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Toyota and trust: Was the Akio Toyoda apology lost in translation?

Stung by Toyota recalls, Toyoda had to convey sincerity – and bridge the gulf in communication styles between Japan and America. 

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Toyota president Akio Toyoda’s testimony before a US congressional committee Wednesday may have been the most public nonmilitary confrontation between the two radically different cultures since American Commodore Matthew C. Perry first “opened” isolationist Japan to trade in 1854. Perry’s awkward meeting with his foreign hosts is recounted in numerous texts, paintings, and illustrations; Toyoda’s was broadcast worldwide.

I use the quotation marks deliberately. The virtue of openness and transparency in all facets of interaction is very much an American concept – not to mention that more than a century and a half after Perry’s landing, Japan still harbors what many Americans consider archly restrictive and protectionist trade policies. 

In Japan, indirection, subtlety, and a degree of opacity have been prized for centuries, and to very specific cultural, ethical and geographical ends. 

Confucian models of behavior that Japan inherited from China stress an individual’s obligation to others, motivated not by a mortal fear of divine commandments or the letter of the law, but a strong sense of communal duty, and the shame that accrues when one fails to meet it.

This results in a far more group- and community-minded culture of the like-minded than what we tend to prize in America: opinionated, headstrong mavericks who are often lauded for their capacity to stand out from the crowd. In Japan, rather, it is the individual who can facilitate and sustain maximum harmony among group members – the Japanese concept of wa – who achieves praise for leadership in society. 

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