Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The difference a chong-chong makes

Somebody posted a scene from a gangster flic on YouTube and turned it into a scene where the president of GM meets the president of Toyota. Very topical. Akio Toyoda comes looking for his 10% cut and the GM president shoots him dead. It might have been clever if it had not contained the line, “I’m gonna give you till the count of ten to get your ugly yeller no-good keister off my property.”

Toyoda isn’t ugly. And he isn’t “yeller” either.

Sad, how when there’s a story that involves those funny overseas people how the rats come out of the woodwork. An opportunity to wave the flag. All together now, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

The Japanese right wing, too, has made noises about “Japan bashing” because the Congress has forced Toyoda to appear before them to explain all the recalls lately and the threat to public safety they represent. Wish I had a nickel for every time a criticism by anybody about anything Japanese got labelled Japan bashing by those morons.

Toyota’s black eye is inviting not just the rats to a free-for-all; it’s also got the Explainers out on the job.

Some of the explanations involve good questions and reasonable guesses at answers. Did Toyota mess up because they got cocky? Lazy? I’m thinking the answer has as much as anything to do with the inordinate complexity of modern automobiles. One site I just checked gave about 1800 different “diagnostic trouble codes” for representing malfunctions. Remember when you first got a look at the control panel of a 747 and wondered how anybody could operate it? Looking into a car’s computer will give the same sensation these days.

That doesn’t explain how floor mats get in the way of accelerators, of course, but it may explain other problems.

There’s even speculation now that your cell phone may be interfering with your car’s electronics.

From the BBC today I heard a report on how the story is playing in Japan. They are unused to having CEOs appear before legislative bodies to explain themselves. So, I’m told, some news reports are providing floor plans of the Congress so Toyoda’s countrymen can see exactly where their Mr. Toyoda is going to be sitting. If you know this curious land of raw fish and Hello Kitty, this information will not strike you as peculiar.

On the American end, I just heard a news report where the reporter was going on about how Toyoda changed the name of his car to Toyota because “Toyoda (with a d) means “bountiful rice paddy” and they wanted something smart and modern and technical, not something associated with the farm. If you know Japanese, you know that’s all cockeyed, since the name still means "bountiful rice paddy" no matter how your write it. The reporter didn't get that part of the story right, in other words, but no matter. His audience will never know, most of them. And he did get the other part right, about the muddy business. In kanji, the name is 豊田 and the second character can be read either “da” or “ta.” Apparently, the Toyoda/Toyota people responsible for naming their cars switched the da to ta because they felt voiced consonants sounded muddy.

B, D, G, muddy. P, T, K, not muddy. You gotta love it. Memo to Lady Gaga: Can the name, honey. Change it to Caca. Less muddy.

But wait. That’s only the beginning. If you really want to get down off the farm and look modern, you’ve got to go to katakana. Katakana is a syllabary (i.e., there is a “character” for each possible syllable in Japanese. Kanji is based on word meanings, katakana (and hiragana) on sounds. Japanese use kanji for basic content words, hiragana for grammatical endings, and katakana is a parallel system to hiragana, kind of like italics, used for stress and for writing foreign words. So katakana = foreign = international = modern, you see.

And then, so the story goes, once the Toyoda folks who choose the names for Toyoda’s automobiles got that far, and started writing the company nameトヨダ (Toyoda in katakana) instead of 豊田, (to be more modern and international) and then took the second step and went from Toyoda to Toyota (to be less muddy) there was a bonus waiting for them! It takes ten strokes of the pen to write トヨダ, you see, but only eight if you leave off the chong-chong and write it トヨタ, and eight is a lucky number! Isn't that marvelous?

All this work just to avoid a hint of muddiness (and get lucky at the same time) is lost on Americans, of course, since in American English, “t” between two vowels takes on voicing and therefore, in most people’s speech, it is indistinguishable from “d”. That means “Toyota” and “Toyoda” are pronounced identically in most Americans' speech – like duh!

Why are we talking about this and not about sticky accelerator pedals?

Oh, right. The world wants to know background stuff. Besides, you can’t keep the story alive with analyses of brake systems.

In any case, I’m with you Akio. Sorry that cork in the asshole of progress known as the U.S. Senate is jerking you around like this. I, for one, absolutely adore my thirteen-year-old Camry and if it ever wears out (it only has 116,000 miles on it, so it may actually run longer than I do), I intend to rush right out and buy another one.

I once owned a Mitsubishi, as well. But any chance I had of buying another went up in smoke when I noted they named one of their cars the Pajero. "Wanker" in Argentine Spanish. If they could screw up on the name, how am I to trust them when it comes to brakes?

Ain't that one on me!

Anyway, I'm a died-in-the-wool Toyota man now.

My next car will be a Prius, if I can afford one when the time comes. And if they get the brakes fixed.

In any case, I’m on Akio’s side. He has to sit before the U.S. Senate and let them make political hay and show the world you can’t mess with Texas, er, Mississippi, er, the U. S. of A.

The Senate is missing entirely the fact that in Japan, Akio no doubt has nothing to do with decisions on how the car is made. He’s in place to grovel for the family and its marvelous little car company when they screw up. The real guys responsible are out of sight.

And that’s how it should be.

Put a guy in place to take the blame so the guys who know how to fix things don’t have to waste their time. They can get to work while the Senate beats on Akio.

That’s how Toyota got to the top.

And that’s how I’m guessing they’ll get back there again soon.

Hang in there, Akio.

For the family name. It’s still a proud one.

With the chong-chong, or without.

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