Kengo Kubo, a sales consultant who sells Lexus cars in Tokyo, has a special way of opening a car door. He points with all five fingers to the handle, right hand followed by left. Then, he gracefully opens the door with both hands, in the same way Japanese samurais in the 14th century would have opened a sliding screen door.
    "The most important thing is to make the motion look beautiful," says Mr. Kubo, standing in a gleaming Lexus show room with live orchids growing out of trickling waterfalls.
    The screen-door technique is part of an unusual tactic under way in Japan's luxury-car wars. No. 1 car maker Toyota, behind in the luxury market, wants to fight back by plunging deep into the world of ancient Japanese hospitality traditions.
    At Lexus showrooms, sales consultants lean five to 10 degrees forward and assume a warrior's "waiting position" when a customer is looking at a car. When serving customers coffee or tea, employees must kneel on the floor with both feet together and both knees on the ground. The coffee cup must never make a noise when it is placed on the table.
    Toyota controls nearly 45% of Japan's passenger-car market, but it is overshadowed by European brands when it comes to luxury cars. Japan's two market leaders, BMW and DaimlerChrysler AG's Mercedes Benz, together sold nearly four times the number of cars as Lexus did in Japan last year, according to CSM Worldwide, an auto-industry consulting firm.
    In 2005 when Toyota launched Lexus in Japan, it was already the best-selling luxury brand in the U.S. But in Japan, it had very little name recognition. The Company wanted a way to set Lexus apart from the Toyota brand. So it decided to offer a flavor of customer service that would be difficult for its European rivals to match.
    "Japan has a long and isolated history with lost of unique customs. We figured we could bring that to the Lexus brand," says Takeshi Yoshida, a managing officer at Lexus.
    Amy Chozick goes inside a factory in Japan to find fastidous and slightly eccentric quality-assurance methods. In early 2003, Toyota approached several etiquette schools that specialize in teaching the art of beatifying daily behavior, including the correct way to bow, hold chopsticks and sit on a tatatmi mat floor. The company asked the schools to tweak their techniques so that applied to selling cars. Most snubbed Toyota's request.
    But the Ogasawara Ryu Reihou institute, in Tokyo, agreed to work with the car maker. The institutes's teachings have been passed down through the family since the 1300s. Typical clients are well-bred families who want their children to learn good table manners and posture. The institute also advise mourners on the correct way to behave at Japanese funerals.
    Keishosai Ogaswara, the hereditary master of the school, says she saw the Toyota job as an opportunity to spread the teachings to a wider audience. She and her team of etiquette teachers spend months studying the Lexus situation.
    The result was a set of instructions and diagrams. The etiquette experts determined that a salesperson should stand about two arm's lengths from customers when they are looking at a car and come in closer when closing a deal. They decided that a salesperson should bow more deeply to a customer who has purchased a car than a casual window shopper. Wehn standing idly Lexus employees must place their left hand over their right with fingers together and thumbs interlocked, a posture originally designed for samurais to show that they were not about to draw their swords.
    "It might seem to strict, but each manner has a good reason behind it," say Ms. Ogasawara, who inherited her position a decade ago when her great uncle passed away.
    All Lexus employees, from repairmen to showroom managers, learn these and other rules during a three-day training course at the Fuji Lexus College, a fortresslike facility perched on the side of snow covered Mount Fuji. At a recent class, students held mirrors up to their faces to practice the "Lexus Face," a peaceful Ogasawara-style, closed-mouth smile said to put customers at ease.
    "The Japanese aren't so good at smiling so we need to practice this one a lot," said Kiyotaka Koyama, the dignified gray-haired director of the college.
    Hiroshi Mase, 58, says th was initially impressed by the service he received during a recent visit to a dealership in Yokohama. The technology-company executive loved being served tha and cake as if he were a celebrity.
    But he says it become overbearing when he went to pick up his new Lexus GS hybrid, and a sales associate gave him a bouquet and held a formal ceremony to hand over the key. A photo of Mr. Mase with his new car and the showroom's staff was framed and presented to him.
    "It was just to much," says Mr. Mase.
    Lexus Takanawa Employees at a Lexus showroom in Tokyo use the same posture samurais used 700 years ago. Lexus sales in Japan have gotten off to a show start. Last year, Toyota sold about 31,000 Lexus vehicles -- just half of what analysts had projected. Toyota says it takes a long time to establish a new luxury brand and that it is gradually laying the foundation for long-term growth. Part of the problem is that Toyota has never been associated with luxury in Japan.
    Lexus acknowledges that the Ogasawara method has some drawback. "Perceiving customers and realizing when they want to be left alone is something we have to work on," says Takeshi Kasuge, assistant manager in human resources at Lexus.
   
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