While Taliban posing with newly acquired US military hardware has been a searing humiliation for America in recent days, here in Japan the debacle in Afghanistan has led to a different source of embarrassment. A recurring image of coverage from Kabul is of Toyota pick-up trucks ferrying gun-toting fighters around the city. It has given the iconic company’s management a serious PR problem, and not for the first time.
The Taliban have been favouring the sturdy and reliable Japanese ‘Land Cruisers’ since the 1990s, but it is also the vehicle of choice for Al Qaeda and Isis. The appeal seems to be the suitability for rough terrain and the ease with which the trucks can be retrofitted with gun placements, or in other ways customised for combat or intimidation.
The country of origin may also be part of the attraction. Japan, with its pacifist constitution, has played a minimal role in the conflicts of the Middle East. As a Buddhist/Shinto culture, Japan is far removed from the ‘Great Satan’ image of America and its western allies. The optics, as they say, are good, or at least neutral.
It is unclear exactly how the nefarious groups acquired their fleets. Some may have been bought from unscrupulous dealers, though theft from NGOs probably accounts for much of the collection. There are certainly plenty of them about: Toyota has supplied 150,000 vehicles to the United Nations over the last four decades.
Toyota has done its best to try and distance itself from its unsavoury new customers. Carefully worded statements have referred to ‘concern’ about ‘a flow of vehicles overseas’ to ‘certain regions, where security regulations are in place’. The company supported a US Treasury department investigation into the illegal trade in used vehicles by terrorist groups. And anyone purchasing the 2022 model of the Land Cruiser reportedly needs to sign a contract promising not to resell it within a year.
Toyota is, to an extent, a victim of its own success and is still living with the legacy of its spectacular expansion in the early years of the century. The company’s ruthless pursuit of global market share saw a phenomenal increase in sales in the United States (up 80 per cent between 2000 and 2008, with the Corolla becoming the world’s all-time best selling car). Toyota became the first company to produce ten million vehicles a year and is still the world’s leading auto manufacturer.
But global domination has come at a price, with even company president Akio Toyoda admitting back in 2010 that ‘we grew too big, too fast’. For critics, the business started to depart from its core principles during its growth spurt, and, in effect, lost its ‘Way’. This was, famously, a process vividly illustrated in the third of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, where Rabbit’s son tinkers with the formula of the Toyota dealership he manages and runs the business into the ground – until the boss from Japan belatedly arrives and turfs him out. Product quality suffered too with the recall scandal of 2009 – 2011 exemplifying, all too literally, the consequences of uncontrolled acceleration.
Old ties of loyalty were loosened in the process of rapid expansion. In 2010, the boss of a Japanese supplier Sankyo Seiko, which had served Toyota for years, publicly declared that his company would no longer take orders, so distressed was he with their constant demands and relentless pursuit of profit. ‘Toyota said we were all one big family. Now they are betraying us’, he told the New York Times.
The company has certainly had a bumpy ride in the last twenty years. But it is striking how negative stories have generally only been well covered in the foreign press. In Japan, at least, there is very little criticism of Toyota. Even the recall scandal was seen by some as ‘overhyped’ and the Taliban connection hasn’t featured prominently in the Japanese media.
This omerta shouldn’t perhaps come as a surprise; Toyota wields immense power in Japan. It is literally part of the country – it has its own Stepford-like town ‘Toyota-city’ in Aichi – and remains one of the largest employers and biggest spenders on advertising. The Taliban connection, even if it finally gets coverage, will likely be downplayed and will not cause much damage to the firm's domestic market.
Some would argue this is reasonable: just as you can't blame Burberry for its popularity with football hooligans – or Arsenal for the rumour that Osama bin Laden was a fan – so Toyota can hardly be held accountable for the popularity of its vehicles with, to put it mildly, undesirables. Nor can the company be expected to regulate the secondary market in its products in war zones.
But if the Toyota logo continues to be seen in shots of frightening looking men wielding weapons of war, the watching world may begin to take a different view.