Toyota, Japan's General Motors too big to fail
When I was a lad, growing up in the shadow of the Ford Rouge plant in Detroit, Japan was known for the manufacture of junky products -- cheap knickknacks and toys that broke in your hand.
With World War II, Japanese products disappeared, leaving some of us to wonder why it was taking so long to beat an enemy who couldn't even make decent toys.
After the war, Japanese products came trickling back into the country and the image persisted. We still considered them junk. We compared the first little Honda hatchback to a tin can, which it was compared to the giant-finned boats our car companies were turning out.
But slowly, surely, Japanese products began invading our markets in greater numbers and slowly, surely, we were forced to admit that they were good.
SONY established itself as the state-of-the-art television maker. Nikon became the iconic camera-maker. Japan's auto manufacturers -- Honda, Datsun (now Nissan), Toyota -- began to rival the Germans as producers of high-quality, precision machines. The Americans were left to bring up the rear (unless you counted the Italians and French, which no one did).
Of the Japanese car companies, Toyota became the leader. They were kind of clunky-looking -- the Japanese didn't do style -- but they became known as a brand that was reliable, efficient, and durable.
Unfortunately, this trend coincided with the embrace of "planned obsolescence" by our auto industry, GM especially.
The idea was to build a car that would last only a few years, so that customers would have to get rid of it and buy another. GM solidified its position as the largest car company in the world on this premise.
But the Japanese continued marching to their drummer and the tune being played was: "If you build a better four-door sedan with an automatic transmission that works, the world will come to your door."
When gasoline prices began to rise, the Japanese cars began to overtake even the most popular Ford and GM models, and eventually Toyota became the world's largest car company, replacing a badly wounded GM, which then needed rescue by the United States government even to stay alive.
Everything was coming up roses for Toyota until ... well, until we found out what dethroning GM had cost the company: its soul.
Toyota didn't just overtake GM, it became GM: a company for which quality was a secondary consideration to sales.
It seems that hardly a day goes by without yet another announcement of a recall of a Toyota model. They're not trivial recalls either. They involve brakes, steering, and that mysterious malfunction that sends cars surging away at high speeds while the driver stomps helplessly on the brake.
(Word on the street is that suicide bombers are refusing to use Toyotas on missions. They're too dangerous.)
And after each recall a Toyota official, looking like an inscrutable deer in the headlights, appears before the cameras to apologize. When Akio Toyoda (grandson of the company's founder and its CEO) testified before Congress, he looked glum.
To borrow from Oscar Wilde, you'd have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.
The German word "schadenfreude," the joy felt at another's misfortune, doesn't put a scratch on the feelings of an old Detroit boy at Toyota's nosedive. (So I remember Pearl Harbor, shoot me.)
That dive comes at a particularly good time for Detroit automakers because they've finally gotten the word and they're making good cars -- reliable, safe, efficient cars -- much like Toyota used to make.
Ford in particular has a full line of vehicles that are so good that you would think they were made in Japan.
It could signal the rebirth of our car industry, without which no industrial rebirth of our nation can take place.
Global warming? Mass transit? Very important, but like it or not, we are a nation of cars and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, whether the cars are American, Japanese, or Chinese.
Better if they're American cars, made by Americans.
Minuteman Media and retired Des Moines Register columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.