In Tokyo, Embattled Toyota Chief Faces a Nation

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Toru Hanai / Reuters

Toyota President Akio Toyoda surrounded by reporters after a meeting at the Transport Ministry in Tokyo on Feb. 9, 2010

Asked to comment in English during an "emergency" press conference held last Friday on the eight million cars being recalled worldwide due to sticky gas pedals, Toyota president Akio Toyoda, taking the public stand for the first time since the first recalls were announced in the U.S. a couple of weeks ago, implored his audience to have faith that he could turn the company's turn of bad luck around. "Please believe me," he said.

It's a request that's getting harder by the day. In his second hastily arranged meeting with the media in five days broadcast live nationally, Toyoda said yesterday that the corporation, a source of Japanese national pride which has gone unfathomably awry over the last several weeks, is recalling 437,000 2010 Prius and other hybrid models (plug-in Priuses, Lexus HS250h sedan and the SAI) around the world because of a computer glitch in the braking system. Over 220,000 of the cars will be recalled in Japan.

The news comes on the back of over 1,300 complaints filed about the Prius models on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website as of Monday. Toyota's North American president Yoshi Inaba is scheduled to testify in Washington on Wednesday over the company's safety record at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

Toyoda — who unconvincingly insisted that he made the second public appearance not because he has come under fire, but because it was his "own way of improving the situation" — delivered the bad news at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, where minister Seiji Maehara also learned the chief of the world's largest automobile maker is headed to the U.S. on an apology tour. Maehara has condemned Toyota for being insensitive and slow in responding to domestic consumer complaints — the first report of the brake problems in Japan goes back to July, and 84 had been filed as of Feb. 1 — and the minister didn't appear to be overly confident in Toyoda's ability to deliver a more convincing message abroad. "I understand Mr. Toyoda is visiting the United States, so I asked that he speaks with care when he is over there," said Maehara, who is also scheduled to meet U.S. Ambassador John Roos on Thursday. "I asked him to be accountable for his explanations because Toyota is not only a Japanese corporation; it is an American corporation as well."

In a bald attempt to spin the situation last week, Toyota executive Hiroyuki Yokoyama said the brake problems came down to a matter of each and every driver's "feel," refusing to admit to any flaws in the cars themselves. Several hours later, after being loudly criticized by the Japanese press for dodging responsibility, Toyoda tried to undo the damage by offering his first personal apology over the recalls. He did not, however, offer any specific solutions. On Tuesday, Toyoda finally announced that the company determined the brakes of the Prius and other hybrid models are prone to malfunction for a split second on frozen and slippery surfaces, but can be fixed by reinstalling the software that runs the braking system, a relatively simple procedure which takes 30 to 40 minutes.

What won't be so simple is restoring the faith and confidence in Toyota, which has allowed what might have been a containable problem to explode into a full-blown crisis by continually being a step behind in the management process. "I've never regarded Toyota as invincible, a company which never makes mistakes," Toyoda said on Tuesday. "However, when we do find something wrong, or when our customers point out problems, we have always made the adjustments to manufacture improved future products. And I'm very confident that we can continue to deliver the way we have in the past."

Unfortunately for Toyoda, the company's legendary legacy is something Toyota may have worn out. Now, people are going to have to see it to believe it.