Toyota chief leaves for US: report

TOKYO: Toyota president Akio Toyoda, under fire for his handling of massive safety recalls, was to leave on Saturday for the United States to testify in Congress, a Japanese newspaper said.

The head of the embattled Japanese automaker has bowed to calls to appear before US Congress following an invitation by Representative Edolphus Towns to testify next Wednesday.

Toyoda, expected to face a grilling by US lawmakers, was planning to prepare for the testimony with Yoshimi Inaba, head of Toyota's North American operation, the Mainichi daily said citing unnamed sources.

The company could not confirm the report because "the president's schedule remains confidential until the congressional hearing," said Toyota spokeswoman Mieko Iwasaki.

Toyota is recalling more than eight million cars worldwide for defects linked to more than 30 deaths in the United States that have sparked a host of US lawsuits which could cost the company billions of dollars in damages.

Toyoda, the usually publicity-shy grandson of the company's founder, was initially reluctant to speak before the congressional committee but relented following pressure at home and abroad.

Japan's Transport Minister Seiji Maehara on Friday criticised Toyoda for not being more decisive on whether to face the US Congress, saying it was "regrettable that there were flip-flops."

The leading Yomiuri daily warned Toyoda must act carefully in the United States, where mid-term elections are coming up this year.

"With autumn's mid-term election approaching, there has been a sharp rise in protectionism expressed among members of Congress," the newspaper said in its Saturday editorial.

"If Toyota fails to properly act under these circumstances, it could deal a serious blow to the trust in Japanese products as a whole."

Some Toyota executives have expressed worries that the company chief is in the firing line, the liberal Asahi daily said.

"No matter what he says to explain, he will be crucified for sure," said an unnamed company official, quoted by the Asahi.