Japan Hopes Toyoda Can Burnish Toyota's Image

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Japan is looking to Toyota president Akio Toyoda's appearance before U.S. lawmakers next week to help burnish an image marred by a flood of recalls — and to prevent grievances over the issue from fanning broader political tensions.

With his company facing the worst crisis in its 70-year history, Toyoda will appear before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee next Wednesday. By issuing an invitation, the committee had essentially forced Toyoda, who earlier had said he did not plan to attend, into testifying.

Commentaries Saturday and statements by officials here since Toyoda announced he would accept the request to testify reflect the unease over possible wider damage from Toyota Motor Corp.'s troubles.

"I hope Toyota will soon regain the trust of their customers around the world," Japan's Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada told reporters Friday.

"Although this is a matter of one individual company, we wish to back them up as much as we can as it could become a national issue," Okada said.

Japan's industry and transport ministers also publicly applauded the decision, saying that Toyoda should take the opportunity to help reassure and mollify customers angered over the recalls of about 8.5 million vehicles over sticking gas pedals, accelerators jamming in floor mats and momentarily unresponsive brakes.

"We should not make this issue a political matter between the Japanese and U.S. governments," said Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Masayuki Naoshima, himself a former Toyota group employee.

While so far the recalls remain a safety and business issue, Japanese officials are keen to ensure it stays that way at a time when ties with Washington already are strained by a dispute over plans to move a U.S. Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa.

Many in Japan have voiced suspicions that the uproar over the recalls might be driven by political motives, given the U.S. government's stake in General Motors Co. and its costly bailouts for the domestic motor industry.

But opinion favoring Toyoda's choice to publicly answer questions over the company's handling of the problems leading to the recalls seems for now to be outweighing dismissals of the crisis as evidence of "Japan bashing."

"Will Toyota Motor Corp. be able to quell the rising tide of sentiment against the carmaker over its massive recalls? Undoubtedly, the world's biggest automaker has reached a moment of truth in grappling with its current adversity," the mass-circulation newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said in a Saturday editorial.

"The planned public hearing is drawing a good deal of attention from around the world, and we hope Toyota will with full sincerity explain its stance on the problem. This in turn would help restore the public trust in its car business as early as possible," it said, contending that Toyoda could have forestalled much of the criticism by showing his willingness to testify from the start.

In both Japan and in the United States, Toyota has been chastised for a tepid response to the recalls, and Toyoda was accused of being largely invisible as the problems escalated, until giving three news conferences in recent weeks.

A Toyota spokeswoman, Mieko Iwasaki, refused to comment on a report by the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper saying Toyoda would leave for the U.S. on Saturday, saying the company would not disclose details of his schedule.

The company has pledged full cooperation with investigations by the U.S. National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration and Congress and promised upgrades to help prevent future problems.

In Japan, where Toyota has recalled 223,000 Prius hybrids for braking problems, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport is considering beefing up its recall system to require manufacturers to file reports on problems more quickly, the Yomiuri said in a report Saturday.

Calls to the ministry rang unanswered Saturday, and officials were not available to comment on the report, which did not name any sources.