By Frank Ahrens and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; A16
From the moment the witnesses raised their rights hands and bowed their heads, through the halting mistranslations and the offerings of "konnichiwa" -- good afternoon -- it was clear that the normal rituals of a congressional hearing would be bent, if not broken.
Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the founder of the world's largest automaker, and Yoshimi Inaba, the company's North American president, appeared Wednesday before the House oversight committee to offer an apology and explanation for the defects that have caused their vehicles to sometimes accelerate out of control.
In words and gestures, they were nothing if not contrite. Throughout hours of testimony, Toyoda and Inaba used words such as "shameful" when describing past events, and "modestly" and "humbly" to describe how they will approach their responsibility for safety in the future.
Toyoda reminded the committee that he is in some ways the human embodiment of the car company, and that he, more than anyone, would want to repair the damage.
"All the Toyota vehicles bear my name," Toyoda said in his opening statement. "When the cars are damaged, it is though I am, as well."
The day didn't start well for the automaker.
To frame the hearing, committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) recounted the deaths of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor and his family, who rocketed down a San Diego road as their Lexus accelerated out of control, and whose last pleas were recorded in a 911 call.
"There is striking evidence that the company was at times more concerned with profit than with customer safety," Towns said.
Then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood excoriated the company for being "safety deaf" -- that is, not hearing and reacting to the numerous complaints of customers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that as many as 39 deaths may be linked to unintended acceleration in Toyotas.
But through demeanor and apology, Toyoda and Inaba seemed to defuse at least some of the anger.
"I am deeply sorry for any accidents Toyota drivers have experienced," Toyoda said.
Again: "I sincerely regret accidents."
And when pressed later on the problems, he offered, "Truly speaking, truly, I feel very sorry for the members of the Saylor family who ended their life with Toyota vehicles. I extend the condolences from the deepest part of my heart."
So how did the famed automaker lose its way? Toyoda even seemed to line up with what has been a popular theory among business analysts in recent weeks.
"Toyota has, for the past few years, been expanding its business rapidly," he said. "Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick."
LaHood and some lawmakers suggested that one of the company's key problems may have been arrogance, or at least a refusal to hear in Japan what drivers in the United States were saying.
Toyota North America has "some great people there, very professional, good people. We work with them. They make recommendations to Japan," LaHood said. "The decisions are made in Japan."
Some lawmakers referred to the cultural divide between the two nations and the way their governments and corporations operate.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) asked LaHood about the "notorious" culture of secrecy in Japan and wondered if he and the NHTSA had trouble "penetrating that culture" when investigating Toyota's troubles.
"Yes, we've had some issues." LaHood said. "That's why I picked up the phone and talked personally to Mr. Toyoda."
"I said, 'Lookit: This is serious,' " LaHood recalled. " 'Lives are being lost.' Right after that, they started taking action."
And LaHood said that as U.S. officials recognized a problem last year, Transportation Department acting Administrator Ron Medford had to travel to Toyota to speak to top company officials "because he didn't think his message was getting to Japan."
LaHood said he upbraided Toyota officials.
"My point is this: Their business model is this -- there are a lot of good people in North America, but the decisions are made in Japan," LaHood said.
Others blamed a lack of ethnic diversity in the automaker's management.
"It is my understanding there are no Americans in the top leadership in Japan," said Rep. John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tenn.). "It might be a good idea to put a couple Americans in the top leadership in Japan."
On the other hand, Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), who has a Toyota plant in his home district, complained that the Toyota investigation felt like a witch hunt. He lauded Toyota executives for the "cultural transformation" that his district has undergone, thanks to the company's presence.
Still, the Toyota executives seemed to elude the thunderous condemnations that congressional hearings sometimes evoke. In part, this may have been because of Toyoda's translator -- it added a delay and sometimes confusion. Some members thanked Toyoda for having traveled so far. And at least two members of the panel offered "konnichiwa."
But Toyota boosters thought Congress had been rude. Paul Atkinson, who represents a Toyota council of dealers, apologized to Toyoda and Inaba for how some congressional leaders asked questions.
"We apologize for the embarrassing way some members of Congress treated you these last few days," he said. "If Bill Gates had been treated the way you were in your country, imagine what would happen. We sincerely apologize."
Aside from the apology, Toyoda offered that the company will add a step to its recall process that will take account of customer safety and that it will form a "quality advisory group" that he will lead, and he said he will establish a new position of "product safety executive." Moreover, he said that he will ensure that members of the management team "actually drive the cars." But more than anything, he seemed to say, there would be a change in attitude.
"We will listen to customer complaints humbly," he said.
Staff writer Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.