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Toyota recall: An embarrassment for Japan, Inc.

Analysis: A bruised icon, and the woes of being a consumer in Japan.

Replicas of Toyota Motor Corp's newest model of the Prius hybrid car are displayed at its showroom in Tokyo Feb. 17, 2010. U.S. regulators have opened an investigation into whether Toyota Motor Corp acted in a timely way to recall cars for acceleration problems, and the automaker moved to slow its U.S. production to avoid a costly ballooning of inventories. (Toru Hanai/Reuters)

TOKYO — It is a measure of the depth of fears surrounding the safety of Toyota’s cars that its media-shy president, Akio Toyoda, has briefed the massed ranks of the Tokyo press corps three times in less than two weeks.

On Wednesday, as he discussed the latest installment in the recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide, it appeared that the cacophony of criticism over his handling of the crisis was beginning to resonate.

It is only fair to acknowledge the few things Toyota has got right in the past week or so. It reportedly plans to disclose all faults – right down to sticky windows and doors – in its vehicles and has announced the launch of a quality assurance committee under Toyoda’s direct control.

Toyoda apologized to anxious American drivers in the pages of the Washington Post, and after announcing that he would send another executive to face the U.S. Congress on Feb. 24, he has now agreed to face the music in person.

He has his work cut out. The firm his grandfather founded in 1937 has much to do to satisfy U.S. safety authorities and politicians who, it is patently clear, are enjoying their moment of schadenfreude and relishing the prospect of giving Toyoda a public dressing down.

A few American voices are emerging in Toyota’s defense, but the overriding sentiment is one of anger — mixed with disbelief — that a company synonymous with quality and reliability has come unstuck in such devastating fashion.

In Japan, the public mood is more difficult to gauge. Compared with their U.S. and European counterparts, the media response here has been muted, with the exception of restrained rumblings in the op-ed pages of the major papers.

Japan’s inclusion in the recall of the Prius, the hybrid jewel in Toyota’s fuel-efficient crown, has put an end to the days when the carmaker could threaten to pull ads in retaliation for even mildly critical coverage.

While the stateside outcry has not been replicated on this side of the Pacific, politicians, consumers and high-profile members of Japan Inc. are uneasy about the damage the recall is inflicting on their country’s reputation.

While Toyota is not alone among Japanese companies in its inept approach to customer relations, its problems have been amplified by its status as a standard bearer for the country’s postwar economic revival.

Its cars are driven by millions of Japanese, including the prime minister and members of the imperial family. Even in the firm’s grimmest hour, it is hard to find anyone here who regards the recall as anything more than a blip.

That doesn’t change the fact that Toyota has handled the public relations operation with all the aplomb of a bumbling amateur.

Its initial response to the recall was an exercise in face-saving opacity. Toyoda went AWOL for two weeks, and when he finally surfaced, his comments merely highlighted the hazards involved when a quintessentially Japanese company is forced to manage a crisis spanning myriad cultures and consumer sensibilities

(In the U.S., the company was more proactive, sending its U.S. boss Jim Lentz to the social media site Digg to answer questions posed by worried consumers).