Toyota’s Press departs for Chrysler

I was on vacation but back at work, although from home, when I found out late at night that Jim Press whom I’ve written about in this blog was leaving Toyota for Chrysler.
Press, an American, just joined the board of Toyota as the first non-Japanese three months ago.
It was a rather high-profile promotion as a clear message about how Toyota was becoming a global company.
Press’ getting headhunted to Chrysler is a sign of how Toyota is winning respect in the industry.
But I wonder who’ll be the next non-Japanese Toyota brings on board?

Politics and Toyota

A couple of our reporters were out this week and so I got to do politics stories for a change.
It’s an exciting time to be covering politics in Japan because the ruling Liberal Democrats have suffered their biggest defeat probably in the history of their party, which has ruled Japan virtually all the time for more than 50 years.
The Liberal Democrats are credited with orchestrating Japan’s modernization and reconstruction after World War II.
But Japan and its voters are changing.
Many young people, usually associated with total disinterest in politics, voted for the opposition in the latest election.
Analysts say the candidates for the opposition have never been better.
And they may be finally giving Japanese voters a chance for a real alternative to the Liberal Democrats.
It’s fun to send alerts.
It gets your adrenaline going.
And it’s a bit frightening.
But it’s always a moment I look back on (during a weekend, say, like today) as one reason why reporting is so much fun.
Our bureau got to do that earlier this week because the agriculture minister stepped down to take responsibility for the election defeat.
Now the question is if/when will the prime minister resign/reshuffle the Cabinet/dissolve the lower house of Parliament.
I also did my usual job covering business on Toyota’s earnings.
Toyota posted a 32 percent rise in profit for the first fiscal quarter.
Another time for an alert.

Lexus dojo

Not all auto workers are created equal. And the top Lexus workers are the cream of the crop.
They have impeccable touch, impeccable technique _ and from the way Toyota puts it even impeccable minds.
Reporters got a tour of the Tahara Lexus plant.
Part of the paint job a Lexus gets (and they get a few more coatings than your humble Corolla) is a rubdown by workers with almost loving hands as though they’re petting a thoroughbred race horse.
Toyota calls it “dojo.” There’s a lot of dojo-ism at any Toyota plant, but it’s taken to new heights at a Lexus plant.
The official there told us all the perfections they’d come up with for the first-generation Lexus, like all the pieces fitting just right in the interior, are already available for the Corolla.
And so the pursuit for ever higher perfection must always be at the heart of a Lexus plant, he says.
The tour itself was an exercise in Just in Time and effort at efficiency, and we were zipped around from one place to another, constantly being told we were falling behind schedule. And I felt a bit harried.
I guess I’ll never make it as a Lexus worker.

American on board at Toyota

A white male isn’t ususally speaking from the minority side of the diversity divide.
But Jim Press is the first non-Japanese to join the board of Toyota ( my story on his promotion winning shareholder approval last week).
He talks very softly _ Japanese style _ and says much of Toyota’s corporate culture is Japanese _ hence the understatement about becoming No. 1.
I asked him about that: Why Toyota officials keep saying they aren’t making beating GM/becoming No. 1 their goal, when reaching the top would seem like a victory for a company.
“Do you read your own headlines? Do you believe it? Would you forget how you got there, if you were? I don’t see any benefit in that. Customers don’t care who’s No. 1.”
Then Press asked me where I was from _ to make sure I understood Japanese culture.
“There’s no satisfaction of beating somebody,” he said. “That’s not something you’re proud of, is it?”
I had to say:
“Sometimes we like to beat Reuters.”
His reply:
“But you’re not a Japanese company, are you?”
How can Toyota become more American?
Toyota is already an American company, he said.
He said Toyota has a “hybrid” culture _ clever how he got the automaker’s key technology in there!
Press compared Toyota to the immigrant who becomes American _ yet continues to be proud of his/her roots:
“At how many generations removed from the original immigrant do you lose your identity? None. You should keep that. That’s part of diversity. You keep the strength of what makes you different, what makes you good and successful. But you’re doing it in that country. We want to be the best company in America _ period.”

Toyota, Hello Kitty and the Whopper

Sometimes a reporter feels like the fighter in a video game, throwing punches, kicking, twirling and jumping to take on several enemies from all sides, writing a story about Toyota reaching the one million mark on hybrid vehicle sales one minute, while writing a story about NEC Corp.’s Hello Kitty laptop the next minute.
Today I went to cover the opening of a Burger King restaurant.
A long line had formed outside the fast-food restaurant.
Where else but in Japan?
The Japanese business partners behind Burger King’s return to Japan are the same people behind Krispy Kreme.
They know how to attract media attention yet manage to put a talk-of-the-town spin on their stores.
That’s very important to attract the long lines, which in turn set off more talk and attract more people.
(1) Japanese have a greater tolerance for hourslong cues because they were brought up in a conformist-oriented rigid society that has required them to be one of the masses in a tiny place.
(2) Japanese assume mass interest is a good indicator for quality and desirability, rather than thinking that individuals may have different preferences.
(3) Japanese are afraid about being left out, and so ignorance or disinterest in something that draws long lines is by definition undesirable, dangerous and possibly a sign of derangement.
In Japan, being one of a crowd is (1) the way it is (2) a good thing (3) patriotic.
Being an individual is (1) weird (2) evil (3) not Japanese.
But Japanese are also having a lot of fun being in long lines. It is an event.
Guys were standing in lines at Burger King with their dates.
And the dates looked happy. They didn’t think their man was cheap or dumb, but rather an “oshare” jolly guy.
The stereotype about Japanese being subdued is hogwash _ at least among Whopper lovers.
Well-behaved expressiveness was rampant at the the trivia quiz show at the store opening.
What was Japan doing in 1957 when the Whopper was invented?
“Hai!” “Hai!” “Hai!”
It went on and on, and they each got a Burger King T-shirt.
Being part of a mass (at least a modern-day Japanese mass) is (1) fun (2) hip and so far, thank god, (3) innocent.

Toyota on road to No. 1

Numbers for the first quarter show that Toyota beat General Motors in global vehicle quarterly sales for the first time ever.
That’s a milestone for the Japanese automaker.
And the odds are something like 9-1 that Toyota will do that for the whole year.
The contest is already won in profitability.
Toyota is rolling in cash while GM is losing money the last couple of years.
GM has been the world’s No. 1 automaker _ i.e., in number of vehicles produced globally per year _ for 76 years.
This past week was earnings time for Japanese automakers _ Nissan and Honda.
Toyota reports earnings in May.

Japanese Automakers 2

A couple of stories about new technology at Japanese automakers:
Nissan and hybrid technology.
Toyota and telematics technology.

Japanese automakers

At a time when Detroit’s Big Three are closing plants and slashing jobs to revive their ailing business, their Japanese counterparts are busy opening plants in Japan for the first time in decades.
My AP story and another link , and another.
Toyota named Jim Press, an American, as its first foreigner on its board of directors. Another link That’s a move apparently meant to avert a backlash for the surging sales of the Toyota Yaris and other Japanese imports in the U.S.
_ a theme that’s explored in my other story.


One of the biggest stories to watch for this year is Toyota’s almost-certain-to-happen rise to the top, beating General Motors as the world’s No. 1 automaker in annual global vehicle production (and sales).,2777,DRMN_23916_5250509,00.html

And there’s Sony. Sony needs to perk up its image (after the embarrassing massive recall of lithium-ion batteries). And the new year has started with everyone talking about the iPhone instead. Sony has so much riding on how the PlayStation 3 and Blu-ray disk fare this year. Maybe we need to even watch for takeover attempts and management shuffles?

Japan hopes to lead the world in robotics, and robots are constantly in the news here. Stories about robots make for a fun read (and fun reporting), partly because Japan views robots as cute nearly human companions _ a contrast to the view prevalent in the West of robots as tools.

An important development to monitor this year is Japan’s defense business. Japan is growing more assertive on the international stage, and the government has made no secret of its ambitions to beef up defense. The nuclear threat from North Korea has encouraged public support for the changes.