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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

February 17, 2010

Written by C.N.

Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans

As I’m sure almost everybody has heard about, these past few months have not been good for Toyota. Due to a variety of quality control issues, accident reports, and several fatalities involving many of their models, Toyota has recalled over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, one of the largest mass automotive recall in history. With each passing day, new media scrutiny, and every piece of bad publicity, Toyota’s reputation continues to plummet.

In looking at the larger sociological context of Toyota’s struggles, there are a couple of questions that come up. First, as many observers have wondered, to what extent are Toyota’s problems due to them basically becoming too arrogant and viewing themselves and their products as invincible? That is, Toyota (along with several other Asian automakers) have weathered the current recession and in fact, the past several years, much better than U.S. automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, mainly by producing many high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. But did Toyota’s success make them complacent? As one example of this criticism, AutoBlog reports:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has absolutely blasted the Japanese giant, calling it “a little safety deaf” and noting he was upset that NHTSA officials had to fly to Japan “to remind Toyota management about its legal obligations.” That’s just the tip of the spear stuff, too. Check out the shaft:

Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers. While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.

In fact, as MSNBC reports, Toyota’s apparent initial lack of urgency to respond to the growing criticisms may be characteristic of many large Japanese who have also risen to the top of their industries, only to find that when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — down:

Toyota is the latest Japanese corporate icon making headlines for all the wrong reasons. News of the automaker’s massive vehicle recalls over faulty gas pedals in the U.S. came just days after Japan Airlines, a once proud flag carrier, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions in debt.

Sony has lost its lead in consumer gadgets to the likes of Apple Inc. and has suffered its own quality mishaps. Honda, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, is recalling 646,000 cars worldwide because of a faulty window switch. . . . Taken together, Japan Inc.’s stellar reputation for quality has taken a hit — just as China is about to overtake it as the world’s No. 2 economy and rising South Korean companies compete ever more aggressively.

What went wrong with the economic giant that arose from the ashes of World War II? The problems that confront Toyota, Sony and JAL differ, but experts say their struggles have some common themes: the perils of global expansion, a tendency to embrace the status quo, and smugness bred from success or a too-big-to-fail mentality.

“Arrogance and some complacency came into play, driven by the idea that their ranking as No. 1 producer of quality goods wasn’t at risk,” said Kirby Daley [chief strategist at Newedge Group]. . . . The global economic crisis helped to expose weaknesses, he said. “There was nowhere to hide.”

Clearly, Toyota has a lot of work to do in order to regain customers’ trust and to rebuild their image for making safe and reliable cars. But beyond that, does Toyota’s recent problems affect Asian Americans?

In my classes, I often use Toyota as an analogy and metaphor for the Asian American community as a whole — both have been in the U.S. for a while but early on, were looked upon with curiosity, derision, and even hostility. Toyota and Asian Americans as a whole were seen as strange foreigners who probably had no future in the U.S. and pesky nuisances to “traditional” Americans.

Nonetheless, both were persistent and determined and after years of mostly quiet hard work, were able to eventually establish themselves as mainstream Americans and in many ways, outperform their “traditional” American counterparts. Nowadays, both Toyota and Asian Americans are poised to make unique contributions to American society and its economy as globalization continues to evolve in the 21st century.

But now that Toyota is in a major consumer and public relations crisis, do its struggles reflect negatively on Asian Americans? With racial/ethnic tensions heightened during the recession, will some Americans use these recent events to launch or intensify some kind of anti-Toyota, anti-Japan, anti-Asian, or anti-foreigner backlash movement?

Inevitably, I suppose there will be some Americans with that kind of mentality and motivation. It’s also likely that Toyota’s sales will take a while to rebound, both as a result of this particular crisis and because of the recession in general. But ultimately, and perhaps in contrast to some of my past pessimistic posts about racial/ethnic relations in the near future, I predict that Toyota will recover and become even stronger, just like the recent history and successes of Asian Americans as a community.

I believe this because Toyota has decades of experience and history behind them — they are not new to this industry, and they have weathered recessions before. Let us remember that Toyota is not the only automaker that has experienced mass recalls or bad publicity before. For example, just in the last decade, Ford has recalled over 14.5 million vehicles for various defects and for those who remember, back in the 1980s, Audi’s U.S. sales and overall corporate image virtually collapsed over high-profile allegations of unintended acceleration involving their 5000 model.

To put Toyota’s situation into further perspective, Toyota is firmly established in the U.S. as an American company — it currently employs around 150,000 American workers in their factories, offices, and dealerships. If Toyota were to fail, so would many American workers, families, and communities. Finally, part of Toyota’s culture is built around a collective mindset that focuses on long-term progress and shared participation that has resulted in sustained growth and prosperity through the years.

In other words, Toyota — like Asian Americans as a whole — has accomplished too much to give up now. As a metaphor for Asian Americans, I expect Toyota to learn from their mistakes, overcome the difficulties they face, be patient and aggressive in pushing forward, and continue their long record of success. They still have much to contribute to American society and we as Americans still have much to gain from them in many ways.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2010/02/connecting-toyota-asian-americans/> ().

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