Is Apology By Toyota Prexy Disingenuous?

This morning Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized profusely to the Japanese people for making vehicles that have not excited domestic buyers. He was also contrite over the company's projected loss of $5 billion for the year, and for a recent floor-mat recall prompted by the deaths of four people in San Diego. But Toyota, which overtook GM as the world's largest automaker last year, is still much better off than any American car company. Can our auto execs learn from Mr. Toyoda's regrets? (Below, the popular Toyota Prius.)

The New York Times says that Toyoda's "public display of grief" is in keeping with a "tradition of remorse" in Japan, which are common among politicians and businessmen. He called a decision to cease production at a California plant "agonizing" and said Toyota had betrayed its roots. The Times also quotes a professor at Temple University's Japan campus who says such public apologies are often ways to "avoid taking real action or responsibility" for a company's distress. Toyoda is the grandson of the company's founder.

BusinessWeek was also critical of the speech, reporting that analysts wanted more specificity from Toyoda about the company's financials, and about how it plans to revamp its line-up. But it also notes that Toyoda is well known for obsessively testing competitors' cars to glean their advantages and disadvantages, a compulsion that might seem foreign to most American execs. Compare Toyoda's strategy to Steve Ballmer's recent ridicule of one Windows project employee who brought an iPhone to a private company meeting, and the effect of hubris comes into full relief.

And what about CEOs of American car companies? Speaking before Congress in December, American car chiefs promised greener cars, offered to take $1 salaries, and discussed re-opening union negotiations, in exchange for billions in cut-rate Federal loans. A little contrition, disingenuous or not, would be welcome.

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