Japan’s top newspaper on Thursday accused US lawmakers of painting Toyota as a “villain” over its safety flaws.

Japan awoke to television footage of the US politicians – waving papers, pointing fingers and sometimes raising their voices – grilling Toyota’s chief Akio Toyoda over defects that have been blamed for more than 30 US deaths.

The Yomiuri daily said the hearing in Congress was political grandstanding, calling it a “Toyota bashing” orchestrated by Washington to deflect public concern over high unemployment ahead of mid-term US elections, news agency AFP reported.

“Toyota is treated completely as a ‘villain’, with (US) television networks repeatedly airing tearful testimony by a Tennessee woman on her terrifying experience in 2006 when her Lexus accelerated suddenly,” the newspaper said.

Ahead of Toyoda’s testimony in the House of Representatives yesterday, Japanese media prepared the public with articles about what they considered to be the hearing’s strong political undertone.

The Nikkei BP magazine described the hearing as “the perfect opportunity for US lawmakers seeking re-election to show their constituents that they are working from the trenches”.

“There certainly will be an aspect of performance, showing ‘justice’ beating ‘evil’.”

Other media pointed to the US government’s involvement in the taxpayer funded bailout last year of ailing General Motors and Chrysler, and the administration’s ongoing administration oversight of the two automakers which, along with Ford, have launched campaigns offering cash to Toyota owners if they switch cars.

US transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has vowed to hold Toyota’s “feet to the fire” over the safety crisis, but denies having any malign agenda to benefit its US rivals.

While opinion is divided in Japan,there have been rumblings for weeks about “Japan bashing”, AFP said.

Tokyo’s outspoken conservative governor, Shintaro Ishihara, this month said Americans were taking revenge after Japanese carmakers became world beaters.

“If these were problems of Ford or GM, this much fuss might not have occurred,” he told AFP, adding that the United States was “sly”.

Japan’s government has focused its criticism on Toyota itself, while fretting that the company’s safety woes could damage the economy as a whole just as it recovers from a deep recession.

AFP said Japan’s mixed reaction may reflect broader national unease in a country that has suffered two decades of economic downturn and is set to be eclipsed as Asia’s biggest economy by China this year.

Robert Dujarric of Temple University said, while US lawmakers may have political capital to gain, the crisis has been “a shock for Japan because Toyota is the greatest symbol of the country’s ‘monozukuri’ (craftsmanship)”.

“The shock also reflects Japan’s insecurity regarding its place in the world. It’s a reflection of Japan’s unease.”