Opinion

We all thought the Japanese
walk on water!

Once upon a time — not so long ago in fact — the word “Toyota” was a synonym for “quality”, even “reliability”. Even that’s under recall now.

In a stunning reversal, the Tokyo-based auto giant is starting to back-pedal big-time. More than two million cars, from no less than eight model-lines, are being recalled, due to widespread performance-safety reports. Included in the massive backwards-movement were the popular Camry sedans and RAV4 sport utility vehicles. Red-faced Toyota execs admit that even the Prius, the green-car superstar, is under serious scrutiny.

Good news for America? Sure, in the sense that what’s not good for Toyota can prove great for General Motors (not to mention Ford). Last month, the latter realized a 24 percent increase in sales, and GM’s up-tick was also anything but shabby. Trend lines? Time, as it so often does, will tell.

In the meantime, the massive recall has an arguably philosophical as well as business dimension.

The first thing to be recalled is the notion that anything produced by the Japanese doesn’t need floatation devices because the Japanese walk on water. This idealization was most rampant in the eighties. This was when Japan had more disposable income than the rest of us, exported cars that were almost perfect and nearly cheap, and had on display, in Yasuhiro Nakasone, a Prime Minister who looked, acted and in fact was just about everything you could want in a PM.

Actually — and some people may not know this — the Japanese don’t walk, on water that is. In fact, they are humans, like the rest of us.

As a nation and as a race, they may on average be a little harder working and a little more insular than most tribes on the face of the earth; but fundamentally they are human beings like the rest of us, prone to gravitational pulls and the laws of nature. To suggest otherwise is, in fact, reverse racism.

Perhaps you don’t find Japanese mortality comforting — but I definitely do.  It helps explains anomalies.

Because unless you understand the Japanese as mortal members of planet earth like the rest of us, there is no way to explain why Japan’s economy is starting to lean like a potential Titanic; why its top national leaders sometimes act like goofballs; why its sizzling ice skaters (even a champ like the celestial Mao Asada) sometimes fall on their butts; why even their gigantically talented baseball players, like the great Godzilla, Hideki Matsui, the 2009 World Series Most Valuable Player, can whiff; why living-legend symphony conductors like even Seiji Ozawa can forget to give a poor exposed oboist a proper cue; and why gas pedals even in Toyotas can stick like used-Singapore-chewing-gum and cause unwanted acceleration.

So now we look for some balance in our assessment of the Japanese. Note, for purposes of calibration, that the regal, silver-tongued Nakasone is now aged 91. And in a way, so is Japan. In many retail price categories, South Korea now makes better mid-sized cars. In the area of macro finance, Beijing actually holds more American Treasury bonds than Tokyo. And last year Japan posted negative economic growth rates while those of China, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam were (in differing degrees) positive.

How humiliating! Or — how human!

Countries rise and fall, as do dynasties and civilizations; sometimes the undulations are even predictable.  Since the nineties Japan’s friends, as well as enemies, have been predicting a subtle setting of the land of the rising sun, unless Japan reformed itself — seriously. But what happened?

Japan failed to do so and so the decline proceeds apace. And now the decline apparently includes Toyota, one of Japan’s crown jewels.

Turn for a moment to another economic superpower: the United States. All smiles at Ford and GM right now, but across the great land of America, mostly frowns are to be found. Last year’s big financial shock has abated somewhat. No one is giving President Barrack Obama much credit for this, but recognition for that will come in time.

But in the meantime, serious reform of the American economy lags, as it did for the past two decades in Japan. In both countries, vested economic interests – as well as societal inertia — have had the political system in its vise, like a Mafia loan-shark shaking the last dollar out of a frightened, immobile customer. And so are the results predictable?

Look at the sad saga of once-invincible Toyota as a metaphor for what happens when you are riding so high, you just cannot see how far down you have to fall.


The writer, a columnist and journalist, has just completed a book on Lee Kuan Yew.

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