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The Toyota Congressional Hearings: A Cross-Cultural Conflict Situation

Fall 2010 vol. 11, No. 3

By: Motoo Unno

Invisible parts of culture had great impact in the recent hearings between Mr. Akio Toyoda, CEO and the grandson of the founder of Toyota Motor Company, and members of the U.S. Congress. The conflicts between Mr. Toyoda and the members of Congress were based on their own cultural values, beliefs and thought patterns. This article will analyze cross-cultural elements at one of the Toyota Congressional hearings, examining why and how cross-cultural conflict situations occurred. This article will also discuss how Mr. Toyoda and Congressional Representatives could become more effective at cross-cultural communication.

Low versus High-Context Communication Styles

At the beginning of the testimony, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), Chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee mentioned, that each Representative would have five minutes to ask Mr. Toyoda questions. Rep. Towns asked Mr. Toyoda to answer “…yes or no,” to these questions. Instead, Mr. Toyoda explained why unintended sudden acceleration occurred, examining four reasons for it and spending time on each of them in Japanese. His interpreter then translated Mr. Toyoda’s indirect long Japanese answers into English. Mr. Yoshimi Inaba, CEO of Toyota Motor North America, also jumped in at times and added to Mr. Toyoda’s explanation, saying that he wanted to bring a different viewpoint.

At this point, Rep. Towns reminded Mr. Toyoda how he was to respond, saying, “I’m asking yes or no.” Rep. Towns looked very frustrated with Mr. Toyoda’s Kabuki-dancing communication styles. His non-verbal cues showed his irritation, even pain. He put his right hand on his forehead and opened his mouth while he was listening to Mr. Toyoda’s answer. Rep. Towns was also impatient. While an interpreter was translating English into Japanese to Mr. Toyoda, he tried to interrupt a translation. Mr. Inaba told the Chairman that Mr. Toyoda’s interpreter was still translating.

From Chairman Towns’ viewpoint, Mr. Toyoda behaved as if he were dancing around the edge of a circle, never approaching the answers. There were two different communication styles between Chairman Towns and Mr. Toyoda: the Chairman’s were direct and focused, while Mr. Toyoda’s were indirect and circular. Interestingly enough, at one point during the hearing, Mr. Inaba said quietly to Mr. Toyoda in Japanese: “Shacho, tantekini, onegai itashimasu” which means: “Mr. President, please make it short.” Obviously Mr. Inaba, who can speak English fluently, recognized that Mr. Toyoda’s communication style was ineffective. This situation provided examples of a low and high-context of communication styles and the conflict that can occur between the two.

As Hall points out, context and communication are interrelated. In a high-context culture like Japan, messages are implicit. Mr. Toyoda often did not get to the point, assuming the representatives would understand. On the other hand, in a low-context culture like America, messages are explicit. Rep. Towns spoke clearly and directly. Differences in their contexts made their communication difficult and ineffective, and that caused cross-cultural conflict situations.

Attribution Across Cultures

In addition to communication styles, other cultural factors created conflict between Mr. Toyoda and the Representatives, including cultural sources of attribution. American people tend to think that behaviors are shaped by personal performances and dispositions. According to Morris, Larrick and Su, American negotiators tend to make dispositional attributions for their counterparts behaviors and ignore potential situational attributions. In a negotiation regarding a U.S.-Japan joint venture I observed in Tokyo, the American CEO of a U.S. IT company asked a Japanese senior manager from a public relations company whether or not he was interested in this joint venture. The Japanese senior manager answered that he wanted to establish a long-term relationship. In the Japanese culture, that means “Yes.” But, this American CEO interpreted that the Japanese senior manager was not interested in this joint venture, because, to the American, he made an excuse. In fact, this Japanese senior manager had to have a consensus among his company and could not yet agree. Thus, the American CEO did not consider the situational factors.

At the hearing conducted by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Mr. Toyoda explained the possibilities of why unintended sudden acceleration occurred using a situational approach. He also mentioned that increasing the volume of the production of cars had taken priority over training and developing employees, another situational factor. Despite these explanations associated with situational aspects, some Representatives were very skeptical of Mr. Toyoda and were dissatisfied with his reasoning.

After this hearing, Toyota organized a town hall meeting with its American employees and dealers at the National Press Building in Washington, D.C. in which Mr. Toyoda made a speech in English. He suddenly began crying while he read his speech. Many Japanese people in Japan thought that Mr. Toyoda cried because of many

hardships he had been facing, attributing his tears to situational rather than dispositional factors. At this town hall meeting American employees and dealers stood up and applauded him. However, most American people would regard him as a weak leader if they saw him crying in public. During the 1984 presidential election, Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro cried and that made Americans view her as a weak leader. Mr. Toyoda is supposed to be the leader of a global company. Could you imagine if the CEO of BP in U.S. cried after Congressional testimony because of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? If so, would you attribute his behavior to situational factors? I do not think so.

Consecutive versus Simultaneous Translation

Another factor that could have led to cross-cultural misunderstanding was the use of consecutive translation at the hearing. As I mentioned before, each Representative had only five minutes to ask questions. Because of Mr. Toyoda’s long answers and translations, they did not have enough time to make arguments. Using consecutive translation may have been part of Mr. Toyoda’s strategy and gave him some advantages. One interculturalist who participated in my session at the Intercultural Management Institute (IMI) Annual Conference at American University in March 2010 emphasized that language is identity. Thus she pointed out that Mr. Toyoda made the right choice because he was keeping part of his Japanese identity by using his native language. A bureau chief of a Japanese television station in Washington, D.C. made the point that using simultaneous translation would have been a high risk for Mr. Toyoda because members of the Congressional committee could make more arguments and ask more questions.

On the other hand, many other interculturalists who took part in my session at the IMI Conference said that Mr. Toyoda should have used simultaneous translation. These people noted that simultaneous translation is quicker and thus the hearing would have had a better tempo. Dr. Gary Weaver, professor at American University and executive director of IMI, also mentioned that Representatives were neither familiar with nor comfortable with consecutive translation.

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-VA), a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told me in an interview that he met Mr. Toyoda before the testimony and found that his English was perfect. Rep. Connolly expected that he would speak English in his testimony. He said he was disappointed with Mr. Toyoda and thought that Toyota used consecutive translation as a strategy to earn time.

There are several arguments about whether Mr. Toyoda should have used consecutive or simultaneous translation. However, he should have at least spoken in English when he apologized to victims and their families. That would likely have been more effective because Mr. Toyoda would have been able to convey his emotions by speaking English himself, instead of using a translator.

Effective Apology

In this hearing, Mr. Toyoda apologized to the victims and their families repeatedly. “I am deeply sorry for any accidents Toyota drivers have experienced,” he said, in Japanese. He also told them that he sincerely regrets accidents. “Truly speaking, truly, I feel very sorry for the members of Saylor family who ended their life,” he said. While Mr. Toyoda empathetically apologized, he looked pained.

In the Japanese society, a public apology with a deep bow to victims and the families of victims is needed before negotiations. Most Japanese CEOs pledge to resign from their responsibilities. A CEO’s apology in public has a deep meaning in Japan. Particularly, as Toyota is an icon of Japanese business and representative of “Japan, Inc.” Mr. Toyoda’s apology would be enough for the Japanese who have a “To Be” culture.

However, for a “To Do” culture like the U.S. which values action, it is not enough to only apologize. People in a “To Do” culture need concrete actions to fix problems quickly because they are results and short-term oriented. They look for tangible outcomes. Facing the midterm election this fall, Representatives had to make sure that Toyota had a persuasive action plan for consumers in their constituencies on how to prevent fatal accidents. Toyota should have taken the different values and beliefs of a “To Do” culture seriously in order to persuade Representatives at the hearing.


Face Management

Traditionally Japanese people have a tendency to value humbleness.  “We will listen to customer complaints humbly,” said Mr. Toyoda in his testimony, expressing his and Toyota’s humility. Japanese are also sensitive about the other person’s face. Face is called kao or mentsu in Japanese (which have the same meaning). Although Americans also use face to mean honor, in the Japanese culture it is more associated with the concept of haji, or shame. In Japan people tend to avoid disgracing another person when they have conflict, debates or arguments. In other words, they are other-face oriented, giving a face to others and maintaining the other person’s face. For example, in a Japanese mediation, parties usually consider a mediator’s reputation and the mediator takes their reputation into consideration. A Japanese
mediation is face-oriented, in that it works to preserve the standing of all involved, rather than being problem-solving oriented.

Although Mr. Toyoda apologized deeply during the testimony, some Representatives were not satisfied with his deep regret. “Where is the remorse?” asked Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), showing a book, The Toyota Way written by Liker. She argued that Toyota’s response to the recall problem was contradictory to one of Toyota’s principles, “Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time” described in this book. From Rep. Kaptur’s point of views, Toyota was too slow to fix problems. From the Japanese viewpoint, she was not sensitive about Mr. Toyoda’s face and tried to make Toyota look bad.

In contrast, in the testimony Rep. Diane Watson (DCA) said in Japanese to Mr. Toyoda: “Konbanwa?” and “Arigatou gozaimasu” which mean, “Good afternoon” and “Thank you.” Weaver pointed out that this was the best chance for Mr. Toyoda to shorten the psychological and cultural distance with members of Congress. Unfortunately Mr. Toyoda missed it. Since he had an earphone, he might not have heard her Japanese well and his interpreter might not have clarified because Rep. Watson spoke in Japanese. The bottom line is this: Mr. Toyoda should have personally given his feedback to her in Japanese or English immediately. Doing so might have altered the atmosphere of the hearing in a positive way and been a game changer.

After the testimony I asked Rep. Watson why she spoke to Mr. Toyoda in Japanese. She answered that she tried to help him save face. As Rep. Watson used to live in Okinawa and taught English in 1970s, she understood this important piece of Japanese culture.


As the old cliché says, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In his testimony Mr. Toyoda chose the Japanese way by using a consecutive translation and by mostly speaking Japanese, instead of a more American approach, which would have meant speaking English and giving short direct answers. It seems that no one advised him regarding the hearing from an intercultural communication viewpoint. There were some cultural mine fields and pitfalls in this hearing that neither Toyota nor members of Congress were clearly able to notice or avoid. Obviously characteristics of “To Be” and “To Do” cultures greatly influenced the effectiveness on this hearing. Toyota should have combined its strategies with these characteristics to use culture as a powerful resource to persuade Congress.


Hall, Edward T. and Elizabeth Hall. 2000. “How cultures collide.” In ed. Gary Weaver, Culture, Communication and Conflict. Boston, MA: Pearson Publishing.

Morris, Michael W., Richard P. Larrick and Steven K. Su. 1999. Misperceiving negotiation counterparts: When situationally determined bargaining behaviors are attributed to personality traits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77: 52-67.

Liker, Jeffery K. 2004. The Toyota Way. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Weaver, Gary R., and Adam Mendelson. 2008. America’s Midlife Crisis. Boston, MA: Intercultural Press.


Dr. Motoo Unno is a professor at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He was a visiting scholar at the Intercultural Management Institute from 2008-2010. His research focuses on President Obama’s leadership and communication styles. He is the author of 10 books, including Obama Grassroots (2009) and Japanese Subsidiaries in India and China (2008).