The Real Lesson of Toyota: Cultural Insensitivity?


The obvious story about Toyota—in the US anyway–is their perceived huge loss of trust. Typical is this column yesterday by David Lazarus of the LA Times, titled Toyota: What’s so Hard About Doing the Right Thing? 

Suggests Lazarus:

“Toyota’s actions throughout this mess — the initial denials, the obfuscating, the gradual acknowledgment of safety issues — suggest that its priority first and foremost has been to cover its crankcase, not safeguard its customers.”

Well…not so fast.

Not Every Moral High Ground Looks the Same from All Vantage Points.

Take Laura Silsby, the head of the group accused of kidnapping children in Haiti. Here’s what CBS reports she said in front of the court

Silsby told the judge: "We were trying to do what’s best for the children."

When the judge asked, "Didn’t you know you were committing a crime?" Silsby quietly answered, "We are innocent."

Personally, I have very little doubt that Silsby sincerely believed what she said. More importantly, she appears to have believed that her beliefs would shared by the vast majority of the world’s population, including a Haitian court.

As it turns out—the courts in Haiti somehow saw morality differently, believing that when due process of Haitian law regarding separating families is the issue, there’s more at stake than bureaucracy.

Or take Scott Roeder, who pleaded innocent in Wichita Kansas to murdering George Tiller (an abortion doctor), because “Those children were in immediate danger if someone did not stop George Tiller…The babies were going to continue to die.” 

As it turns out, the Wichita jury took 37 minutes to view Roeder’s plea from a different viewpoint; one in which premeditated killing over a disagreement about a legal procedure constituted the crime of murder.

Toyota’s Behavior from the American Perspective

The LA Times article quoted at the outset of this post is quintessentially American. Toyota made mistakes, the narrative goes, then did the classic Watergate move, compounding the error by covering it up.

The American narrative continues.  No forthcoming comments. No transparency. Vague claims of intent to fix. Then, more bad news, dribbling it out. Even Toyota’s American dealers—behaving more like Americans than Toyota employees–bought the American narrative and withdrew advertising from ABC affiliates because they didn’t like the press coverage. 

Why did Toyota do this? According to the American narrative, the same reason as John Edwards, AIG, Merck, Enron, Lehman, and pick-your-scandal everyone else did: to line their pockets, take the money and run, fleece the average American–a quick-buck hustle.

And, in America, they’re generally right.

Except Toyota is a very Japanese company.

Toyota’s Behavior from the Japanese Perspective

I am no expert on Japanese culture. I’ve set foot there only once. I’ll gladly take corrections from those who know the culture better than I.

But here’s what I think.

The story in Japan is not one of greed, but of hubris. And not American hubris, but Japanese. 

From JapanToday we hear

“It’s a “terrible blow” for Toyota because its identity is so closely linked to quality and the company seemed slow to recognize the problems, said Kenneth Grossberg, a marketing professor at Waseda University who has lived in Japan for 16 years. 

In other words, they committed a cardinal Japanese sin: the sin of arrogance, by letting down their constant vigilance of quality. Greed? The story here is not greed; it’s something much worse in Japan—loss of face.  About the company image.  And about the national obsession–quality.  The Japanese are upset about Toyota too–just not in exactly the same way we are.

In a culture that not so many years ago considered failures like this a cause for major public self-humiliation, it is not surprising that mea culpas are taken very seriously. For one thing, when Americans don’t apologize quickly, we assume it’s because they’re legally at risk when they confess. The concepts are distinct in Japan–you can apologize without risking legal consequences.

This is not a simple analysis. Brooke Crothers, who knows more than I do, attributes it in part to another Japanese trait—a desire for denial

Whatever your view, it’s hard not to ascribe our own unconscious belief systems to others. 

Hard, but pretty important nonetheless.


4 replies
  1. Doug Cornelius
    Doug Cornelius says:

    Charlie –

    I’m going to throw another item into the mix. Toyota is unwilling to put the blame on the drivers.

    When I first heard that there was "unintended acceleration" I instantly thought back to what happened to Audi. The company was nearly destroyed. In the end, no problem was ever found. The assumption is driver error.

    I turned open the latest edition of Car and Driver, with its testing of brakes with the unintended acceleration. Surprise! The car still stops when you step on the brake. Even with the throttle wide open, the braking distance is not significantly longer.  

    How To Deal With Unintended Acceleration – Tech Dept.


    How do you build trust with your customers when it is a problem with their actions, not a defect in your prodcut?

    Yes, I own a Toyota, but not one subject to the recalls.

  2. Bruce
    Bruce says:

    A desire for denial. Of course that is not an exclusive Japanese trait, but it runs deep. This from a country who till this day refuses to take complete and full responsibility for its agression and crimes in WWII. Their schoolbooks do not lay blame on themselves even this far down the road.

    Is it then really that surprising that they refused to deal with reality in this regard until they were backed in the corner and had no choice?

    It is interesting to consider the failure of their "constant vigilance for quality" really isn’t the same thing as a vigilance for "trust" is it?

  3. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    I’ve spent a little time in Japan myself, and yet Toyota’s predicament, and its response, don’t look significantly different to me from how various American corporations and celebrities have handled similar situations in recent years.

    [I’d also point out that Japan’s official version of its WWII conduct doesn’t look all that different from many western countries’ accounting for their own actions in declared or undeclared wars, either. Motes and beams, homes made of transparent materials, pots and kettles, etc.–always easier to spot denial across the fence than when it’s closer to home.]

    The root similarity is that all of these situations are being treated as communications crises when they are rather reality crises, problems that aren’t fixable through the standard operating procedures of PR textbooks.

    I stopped by to give you a link to a good article I thought you might like that analyzes what Toyota got wrong, and provides some suggestions for what it might have done right instead:

    An Apology for Better Conduct


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  1. […] be lost in an instant? Not true: trust takes roughly as long to dissipate as it took to create (see Toyota, J&J, […]

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