updated 4/12/2007 12:17:32 PM ET 2007-04-12T16:17:32

Toyota named the first non-Japanese to its board of directors Thursday, appointing American James Press, the automaker’s president of North American operations, amid growing fears of a political backlash for its booming U.S. sales.

The move is the latest step in Toyota Motor Corp.’s efforts to bolster its international standing. It also comes at a time when Toyota is boosting sales in North America, grabbing market share away from Detroit automakers.

Press, 60, president of Toyota Motor North America Inc. since May 2006, has been responsible for overseeing Toyota’s tremendous growth in the U.S. He was president of Toyota Motor Sales since 2005.

Hot on the heels of General Motors Corp., the world’s biggest automaker, Toyota has seen its U.S. market share surge recently, hitting 16 percent in March, behind GM, with 22 percent, and Ford, with 17 percent.

Press, also promoted to senior managing director from managing officer, joined Toyota Motor Sales in the U.S. in 1970, after two years at Ford Motor Co. He has been the most visible Toyota executive in North America.

Last month, Press acknowledged there could be consequences to Toyota’s successes over its U.S.-based competitors, who are shutting plants and cutting jobs, but stressed that the automaker would go ahead with its business plans.

“The way the issue is played out doesn’t affect the business,” Press told reporters in Detroit. “The business is you take care of customers. You make investments. Our philanthropy is up. We’re doing more for the community.”

Hiroshi Okuda, former president of Toyota and now adviser, also has expressed concern about a possible backlash.

Last month, he suggested adding a foreign board member and increasing foreign ownership as ways the company could show it was international and avoid the kind of backlash seen during the 1980s when American sentiment turned against Toyota and other Japanese automakers.

Up to now, Toyota’s 25-member board has been all Japanese. The number of board members was increased to 30 as part of Thursday’s changes.

The changes, announced along with eight Japanese newly appointed to the board of directors, will take effect pending shareholders approval in June, the company said in a statement.

Much of Toyota’s success has come from its reputation for fuel-efficiency at a time when gas prices are surging, such as its best-seller Camry, as well as hybrids, which switch between a gasoline engine and electric motor.

Toyota exports nearly half of the vehicles it sells from Japan. Last year, that percentage was 46 percent, up from about 38 percent in 2005 because of a surge in U.S. demand and the inability of U.S. factories to keep up with demand.

Toyota has undergone an image campaign to emphasize its U.S. manufacturing plants. Press said the company would like two-thirds of its vehicles sold in North America to be made there by 2010, but that will depend on sales.

Toyota recently announced it’s building a new vehicle-assembly plant in Mississippi, its eighth in North America.

Press replaced as top U.S. executive a Japanese, who resigned after he was accused of sexual harassment. Besides Press, Toyota has four managing officers who are foreigners, including one American who is retiring in June, two French and one Canadian.

Press’ addition to the board will help send the message that Toyota is a global company, analysts said.

“There’s finally some recognition that they’re not just a Japanese company anymore,” said Christopher Richter, a Tokyo-based analyst at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets.

But Toyota officials are worried that their recent success could be seen as contributing to the downfall of U.S. auto companies, who are slashing jobs and shuttering plants.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, who represents thousands of Detroit-based auto workers, has said the Japanese have an unfair edge from a weak currency, which makes it easier to underprice American rivals.

General Motors lost $10.4 billion in 2005 but underwent massive restructuring and trimmed its losses to $2 billion in 2006. Ford lost $12.7 billion last year, while DaimlerChrysler has decided to put money-losing Chrysler up for sale.

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