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    Toyota Stays Mum on Possible Fuel Cell Vehicle Deal With GM

    Speculation is mounting that the two top automakers on both sides of the Pacific are going to cooperate to build cars powered by fuel cells. And, in the skies, Japan's flag carrier has returned to profitability but is losing its leader because of a bumpy safety record. Those are among the stories in this week's look at Japanese business news.

    Japan and America's top automakers are staying mum amid intense speculation the two companies will soon announce a partnership to build vehicles partially powered by fuel cells.

    Toyota and General Motors reportedly have been collaborating on alternative fuels research for more than five years. But Toyota President Hiroshi Okuda says there is nothing specific to announce yet.

    Mr. Okuda says while Toyota may offer technology to GM, it is not thinking of working together with the American rival on building hybrid cars.

    The Toyota president also announced a record fourth quarter profit of $2.8 billion with sales growth of more than four percent. For the full fiscal year, net income grew less than one-percent to total $11 billion.

    A GM affiliate, Suzuki Motors, has reported record group sales and profits. The automaker says its group net profit for the fiscal year that ended in March jumped 38 percent and sales were up 7.6 percent. But, Suzuki expects its group net profit to fall nearly 21 percent to about $460 million this year, as it increases its investment and research costs.

    Japan's economy continues its gyrations on the road to recovery. The Cabinet Office says a key gauge for the economy was above the boom-or-bust line in March for the first time in two months. The Index of Coincident Economic Indicators rose from 30 percent in February to nearly 67 percent in March. But the government warns that the index is likely to fall below 50 percent again when the April numbers are tabulated.

    Despite returning his company to profitability, the chairman of Japan Airlines is resigning. Isao Kaneko's resignation comes after a series of safety-related incidents involving JAL aircraft, which have drawn reprimands from the country's Transport Ministry. The airline has also made an unusual announcement that the recent problems likely come from putting too much emphasis on punctuality.

    Mr. Kaneko leaves with his airline reporting an annual profit of more than 285 million dollars after a loss of about $850 million the previous year.

    The latest rankings for economic competitiveness find Japan in 21st place, up two positions from last year. But that is still far below where it was in the early 1990s, when it was the top-ranked nation. The World Competitiveness Yearbook, compiled by a Swiss business training center, has the United States retaining this year's top spot, followed by Hong Kong and Singapore.


    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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