Analysis of an apology: Toyota, a Japanese thing?

Is the apology of Toyota's President Akio Toyoda really uniquely Japanese?

The apology from Toyota President Akio Toyoda is being interpreted by the U.S. media as a uniquely Japanese thing.

Really?

Let me say up front that I lived in Japan for 10 years. I made every effort to become proficient in Japanese, as it was crucially important for me, as a journalist, to be as fluent in the language as possible. That does not make me a Japanese expert, (as others who have spent much less time there claim to be, by the way) but language is the best window on a culture--and it does give me some extra perspective compared to the average American.

Toyota's President Akio Toyoda bows during a news conference at the Toyota headquarters in Nagoya, central Japan, on Friday.
Toyota's President Akio Toyoda bows during a news conference at the Toyota headquarters in Nagoya, central Japan, Feb. 5, 2010. CBS News

Let's begin with this piece from ABC News where it is claimed that somehow Toyoda's bow has something to do with bushido (or way of the Samurai). To me (and Japanese people I know, at least), this analysis was over the top.

The media in America--which generally knows little about Japan--is often trying to make Japan out to be a mystical place where everyone lives by some ancient samurai--or Buddhist, take your pick--code. In short, a special, inscrutable culture that defies understanding.

Not true, in my opinion.

What I learned in my 10 years in Japan is that the Japanese culture is different of course but not nearly as different as unwitting Americans make it out to be. In other words, the shroud of mystery that some Americans cling to in order to explain Japanese ways more often than not simply makes Japan much harder to understand than necessary.

Toyota made mistakes. After some foot dragging, the Toyota president finally apologized. There is nothing uniquely Japanese about this. Quite universally human, in fact. Though "experts" appearing on ABC news will ascribe ancient bushido tradition to the bow (and the depth of the bow), that only serves to get in the way of seeing it as a simple apology.

Do you think Toyoda would have apologized if there wasn't such an outcry in the U.S.? Of course not. Just as former GM CEO Rick Wagoner only apologized when up against the wall. A common human trait.

In the course of my interviews this week about the Toyota recall, Americans who I interviewed would invariably bring up their idea about Japan and its culture of shame (haji).

Yes, it exists to some degree. But if you're going to ascribe this as a unique Japanese trait then also ascribe another trait I saw in Japan--in the extreme--compared to other cultures: denial. When push comes to shove, I saw a tendency to go into deep denial. More so than Western cultures. Japan's dark history in World War II being just one prominent example.

I was starting to get a sense of this denial from Toyota. Only a great hue and cry in the U.S.--Toyota's largest market--made this impossible at the end.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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