Toyota Motor Co. is set to become the world’s biggest automobile company this year, overtaking US General Motors. Is it too big for its boots, wonders Shukan Kinyobi.
Toyota is much too close to the Japanese government for comfort, warns the magazine, and most of the media runs scared of its whopping ¥81.7 billion a year in domestic advertising.
As evidence for the prosecution, the weekly cites last autumn’s general election when Toyota worked hand in glove with the government to get Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi reelected.
Koizumi teamed up with Hiroshi Okuda, Toyota boss and Keidanren chairman. Before the election, Okuda announced his support for postal privatization and hinted that Koizumi should dissolve parliament.
Nobody can remember Toyota executives actively campaigning for the LDP, but Okuda even encouraged the Chubu Economic Federation (Chukeiren) to support the party.
The federation usually distances itself from politics but the group waded in on Koizumi’s side in Aichi Prefecture, Toyota’s base. The Chukeiren is quoted as saying in the weekly magazine that Toyota came for the first time to ask the group to back the LDP.
Toyota employees took charge of reception desks and collected business cards from guests at LDP candidate gatherings.
Toyota wives and daughters organized women-only meetings where company execs lectured how their business would only prosper in an LDP-led government. The company also asked affiliated firms to vote for the ruling party.
As Koizumi campaigned in Aichi just a few days before the election, about 6,000 supporters, including many Toyota employees in suits (weren’t they supposed to be working?) came to cheer him on. Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe, who used to distance himself from politics, ran around to speak for the LDP.
Is all this ethical? asks Kinyobi. Isn’t the government supposed to be neutral? Takashi Kawamura, of the Democratic Party of Japan, was one of those who cried foul. “A basic rule of democracy is for voters to participate in elections as private citizens without bringing any business affiliations,” he told the magazine.
Toyota Union was also not happy with its employers’ obvious political involvement, though not perhaps for the reasons some might suspect. It was worried that taking political sides would tarnish the image of the company among the general public.
Campaign officers for the LDP in Aichi said that this was the first time in decades that Toyota had showed such strong support for the ruling party. The LDP was able to gather confident assistance from financial circles thanks to Okuda.
Toyota had once flirted with other parties, but the company ended up demoting a would-be executive a few years ago when he supported the DPJ. “This experience was traumatic for the Toyota execs and they learned they can suffer enormous retaliation for not supporting the LDP,” according to a Toyota observer.
When Okuda was appointed Keidanren chairman in 2002, he began the political endorsement of the ruling party and befriended the Koizumi regime.
Currently, Toyota is the largest single contributor to the party; in 2003 it donated ¥64.4 million to LDP coffers.
Toyota’s clout was obvious when Okuda opposed an early policy to allocate road tax to general revenues, an attempt to curb the proliferation of roads. The company began distributing leaflets and petitions, and the LDP postponed the policy.
Okuda is also known to work with Koizumi on postal privatization because Toyota benefits from sales increases in the US and favors an improved bilateral relationship,
which will come from the expected cash flow of postal savings money into the US market.
Thus Toyota, says Kinyobi, is pushing governmental policies that hurt citizens to benefit its own interests. But even with this worrying closeness between Japan’s most powerful political party and its richest company the media have been suspiciously quiet.
Perhaps, speculates the magazine, Toyota’s ¥81.7 billion annual budget has something to do with it.
The Toyota observer praises company employees as intelligent and energetic, but says they are too keen to follow their leader. The question is then, has Okuda
chosen the right direction?