William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."
A must-have for any Museum of Corporate Shame would be the Toyota Motor wing.
Turns out, Japan Inc.'s most iconic name is the top benefactor of Republican members of Congress who backed Donald Trump's Jan. 6 coup attempt. Toyota's political action committee had pledged not to support the lawmakers who tried to scam a second presidential term for Trump. It has since quietly resumed donating to roughly a quarter of those 147 lawmakers throwing democracy under the bus.
Hey, that is how business works, Toyota boosters counter. Others are doing it too, including AT&T, Cigna and JetBlue Airways, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. And come on, it was only $55,000 that Toyota lavished on the "sedition caucus."
Well, spending the most sent Toyota trending in U.S. cyberspace like rarely before. As Kara Swisher, Silicon Valley's "most powerful tech journalist" -- according to Newsweek -- tweeted: "I briefly considered the Toyota Sedition but settled on the Kia Sorento. More USB ports and 100% less insurrection."
Added television pundit and Big Dirty Money author Jennifer Taub: "My family owns two Priuses. One is 10 years old and ready for a replacement. We won't purchase another Toyota again."
The blowback in the Japanese media has been minimal. We can debate why. Toyota is indeed a ginormous advertiser. But it would be a mistake to let the cravenness of such political donations slide. It runs spectacularly counter to the Tokyo zeitgeist about corporate giants raising their governance games and a broader embrace of environmental, social and governance, or ESG, priorities.
The shenanigans at Toshiba are reminder enough how much remains of the old Japan that former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to modernize. Companies are not democracies, but the voices and votes of shareholders are supposed to matter. Tell that to Effissimo Capital Management, Toshiba's top shareholder, which is struggling to change what it calls "dysfunctional" management tactics.
Toyota shows, too, that Abe's Liberal Democratic Party forgot the takeaway from Jaws -- you need a bigger boat. As taught in Steven Spielberg's classic, now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the shark has merely gone out to sea -- but it will soon return.
Few metaphors better encapsulate the Japan Inc. ethos. Toyota, remember, allied itself with the Trump White House's attack on vehicle emissions standards. Here, too, boosters will say it is par for the course, pointing to Abe positioning Japan as Trump's only real ally among acceptable-company world leaders. Trump's best pals from 2017 to 2020 were Russia's Vladimir Putin, North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Abe.
Yet Toyota suing California, standing shoulder to shoulder with a U.S. president working to bring back coal and asbestos, still boggles the mind. It did just that in 2019, working with Trump, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler to force California to loosen emissions standards.
At the time, automakers claimed the effort to Trumpify pollution levels was really about bringing order to the regulatory landscape. Instead, it created a different kind of chaos and cheered Trump's base. Odd that the fabled maker of the Prius, champion of the electric-vehicle revolution and purveyor of ESG news releases would take such a Trumpian detour.
Japan Inc. is having a dreadful 2021. Toyota, of course, is a major Tokyo Olympics sponsor. Japan's determination to do the games this month amid a pandemic is its own public relations disaster for corporate backers. The best Toyota could do was to admit it was "concerned" that the vast majority of Japanese wanted Tokyo 2020 canceled or delayed. Even Emperor Naruhito reportedly has reservations about holding the games.
Myanmar is another PR land mine. Neither the corporate establishment nor Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took a firm -- or even semi-clear -- stand on the coup in Myanmar.
Just this week, we learned that a company headed by Hideo Watanabe, a former minister of posts and telecommunications, is working on a land deal with Myanmar's Defense Ministry. The junta now putting deposed Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on trial grabbed power in February, pulling off the coup that some Republicans wanted to try using Trump's own language.
Companies giving money to Trumpists sure does seem like the financial analog of Republican leaders in Washington saying Jan. 6 was no big deal -- let us move on. Here, Toyota's defense is as chilling as it is clueless.
As a spokesperson told the Axios news portal: "We do not believe it is appropriate to judge members of Congress solely based on their votes on the electoral certification." Rather, "Toyota supports candidates based on their position on issues that are important to the auto industry and the company."
Young Americans already are showing what think about the auto industry, by not buying cars the way their parents did. Many millennials and Generation Z members are happy just to use car-sharing apps.
These woke generations are also hypersensitive to social justice issues -- from environmental protection to little things like, say, democracy. And they are superconnected to the social media feeds on their phones to get the sense that at least Honda, Nissan Motor and Volkswagen are not filling the pockets of wannabe autocrats.
Rather than supporting Washington's sedition caucus, Japan Inc. icons might want to learn the lesson of Jaws, and get a bigger boat.