Hans Greimel
Hans Greimel
Asia Editor, Tokyo
Billions and millions supplant Japanese numerics

It's in the numbers: Toyota internationalizes

Billions and millions supplant Japanese numerics

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TOKYO -- Toyota Motor Corp. is often criticized for being the most Japanese of Japanese companies in the pantheon of Japan Inc.

But the new motto under President Akio Toyoda is "Internationalize!" Indeed, to underscore the commitment, he just appointed the first foreigner to the company's board.

Non-Japanese CEOs also have been put in charge of regional operations in such places as North America, Europe and Africa.

Still skeptical? Consider this: Toyota also is dumping the use of Japanese numerical notation for the Western way.

People rarely see numbers as a cultural wedge. Like mathematics and music, they are a kind of de facto international language.

But like so many things here, there's a Japanese way and a Western one. And the different counting systems can lead to crossed signals in such things as balance sheets and invoices.

Remarkably, Toyota shifted to the Western way only three months ago. Now, it uses Western units such as billions and millions in internal communications, to conform with global norms.

Executive Vice President Nobuyori Kodaira, an urbane internationalist who joined Toyota after years as a trade negotiator at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, highlighted the change as more proof that Toyota is going global.

It's a big departure from the Japanese way of counting. In Japan, 1 million is expressed as 100 ten-thousands -- the grouping unit being 10,000, not 1,000. Likewise, 1 billion is conveyed as 10 one-hundred-millions -- a base of 100 million.

"The way that we write documents has changed," Kodaira said at a July 1 press conference to introduce Toyoda's new top brass. "We have been using Japanese units for figures, but now we've changed it to billions and millions so it is more easy to understand from the outside. These kinds of small changes will have impact."

The mental gymnastics involved are often Herculean for overseas Toyota employees -- not to mention foreign journalists.

Toyota reckons the new system will smooth communication, speed business and leave a lot less lost in translation.

You can reach Hans Greimel at hgreimel@crain.com. -- Follow Hans on Twitter

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