Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

They Might Have Been Giants

This really seems to be Giant-Killing Season...or at least Giant-Tripping Season. DPJ president Ozawa wasn't the only big name to find himself suddenly suffering from egg-in-face syndrome.

Part One: Cars
(Cue Gary Numan soundtrack)
Not so long ago it seemed that Toyota Motors (slightly tinny fanfare) was an unshakable fortress. It was a consistent leader in both quality and consumer satisfaction. Not only did it outperform the US Big Three (wavering fanfare) in sales from at least the mid to late 1980s, but its flagship Prius hybrid was without a doubt the single best-selling car of the past few years, with waiting lists of up to several months. From the latter part of the 20th century, it seemed that Toyota was the standard by which all car makers were measured.

That's not to say that Toyota was perfect. After all, my BLUE RAV4 got recalled twice during the first year after I bought it. On both occasions it was a quick, ten-minute job replacing something that seemed rather trivial; I had certainly had no problems of any kind. However, I was told that there had apparently been some customer complaints about the part in question, so Toyota had improved it. Far from being outraged, I took it as proof that Toyota cared about both its products and its customers. They wanted to be the best, so they did their best.

I remember reading an article last year describing a few incidents where a Prius' throttle apparently got stuck, causing the car to accelerate uncontrollably. The number of such cases was very small, and luckily only one of them resulted in serious injury, but Toyota didn't seem to take it very seriously. They claimed that the problem resulted from the owners' using "non-standard" floor mats (even during one case involving a dealership's own stock test-drive car). Investigations were (said to have been) conducted and warnings issued, but the company ruled out taking any real action. Again, it was claimed that the owners themselves were mainly to blame. It wasn't long before the number of such incidents not only increased, but spread to other Toyota models. It was only then that the company really sat up and took notice.

Thus began the Great Recall of 2010. Toyota endeavored to replace an accelerator pedal part that was prone to swell in high humidity, causing it to stick. That type of accelerator was used in several highly popular Toyota models including the Prius, Camry, and a couple of pickup truck models. As if the sheer volume of the recall, and the tremendous expense that no doubt goes with it, weren't amazing enough, the reaction of the media and a lot of the buying public has been just plain unbelievable (though not really surprising).

Just as DPJ president Ozawa's once-astronomical popularity went straight down the shaft after the first funding scandal, Toyota has suddenly gone from steadfast standard to resident doormat. The media is milking the issue for all it is worth. Not surprisingly, Toyota's sales have plummeted just under 20% during the past month, falling behind Ford in the US for the first time in ages. Then there are all the customers that are being less than enthusiastic about the recall; instead of accepting the free repair and coming away with a better machine, some people have tried, often frothily, to return their car and get their money back. Some have even gotten violent when told that they couldn't do so. It's classic human overreaction and developed-nation conceit amplified a thousand times over.

And now a new, potentially worse problem has cropped up in the brake system of the latest Prius model plus two types only sold in Japan. The Great Recall is due to become even greater.

I remember well that, within the last decade, both Mitsubishi and Ford had similar problems with defective cars (bad brakes in the case of Mitsubishi, bad tires in the case of Ford). However, unlike Toyota, both cases involved several if not dozens of deaths, and both companies tried very hard to cover it all up. It wasn't until investigations rooted out the truth that the companies acknowledged it at all. I remember the resulting media hype and public boil-over, but it seemed very short lived compared with what we're seeing now. At any rate, the public seems to have forgotten. Now Toyota is getting publicly battered even worse despite the less seriousness of the problem. I'm sure they'll come out of it just as Ford and Mitsubishi did, but their reputation may never again be what it was.

Part Two: Sumo
(cue Oingo Boingo)
As a Yokozuna (Grand Champion), sumo rikishi Asashoryu has never had an easy time of it. A lot of it has always had to do with the simple fact that he's Mongolian; as Hawaiian rikishi Akebono first found out back in the '90s, the Japanese tend to be rather unforgiving toward foreign Yokozuna, especially if there are no native rikishi of equal rank. However, Asashoryu always seemed determined to reinforce if not create negative stereotypes by taking a lot of silly risks.

Most of it was a simple matter of money. Unlike most high-ranked rikishi, Asashoryu wasted no time in cashing in on his success. There was no question of his domination of the sport of sumo (at least at first) as he racked up a historically impressive tally of wins. What most people didn't know, however, was that he was using his salary and winnings to invest heavily in businesses back home in newly-capitalist Mongolia. Moreover, instead of spending his time between tournaments training at his stable, he was flying back to his native country to manage his new holdings. When news of his profit-oriented activities finally broke, a lot of people felt he was taking his position as Yokozuna far too lightly. Even worse, sumo fans noticed an obvious decline in his performance in the ring, and yet he continued to win. It wasn't long before accusations of match-fixing began to emerge. Things finally came to a head when, in the midst of the scandal, he suddenly announced he was going back to Mongolia to recover from "injuries"...and then was shown on TV playing in a charity soccer match, apparently none the worse for wear. The resulting suspension did little to daunt him, however.

In the end, it was Asashoryu's own personality that finally did him in. Unlike Japanese rikishi, who tend to be quiet and reserved, he was brash, even raucous. He was prone both to boast and to talk trash in a tradition-dominated sport that frowns on both. He was also notoriously aggressive outside the ring. Most people acquainted with him knew that it was generally a good idea to stay out of his way. Apparently somebody didn't. The story broke (and was covered to DEATH by the media) that the Yokozuna had punched someone in the face and broken his nose outside a Tokyo nightclub, apparently in a drunken fit. Asashoryu's own story quickly changed from, "Someone is trying to frame me," to, "I don't remember what happened because I was too drunk." Facing historically unprecedented punishment, the Yokozuna decided to throw in his mawashi (loincloth) and call it quits. Despite his impressive record, no one at all is surprised that his career ended on such an ignoble note.

Now that the giants are falling, I guess it's time for someone else to take over. The question is who.


  • Several US Toyota dealers pulled their adds because they thought the media was being excessive.

    Toyotas will still be good cars.

    I think I may have seen a Sumo match on TV once. Wrestling in the US is generally regarded as fake. I don't think so much. They get the crap beaten out of each other. Sports makes all kinds of little gods.

    I would regard your wrestler's behavior as rather consistent of a champion. Take Tiger Woods for instance.

    By Anonymous Dave, at 3:36 AM  

  • Perhaps if Asashoryu punches Akio Toyoda we can call it all even and move on.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 7:05 AM  

  • Dave
    I recall a case where a "pro wrestler" in the US severely injured his opponent, resulting in lengthy hospitalization. Charges were pressed. When questioned, the offending wrestler said, "He did something we hadn't rehearsed."

    I also recall a once-famous pro wrestler admitting after retirement that the matches were generally staged. That's not to say that they don't pound the crap out of each other.

    A lot of people in Japan wonder just how much of sumo is real and how much is "arranged". Rikishi can and do wind up getting injured, sometimes badly. However, there is a lot of politics in sumo, too, and I have seen some pretty lame matches where a younger rikishi obviously took a dive to allow a famous but hurting senior opponent to win.

    Only if Asashoryu then drives one of the defective Toyota models.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:53 AM  

  • Hmmm unfortunately I don't think it's a case of "marketing gone bad" for Toyota. There have been more than "several" deaths. I think the real reason is some people died who 'mattered' (a cop and his whole family)-more here

    Westerners with money lawyer up when s#^&t goes down and Toyota went ...oh crap. Not to say we don't have our own corporate shenanigans (Love Canal anyone?).

    Let's just say I have the inside track on some very large law firms. There are more deaths than what has been reported in the news and there will be Class Action at a minimum.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 11:25 PM  

  • Re: recalls - take a train, take a bus, get a bicycle, take a walk. Cars are history anyway.

    Re: sumo - institute a weight limit. return Sumo to the athletic event it was fifty or so years ago. Of course, you'd also have to eliminate the criminal element present in all professional sports. Fat chance.

    Who needs mega corporations and mega sports anyway? Let the giants fall and never be replaced.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 1:54 PM  

  • Re: recalls - I'd agree except when I'd have to haul things, as I so often do. That's what got me into that yellow line trap in Tokyo last month. It's kind of hard to port things on the bus.

    Re: sumo - Actually, back in the late nineties a college did a study and found that the average fat ratio of rikishi is considerably less than that of the general adult male population. Despite the preponderance of "moobies", more of that bulk than you'd think is actually muscle. On the other hand, I would agree that the number of rikishi that actually show any technique in the ring is sadly low.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 1:28 PM  

  • Re: porting things on a bus...

    true. That's what Yamato is there for. ;^)

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 1:40 PM  

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