Toyota shareholders have cleared the appointment of the first non-Japanese member to the automaker’s board of directors.

The man who heads Toyota’s North American operations, Jim Press, got the go-ahead on Friday, The Associated Press (AP) reported.

Press’ name was included in a list of new board and management appointees on Toyota’s corporate website today.

AP noted that Press, 60, a 37-year Toyota veteran, was appointed to the board in April, the latest step in Toyota’s efforts to bolster its standing as an international company.

Shareholders approved the move Friday in Toyota City, where the automaker is based, at a nearly two-hour meeting attended by more than 2,500 people, the company told the news agency.

The news agency noted that the approval came as Toyota is boosting sales in North America and taking market share away from Detroit automakers, though that success has aroused concern at Toyota of a political backlash in the United States.

AP added that lawmakers from manufacturing states have charged the Japanese government has kept the yen artificially low, giving Japanese automakers an advantage.

Press’ promotion is part of Toyota’s overall effort to strengthen diversity and empower regional management as the company grows increasingly international, Yasuaki Iwamoto, auto analyst with Okasan Securities in Tokyo, told the Associated Press.

“It’s part of Toyota’s efforts to become a Japanese company that has roots in America,” he said. “It’s also a recognition of Press’ achievements, especially the fact that he has truly become a Toyota man.”

AP noted that former Toyota chief executive Hiroshi Okuda said earlier this year that Toyota needs to open up its board to non-Japanese and boost foreign ownership of company shares from about 20% today to win greater acceptance as a global company.

The news agency also noted that, in recent years, foreign chief executives for Japanese companies have grown more common, including high-profile ones such as British-American Howard Stringer at Sony and Brazilian-born Carlos Ghosn at Nissan Motor.

The report said Press, who makes no secret of his admiration for Toyota’s Japanese cultural virtues as a key force of the automaker’s strength, has been its most visible figure in the US.

As head of Torrance, California-based Toyota Motor Sales USA [before his move to corporate headquarters in New York], Press led Toyota’s rapid sales climb from a 9.3% market share in the US in 2000 to 13.1% in 2005, AP said.

Last year, he become the first non-Japanese president of Toyota Motor North America, overseeing sales and engineering divisions as well as 12 manufacturing plants in the US and Canada.

Press joined Toyota in 1970 from Ford, the Associated Press added.