The memorial of legendary former Toyota Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda serves as a well-timed inspiration for rekindling Toyota’s killer instinct.
TOKYO — Not long after Shoichiro Toyoda assumed the helm of his family’s namesake company, he took two Toyota Crown sedans to the U.S. to see how they would perform in the market.
It was 1957, and the underpowered Crown was a big flop in the land of Corvettes and superhighways. Not only did the car need a down ramp just to acquire enough speed to merge, people thought the frumpy import was downright dangerous in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“It was major regret,” Toyoda later recounted of the Crown’s premature debut in America.
But out of that setback was born a mindset that would power Toyota’s triumphant return to America and its climb to become the world’s biggest automaker.
“I want to tell people not to fear failure,” Toyoda later said. “That kind of courage is essential.”
This remembrance was one of many tales recounted on Monday, April 24, at an all-day memorial service for the late Toyota president and chairman, who died Feb. 14.
The mindset Shoichiro Toyoda championed early on is seeing a resurgence at Toyota Motor Corp. today as it transitions to a new leadership team and grapples with a rapidly changing industry and new competition.
Indeed, the memorial of the legendary Toyota chairman, always deferentially referred to as Dr. Toyoda, serves as a well-timed inspiration for rekindling the carmaker’s killer instincts.
“We will carry on with the spirit of honorary chair Shoichiro and never relent in taking on challenges,” newly appointed Toyota CEO Koji Sato pledged after the ceremony.
“Those great predecessors learned from mistakes, took on challenges and made improvements. Their efforts have made Toyota into what it is today.”
Under Sato, Toyota’s new management is trying to further stoke that tenacious spirit and leverage a sense of crisis as they ready the company for a new era of challenges. Chief among those is catching up in the global race for electric vehicles.
Toyota’s initial push into EVs might be called a modern-day Crown moment. The debut of its first serious entry into the market, the long-awaited bZ4X crossover, was marred when the vehicle had to be recalled only two months later for fear that its wheels might fall off.
But in pledging to conquer the EV challenge Toyota now faces, just last week Sato outlined a three-step plan to quickly overhaul and improve the company’s upcoming EVs, while also ramping up profitability.
This dialed-up drive must also be channeled into other issues confronting the automaker, including how to achieve carbon neutrality, how to combat a flood of new competitors coming from China and how to transform an old-school metal bender into a software-focused mobility company.
“The story of the first Crowns in the U.S. is the story of learning from mistakes,” Sato said. “Even if we make some mistakes, we will make improvements and keep moving forward.”
Toyoda’s sendoff was as much a national tribute as it was a family affair.
Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda
Family members were front and center at a morning ceremony, including Toyoda’s son and current Toyota Chairman Akio Toyoda, his widow Hiroko and his daughter Atsuko. Also on hand was Toyoda’s grandson Daisuke, an executive at Toyota’s software subsidiary, Woven by Toyota.
At multiple services throughout the day, Toyota executives, Japanese business leaders, diplomats, politicians and public well-wishers thronged a luxury hotel ballroom for final farewells.
Toyota counted some 5,800 attendees, including those visiting satellite tribute venues in Nagoya and Toyota City. Dignitaries included Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel.
Shoichiro Toyoda, who led the company through unprecedented overseas expansion as its president from 1981 to 1992, served as chairman until 1999. He remained honorary chairman until his death at age 97.
A giant portrait of Toyoda wearing a beaming smile stood atop a massive dais with thousands of blue and white carnations, traditional Japanese funerary flowers, angled upward, like the slopes of Mount Fuji. A condolence offering from Japanese Emperor Naruhito adorned the arrangement.
Takeshi Uchiyamada, former chairman famed for developing the Toyota Prius hybrid, and his son Akio, the current chairman, gave eulogies. Both men choked back tears as they struggled to complete their tributes to the Toyota legend. They were among the first of hundreds to lay carnations on the stage.
“Literally, my father was the one who opened the doors to the world and paved the way for Toyota to step out from Japan to the world,” Akio Toyoda said.
A video of Shoichiro Toyoda’s life featured an incident involving Akio that depicted the cut-throat spirit that spurs the Japanese company to compete.
Akio Toyoda was 18 and out driving around Nagoya when his car was overtaken by a driver in a foreign-brand model. The speed-demon youngster wasn’t going to stand for that, especially on Toyota’s home turf, so he gunned his car to catch up.
Things didn’t end as planned.
Akio’s car flipped, sending the family scion to the hospital. By the time Shoichiro reached the emergency room, Akio couldn’t be found and he feared the worst: “I thought he was dead.”
It turned out, Akio had already been discharged. But it taught Shoichiro an important lesson: “We have to make cars that don’t flip over,” he recalled in the video with a chuckle.
The passing of Shoichiro Toyoda marks a turning point for Japan’s most important company.
Akio Toyoda, 67, announced his decision to step down as chairman on Jan. 26, after leading the carmaker founded by his grandfather since 2009. His father, whom he often turned to for advice, died less than three weeks later.
In the video retrospective, Akio said he didn’t intend to consult his father about his plans to hand over the wheel. But they talked about it anyway, and Shoichiro spoke up.
“He said, ‘It seems like it’s time for a change,’ ” Akio recalled. “I felt he hit the nail on the head.”
Sato, 53, was tapped as the first non-family member in more than a decade to lead Toyota into the new era of electrification, autonomous driving and connected cars. He took office on April 1.