When the Japanese people undergo a crisis either personal or communal in nature, rarely will they speak ill of any other person or entity but rather will try to paint it all in the most positive light possible. Of course, on the inside they may feel differently but as a culture the Japanese are all about taking ultimate personal responsibility for past mistakes, fixing them and moving on.
We are not saying that the most widely played sport in the U.S.A is “the blame game” but if you pay any attention you will notice the difference in personal and business behavior on the part of both countries. This is also not to take sides and say Japanese stoicism is something we need to see more of in our country but rather it is to help explain why there is a sense in the U.S.A that Japan is located on another planet entirely.
This, of course, is completely untrue and anyone who has spent time living in Japan will soon learn to communicate “between the lines” and not be so aggressive in conversation (or during interview questioning which is a challenge for U.S. auto journalists in Japan). But when you know what to say, when to say it and how to say it, you will easily find out information that you never would have gotten out of a KGB interrogation.
The following is a record of what was discussed with Honda CEO Takanobu Ito at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show on a wide variety of topics. Sometimes he laughed and smiled openly and freely while at other times he dabbed sweat from his brow with a handkerchief and looked down at his hands when anyone mentioned anything that his company had done incorrectly in the recent past.
Ito is a man who takes his job very seriously and if you think he doesn’t hold himself fully responsible for the whole of Honda, read on. You might just learn something about this interesting man who just happens to be Honda’s CEO. And, thanks to the final question asked at the meeting (asked by us, of course), you might also learn something that will literally be music to your ears.
(Note: Mr. Ito does understand some English but chose to answer most questions through a Japanese interpreter.)
Q: How do you feel about all of the criticisms levied against Honda of late, do you think they are fair and accurate? Or are they too harsh especially in light of the number of disasters you have faced this year that were beyond your control?
Takanobu Ito: This year with the Japanese disaster and the recent Thailand flooding has been a very, very difficult year. These problems, however, are only transient. Our biggest challenge is that changes are happening so fast in the auto industry and it is hard to keep up without changes. To be honest, due to our challenges, we haven’t kept up with the other challenges surrounding us. So the first counter to that was to create the widest array of alternative fuel powerplants available from any company and then we felt it necessary that our internal combustion engines be the best in the world again. After this disaster, we are now preparing our plants in the United States to build up a much larger capacity for exports of models we build in the U.S. to other countries.
Q: Nissan says it plans to sell 1.5 million electric cars by 2015? Is Honda ready to compete with that?
Takanobu Ito: Just because Nissan is going to say that doesn’t mean we are going to say that. Pure battery EV’s are one way to lower CO2 but when we consider cost, performance4, and low range they are best only for compact vehicles. Small commuters is the segment where they work now so that is why we are bringing it to the U.S. in the Fit. When we think of larger vehicles, I think hybrids are best. We have many different types like the next generation IMA, plug-in, the dual motor SH-AWD. Especially as is true of the lasts technology, all Honda vehicles no matter what power source they use must be fun to drive. For the near term Hybrids will remain largest.
Q: There has been a lot of criticism of the 2012 U.S. Honda Civic’s interior in relation to the one found in the European Civic. How do you explain this blunder and are there plans to fix it?
Takanobu Ito: I am fully aware of the criticisms levied against the 2012 Honda Civic and the responsibility lies solely with me. Right now we are working hard at the best response to the problem to keep customers happy.
Q: Are you satisfied with the image and brand positioning of Acura and when are we finally going to see the introduction of the next NSX?
Takanobu Ito: We are not satisfied with the positioning of Acura as a brand. We want it to be better known for leading the field in technology and luxury. As for the NSX, stay tuned for something very soon. (Editor's Note: A Honda employee then shouted “Detroit” and everyone at the company laughed so we assume that means it will premiere at that Auto Show.)
Q: How are you as a company being affected by fluctuations in oil prices and the value of the yen in comparison to other currencies?
Takanobu Ito: We make future estimations about crude oil prices, CAFÉ (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) requirements usually at least 7 years ahead of where we are now. For instance, we know hybrids aren’t selling like hotcakes yet most especially in Europe. But in 20 to 30 years our projections tell us this tech will be important.
Autobytel: The electric EV roadster and upcoming NSX concept both sound like very exciting cars but for most people supercars are not financially affordable and if you live in an apartment charging your EV roadster would require a long extension cord (Mr. Ito laughs). Worldwide, the Hondas people remember most and are most passionate about were the gas engined, affordable coupes for the everyman and everywoman. Names like Integra, Prelude, CR-X. Considering you have a new line of gasoline powerplants, can we expect to see cars like this ever again?
Takanobu Ito: (Ito, with a grin running from ear to ear, stood from his chair and then answered the question without the aid of the interpreter.) We absolutely have to and will prepare such a car. I promise.