Toyota Motor Honorary Chairman Took Automaker Global

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Toyota Motor Corp. Honorary Chairman Shoichiro Toyoda stands beside a new model Caldina at Fuji Speedway in Shizuoka Prefecture in September 2002.

Shoichiro Toyoda, honorary chairman of Toyota Motor Corp., died of heart failure on Tuesday. He was 97.

Also a former chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Keidanren), Toyoda laid the foundation for Toyota to make a significant leap forward into the global market.

Toyoda led the Japanese automobile industry, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday. “He also led the nation’s economy as Keidanren chairman. I will pray for the repose of his soul,” the prime minister said.

Toyoda was the oldest son of Toyota founder Kiichiro Toyoda. After graduating from university, he worked for a relative’s fish processing company in Wakkanai, Hokkaido, where he baked chikuwa tube-shaped fish cakes and kamaboko steamed fish cakes.

Toyoda joined the automaker, called Toyota Motor Co. at the time, as a board director in 1952, when Kiichiro suddenly passed away. He led the construction of the Motomachi Plant in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, the first passenger car plant in Asia, and served as the first manager of the factory.

When the automaker merged with Toyota Motor Sales Co. in 1982, Toyoda became president of the integrated entity, Toyota Motor Corp.

During his tenure as president, Toyoda established a factory in a joint venture with General Motors Co. of the United States in 1984, and decided to build Toyota’s first independent plant in the United States. He expanded production in the United States, thereby elevating Toyota from an automobile manufacturer in Aichi Prefecture’s Mikawa region to a globally renowned carmaker.

In 1989, Toyota released luxury Lexus brand cars in the United States. This improved its brand strength — the company previously had a strong image as a low-end automobile manufacturer. Toyoda was inducted in 2007 into the Automotive Hall of Fame, which honors individuals who have contributed to the U.S. auto industry.

In 1992, he handed over the post of president to his younger brother, Tatsuro. Toyoda became chairman and made his presence felt in the business world, an area from which Toyota had distanced itself. In 1994, he became the chairman of Keidanren and led efforts for deregulation and administrative reform.

The yen appreciated rapidly during this period, and there was trade friction with the United States. When stepping down from the leadership of Keidanren, Toyoda told a press conference, “I faced a number of difficulties, but I always told myself I should not feel like I’m suffering.”

Toyoda was known for his warm, friendly personality. He would tell people not to call him “’the prime minister of the business world.’ I’m not that type of person.”

As a former auto engineer, Toyoda was a great lover of cars. At a special exhibition held at the Toyota Automobile Museum in 2012 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Toyota’s founding, he walked around the venue, explaining to the press each of Toyota’s famous classic models with great affection.

In a lecture in Nagoya in 2017, he referred to the global competition over the development of big data and artificial intelligence, saying: “The industrial structure is in the process of major change. You have to be prepared to open up the future.” He was looking at the world with a keen business eye even in his later years.

Toyoda received the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun in 2002 and the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers in 2007.