Japan hopes Toyota can clear poor image

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Japan is looking to Toyota President Akio Toyoda's appearance before US lawmakers next week to help burnish an image marred by a flood of recalls -- and to prevent grievances over the issue from fanning broader political tensions.

With his company facing the worst crisis in its 70-year history, Toyoda will appear before the US House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday. The committee had essentially forced Toyoda into testifying by issuing an invitation.

Commentaries yesterday and statements by officials in Japan since Toyoda announced he would accept the request to testify reflect the unease over possible wider damage from Toyota Motor Corp's troubles.

"I hope Toyota will soon regain the trust of their customers around the world," Japan's Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said on Friday.

"Although this is a matter of one individual company, we wish to back them up as much as we can as it could become a national issue," Okada said.

Japan's industry and transport ministers also publicly applauded the decision, saying that Toyoda should take the opportunity to help reassure and mollify customers angered over the recalls of about 8.5 million vehicles over sticking gas pedals, accelerators jamming in floor mats and momentarily unresponsive brakes.

"We should not make this issue a political matter between the Japanese and US governments," said Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Masayuki Naoshima, himself a former Toyota group employee.

While so far the recalls remain a safety and business issue, Japanese officials are keen to ensure it stays that way at a time when ties with Washington already are strained by a dispute over plans to move a US Marine base on Okinawa.

Many in Japan have voiced suspicions that uproar over the recalls might be driven by political motives, given the US government's stake in General Motors Co and its costly bailouts for the domestic motor industry.

But opinion favoring Toyoda's choice to publicly answer questions over the company's handling of the problems leading to the recalls seems for now to be outweighing dismissals of the crisis as evidence of "Japan bashing."

"The planned public hearing is drawing a good deal of attention from around the world, and we hope Toyota will with full sincerity explain its stance on the problem," the mass-circulation newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said yesterday.

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