Japan's transport minister on Feb. 9 publicly berated Toyota Motor president Akio Toyoda for the auto giant's handling of safety problems, saying it should have been quicker to recall faulty vehicles.
"I would like you to respect the viewpoint of drivers and I wish you had taken measures earlier rather than simply saying it was not a major technical problem," Seiji Maehara told the Toyota family scion in front of reporters.
Earlier in the day Toyota announced that it would recall 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles around the world to repair a flaw in the braking system, the latest in a series of quality problems to hit the Japanese maker.
The brake issue comes on top of accelerator pedal problems that have led to the worldwide recall of more than eight million Toyota vehicles.
"I told president Toyoda that the company might have taken the brake problem lightly at the beginning and lacked the perspective of customers," Maehara said after his meeting with Toyoda. "This might have led to its failure to take quick action. I told him not to let the same thing happen," he added, in a rare public rebuke from a government official of one of Japan's mightiest companies.
Toyota has come under fire after saying it had fixed the brake system flaw in production of the latest Prius model last month, without warning drivers of those vehicles already on the road.
Toyota has been strongly criticized in the United States for its handling of the recalls, raising fears that the wider image of Japan Inc. will suffer in the world's biggest economy.
Maehara, part of a new center-left government that last year broke the conservatives' five-decade grip on power in Japan, said he would meet U.S. ambassador John Roos on Wednesday on the safety issues. He said they would "exchange views on protecting free markets and strengthening Japan-US relations".
"This problem must not affect the international free market," he added.
Toyoda for his part said he planned to travel to the United States to explain the safety troubles, but has no plan to attend a U.S. congressional hearing on the issue on Feb. 9. Toyota's North America president, Yoshimi Inaba, is set to testify at the hearing, part of a wider probe by U.S. lawmakers.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010
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