so far in Japan and possibly prove disastrous in the U.S. in the long run. Even in Japan, sentiments are fickle, and an outpouring of sympathy can turn to hostility in a flash.

In recent weeks, Toyoda has earned a new nickname that highlights a growing perception of ineptitude in handling the recall fiasco — "child president," a sarcastic reference to Toyota's Japanese TV ads that feature a popular child actor billed as "child dealer." The moniker also takes a stab at Toyoda's privileged status as heir of a well-to-do family.

"Japanese public opinion is cruel and can shift in an instant," Shirai said. "For the U.S., an apology isn't going to be enough. As management, he needed to present specific measures."

Associated Press writer Kelly Olsen contributed to this report.