- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

TOKYO (AP) - Toyota officials reiterated Thursday that they wished the best for struggling General Motors, and expressed hopes the latest U.S. sales data show an approaching recovery in a key market battered by crushed consumer spending.

“We don’t see it as an opportunity,” Yasuhiko Ichihashi, senior managing director, said of GM’s woes. “We want the American market to return to health.”

Ichihashi said Toyota was only hoping for an overall recovery for the U.S. auto industry, including GM. Japanese automakers have said that what is bad for the U.S. auto business is also bad for them because they share parts-makers. The collapse of an auto giant like GM would also likely depress consumer sentiment.

“We hope the American market will recover soon,” Toyota executive Masayuki Nakai said at a Tokyo showroom, where the revamped Wish compact minivan was introduced for the Japanese market. “We want GM to keep going.”

The plunge in U.S. sales and the strong yen have send Toyota Motor Corp. into its first expected annual loss since 1950 for the fiscal year that just ended in March.

U.S. car sales figures Wednesday brought some modestly encouraging news: Americans bought 857,735 new vehicles in March, a 25 percent improvement from February, although that was still a 37 percent drop from the same month a year ago.

Ichihashi acknowledged it may be too early to declare that the drop had bottomed out, but said the numbers suggested some hopes for a recovery.

Toyota executives have been tightlipped about the possibility that Japanese manufacturers stand to benefit from a weakening General Motors Corp., and have repeatedly expressed worries about its future.

Honda Motor Co. President Takeo Fukui has been a rare exception among Japanese auto executives in acknowledging publicly that weaker competition could in the long run present an advantage for Honda.

But he acknowledged late last year that only as a general possibility in answer to a reporter’s question. He did not elaborate, and he has also repeatedly expressed hopes for a healthy U.S. auto industry.

Toyota and other Japanese automakers have set up factories in the U.S. and worked for decades to become recognized as American companies, and fear a resurgence of 1980s “Japan-bashing” sentiments if they are perceived as hurting GM or taking away American jobs.

President Barack Obama has told GM to restructure its business, but it may have to declare bankruptcy to wipe out its debt, change contracts and emerge as a healthy business. Obama’s auto task force has decided Chrysler LLC has no chance to survive alone and needed a partnership.

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