The beginning of the end-game: Julie Hamp resigns. Exit from Japan next?

Julie Hamp -2- Picture courtesy Bertel Schmitt

Today at 4:30 p.m. local, Tokyo’s automotive press corps was packing up notes and cameras after a rather unexciting joint press conference by Japan’s majors, Toyota sent out the announcement that its Chief Communication Officer Julie Hamp tendered her resignation. She did so from a lockup at the Harajuku, Tokyo, police station, where she has been since her June 18th arrest on suspicions that she smuggled-in 57 tables of the in Japan heavily controlled substance oxycodone.

Her resignation does not come as a surprise, at least not to this observer. Stepping down from an untenable post may very well be the first step towards Ms. Hamp’s freedom.

Ms. Hamp’s resignation removed a big obstacle that stood in the way of lenience and a quick dispatch out of the country, namely her position as a high-ranking officer of a large Japanese company. In Japan, unless that company is TEPCO, officers of top companies are held to a higher moral standard than the regular Joe Watanabe. Freshly in the ranks of the unemployed, Ms. Hamp may count on more compassion. Stepping down also is a very concrete act of contrition, weighing heavier than the usual “I am sorry” and the deep bow.

The face-saving deal that could be in the works could probably involve an admission of guilt on the illegal importation of the drug, while maintaining that Ms. Hamp was oblivious of the fact that Oxycodone is an “illegal drug harmful to the body.” It may sound contrived, but it could get her out of jail.  The prosecutor could probably be convinced, if he wants to be convinced, that sure, the pills were hidden to keep them from the eyes of Japanese customs, but only because, gomen nasai, that exacting service does not allow all kinds of truly harmless drugs, such as Sudafed or Vicks inhalers. The prosecutor could warm up to the idea that justice has already been served in a way much better than by taxing Japan’s prison system: Ms. Hamp is out of a job at Toyota, and she will remain pretty much unhireable elsewhere. Being out of a job in Japan, the basis for a work visa does no longer exist, and Ms. Hamp exits left at the same Narita airport where the drama begun two weeks ago. Hamp and Toyota sufficiently shamed, case closed.

Remember that something leading towards something like that had been Toyota’s position since day two of the affair, when at a Tokyo press conference, Akio Toyoda said that his company believes that Hamp had “no intent of breaking the law.”  He did not say that he believes in her innocence.

The Wall Street Journal has an insightful list of five scenarios Julie Hamp is facing. The list is ordered – in the eyes of this observer at least – by probability. The list goes from a very likely “suspension of prosecution” to a highly unlikely “non indictment.” As maintained several times also by this observer, the best outcome would be that Ms. Hamp leaves Japan, and that the case is disposed of.

Ms. Hamp’s resignation also opens the door to a necessary replacement. Toyota spokesman Nicolas Maxfield did not want to entertain that discussion today, while saying that for the time being, Ms. Hamp’s functions would be filled by higher-ups in Toyota’s pecking order. It is quite likely that the job of the Chief Communication Officer will be scrapped, if only because nobody wants to be the successor of someone who’s career found such a quick and untimely end.

In a statement following Ms. Hamp’s resignation, Toyota said that it intends “to learn from this incident” while remaining “firmly committed to putting the right people in the right places, regardless of nationality, gender, age and other factors.” One learning may be that a woman and a foreigner might not be the right person as the face of the company, and conservative parties in Japan may decide that a lesson has been taught.