What can Japanese businesses learn from the unprecedented crisis engulfing Toyota, Japan’s flagship automaker?

It’s a question that was raised over spring break as the Japan Business Association and the Jerome A. Chazen Institute of International Business launched the 21st annual Japan Study Tour. Forty students, one faculty member and a Chazen representative spent nine days in Kyoto, Hakone and Tokyo. The tour, which was impeccably organized, included site visits to Nomura Holdings, Sony, the Mori Building, Gekkeikan’s sake-brewing facility and, of course, Toyota.

The revered automaker is probably the most powerful symbol of Japan’s rise to manufacturing excellence over the half-century since World War II, and a symbol of Japan’s self-confidence on the world stage in the 1980s. With the perceived safety and reliability of its vehicles providing a key competitive advantage, Toyota has grown in stature over the last two decades, recently eclipsing General Motors to claim the title of the world’s number one automaker.

Then came the recall. Over the past six months, Toyota’s reputation has been severely tarnished by a worldwide vehicle safety recall in which more than eight million vehicles, including the cutting-edge Prius sedan, have now been called back. The carmaker’s recent troubles are also damaging the excellent standing of other Japanese businesses according to some analysts, which comes at a time when the nation is set to be overtaken by China as the world’s second-largest economy. The crisis at Toyota is raising questions about the viability of Japan’s economy, beset by deflation, and its major corporations. With this in mind, our trip to Toyota City — a municipality that revolves around the automaker and houses its corporate headquarters, main research facilities and manufacturing plants — was perhaps the most anticipated company visit of the 2010 tour.


Japan’s auto industry can still make a comeback, panelists said.

We toured the corporate museum, a welding facility and an assembly plant, but, not surprisingly, had no meetings with top Toyota executives. However, Toyota’s troubles and their broader implications for Japanese companies was the topic of a lively debate when Columbia Business School’s Alumni Club of Japan hosted us at the Josui Kaikan building in the center of Tokyo.

In a discussion moderated by Japan expert and Michigan’s Ross School of Business Professor Schon Beechler (also a former Columbia Business School professor), alumni and current students talked about the competitive outlook for Japanese businesses and what the future may hold for Asia’s most developed economy. Beechler critiqued the recent Newsweek article “Toyota and the End of Japan” (March 5, 2010) as being too pessimistic. Rather than facing a precipitous decline, she said, Japan is instead at “an exciting inflection point.”

For other panelists — Japanese nationals educated at American business schools — Toyota’s problems are key to understanding Japan’s zeitgeist and are symptomatic of a nation withdrawing from the world. A case in point: While Sony and Nissan both have non-Japanese CEOs, signifying their global outlook, Toyota remains a “homespun” company with its Japanese president, Akio Toyoda, grandson of company founder Kiichiro Toyoda. A company like Toyota needs a leader with a more global mindset, the panelists said.

When it comes to the competiveness of another of Japan’s core industries — electronics — Japanese manufacturers are slipping behind major new rivals like Korea’s Samsung. Panelists agreed that Japanese companies now need to imbue their corporate cultures with a “sense of urgency.” Korea, India and China are nearby nations that are growing quickly and represent a significant threat, they said. The discussion ended on a hopeful note, however. Despite its current troubles, Japan has a lot to offer. The automotive and electronics sectors can come back, the panelists said, and Japan has expertise in healthcare, robotics and tourism that can make it very competitive in the modern global economy. The future of Japan lies in closer integration and cooperation with its neighbors, such as Korea and China.

“There’s a pressure on this country to open up, but there’s also a deep pride in the Japanese culture,” Beechler said. “This is the issue that will determine the future of business in Japan; it will determine whether the nation succeeds or fails.”

Photo credits: Junichiro Mimaki; Guzel Chechenova