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The Tao of the Bow: How Low Must Toyoda Go?

(AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye)
Earlier this month, when Toyota's gas pedal crisis was just beginning to unfold, the automaker's president finally surfaced at a press conference in Tokyo. Akio Toyoda offered up an apology, a promise to fix the problem and a slight, quick bow.

But as the BBC noted, "this standard issue bow is what one does with neighbours you meet when tossing out the rubbish."

In the U.S. and other countries, Toyoda took heat for addressing the problem too late; in his home country, he was slammed for executing a bow deemed too lame. The carmaker's president, apparently realizing his underwhelming apology, returned a few days later with a much deeper bow.

In Japan, bowing is a common gesture but also a calibrated motion – the deeper the bow, the greater the deference shown to the bowee, or, in Toyoda's case, the deeper the regret.

While Toyoda took heat for bowing too little, President Obama was recently criticized for bowing too much. American conservatives assailed Mr. Obama's deep bow to Japan's Emperor Akihito in Tokyo in November, accusing the U.S. commander in chief of groveling before a foreign leader.

Clearly, the degree of the bow and how long it is sustained get the most scrutiny. Earlier this month, the U.K.'s Times Online published a primer on bowing in Japan, noting that "when it comes to saying sorry, there are several contortions."

Symbolism is more important than sincerity. "The theatre is important here, not the actual regret," the Times' Leo Lewis writes.

After ascending to the driver's seat of his family's company, Toyoda can't escape the media's hot seat and the young president is getting a harsh lesson in the art of corporate apologies, CBS News correspondent Celia Hatton notes.

In Japan, executives are expected to bow to sooth public wounds.

But today Toyoda is on Capitol Hill and, Hatton notes, bowing won't work in the U.S. Analysts believe Toyoda's poor crisis-management skills, coupled with a corporate culture built on doing things slowly by consensus, has led to a snowballing PR nightmare.

In Japan, they have this proverb: when it stinks, put a lid on it. Bowing may demonstrate the automaker's magnitude of regret but it won't disguise the scale of the recall problem.

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