TOKYO — As pressure intensifies for Toyota's president to testify before Congress about the automaker's safety lapses, Japanese political leaders and experts worry that the problem — if handled poorly — could damage ties between the two nations.
Relations between Washington and Tokyo are already strained by a dispute over the relocation of a key U.S. Marine base on the southern island of Okinawa.
Political tension rose a notch Thursday when a Republican in the House of Representatives said he would support issuing a subpoena to compel Toyota president Akio Toyoda to appear before congressional committees this month to examine the company's safety problems.
Toyota said Toyoda is expected to visit the United States in early March, but the company declined to confirm Japanese media reports that he would attend the Washington hearings. Toyota's North American head, Yoshimi Inaba, will appear before the committees, the company said.
Even before the world's biggest automaker announced its latest recall Tuesday of nearly 440,000 Prius and other hybrids, bringing its global total to 8.5 million vehicles for faulty gas pedals and brakes, Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada expressed concern that the problem could become a political headache.
"I'm worried," Okada said last week. "It's not just the problem of one company, but a diplomatic issue."
Toyota issued yet another alert Friday, saying it's recalling a "limited number" of Tacoma pickup trucks because of cracks in drive-shaft components.
At a particularly tough time for the auto industry, Japan has been criticized for its tax incentive program for "green" cars that Washington said unfairly excluded American vehicles. The program since grew to add more U.S. cars.
So far, there's no sign that Toyota's recall has become a contentious issue between the Obama administration and the Tokyo government.
But it could become prickly if the hearings in Washington go badly — if, for example, Toyota executives come across as aloof or U.S. politicians come down in a way perceived in Japan as excessively harsh.
"This is Toyota's problem, but if it's mishandled, it could spread to other areas," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor of international relations at Aoyama University in Tokyo.
To demonstrate responsibility, Toyoda himself needs to appear before the congressional committees, experts say. He also plays a key role as the representative of Japan's flagship company.
"The final authority needs to be there and explain the situation and say what the company is doing to resolve the problems," Yamamoto said.
Economy and Trade Minister Masayuki Naoshima urged Toyoda to at least make a public appearance in the United States — Toyota's biggest market.
"The head of the company needs to give an explanation properly," he said.
The recall problems have erupted at a time when Tokyo's ties with Washington have soured under the new government of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, which swept into power last year after decades of rule by the staunchly pro-U.S. conservatives.
Hatoyama put on hold a plan to relocate Futenma Marine airfield to a northern part of Okinawa island because of opposition and environmental concerns, thereby delaying a broader plan to reorganize the 47,000 American troops based in the country under a security pact.
The governors of four U.S. states that are home to Toyota manufacturing plants — Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky and Mississippi — defended the company Wednesday in a letter to House committee leaders and asked that Toyota get "a responsible and fair response from the federal government."
Japanese people — while surprised by Toyota's quality problems — have wondered if the timing of the focus on its woes has anything to do with it overtaking General Motors the world's biggest automaker in 2008.
On Friday, Toyota said it plans to voluntarily disclose problems beyond what is legally required. Details of the plan for more openness would be announced in the future.
"We're trying to be proactive," said spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi. "Some consumers are worried, so even if the information doesn't rise to the level of a recall, we are taking this step to restore the company's credibility."