TOYOTA CITY, Japan - Kazuo Akatsuka, 55, lives a life that is dominated, for better or worse, by his employer, Toyota Motor Corp, and right now it's got him a little worried.
The company is facing its biggest crisis in at least half a century, recalling more than 8.5 million vehicles for faulty brakes and accelerators and facing criticism for its handling of the problems.
Since graduating from school at 18, Akatsuka has lived in Toyota City, working for Toyota first as a line worker, and now driving a motorized cart delivering parts to other workers assembling Prius sedans at the Tsutsumi plant.
For now the recall crisis has not affected him directly -- the Prius' manufactured at his plant already have the latest braking-system fix installed and the factory continues to run as usual.
Akatsuka follows the news of his company on TV and in the newspaper. When I first heard the report on Toyota's recall, I was frankly surprised that this could actually happen at Toyota because Toyota is so strict on quality.
He thinks that in its quest to become the world's No.1 car company, the use of contract workers who don't share the Toyota work ethic and the mounting pressure to use time efficiently to produce more cars, has led to greater risks.
The new crop of temporary workers, some sporting piercings and dyed hair, would definitely not have been allowed back in the old days, Akatsuka said.
He said he was worried that they might not have bought into the Toyota Way, the company's much vaunted and much copied management philosophy, instead merely working for a pay check.
The Tsutsumi plant employs around 5,500 people and while there more contract workers these days, staff with 20, 30 or more years on the job are not uncommon.
SAFE WORK IS THE DOOR
After 37 years with the company, Akatsuka lives what could be called the Toyota Dream with a house in the city paid for with his Toyota pay checks, and four cars -- all Toyotas.
He lives with wife Hiromi, a former employee of the company, who washes his shirts and jackets with the company logo, and their two daughters and one son. Every day he drives or walks to work, as there are no trains that run near the factory.
Even his religion has been influenced by his work at the auto giant. Akatsuka became a devout Buddhist to help him handle the stress from his repetitive labor as a factory line worker.
This week Akatsuka is on the late shift. He wakes up late morning and begins work with exercises at 4:05 pm followed by a safety meeting.
Then he and his colleagues recite the Toyota mantra that constitutes the automaker's basic philosophy, as expressed by Eiji Toyoda, who himself was the general safety and health supervisor back in 1957: Safe work, reliable work, skilled work. Safe work is the door to all work. Let us always pass through this door first.
When he was growing up, Akatsuka's father worked mostly on construction sites on Japan's southern island of Kyushu. He thinks a feeling of inferiority of being a day worker's son had made him crave a job as a formal employee of a company like Toyota.
Akatsuka finishes work around 2:00 a.m. and while his family sleeps, he reheats his dinner left for him by his wife: noodles simmered in a miso or fermented bean paste, soy sauce flavored fried chicken, fried potato, and a salad.
Despite the current problems, Akatsuka believes that Toyota will weather the storm. I still love my company and am proud. It's also my bread and butter.
It is great that our company became the world's No.1, but this has meant that there are more risks. Our company should sincerely reflect and shouldn't be afraid. We should learn our lessons and become more mature. Then we can become No.1 again.
His wife agrees and wants the company to get back its prestige.
No one wanted this to happen. I hope Toyota does its best to do whatever it can to recover its reputation. Our life is completely dependent on the company in that we have house loans, children that need to go to school, and our day to day living, Hiromi said.
But their son Kazuhiro, a 21-year-old who likes the heavy metal band Slipknot and has grown up surrounded by Toyota, has a different take on things.
Everyone here works for Toyota or something related to Toyota or automobiles. That has made me hate or become indifferent to cars. I'm not even that interested in what the news says on the recall issue.
(Editing by Lincoln Feast)