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Japanese consumers leave tire-kicking to the government

Where harmony is a virtue, citizens make less noise about their rights.

By Ilene R. Prusher Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 21, 2000



TOKYO

Takayuki Shiino drives a five-year-old Suzuki wagon with tires made by Bridgestone Corp. But asked yesterday about the controversy in the US over tires made by the Japanese company's subsidiary, Bridgestone/Firestone, Mr. Shiino smiles politely and says he is unaware of it.

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"It doesn't worry me," says Mr. Shiino, suited in a cobalt-blue jumpsuit and yellow armband that displays his cable-company employee ID around his left bicep. "Maybe the tires Bridgestone made were not used in an appropriate way in the US."

Last month's tire recall by Firestone continues to make headlines in the United States; hearings on the matter are to begin again today in the House Committee on Commerce. But in Japan it has been viewed as a far-off rumbling to be tucked away in the foreign news pages, underscoring how differently consumers here in the world's second-largest economy view their role as purchasers of everything from cars to ice cream.

"Japanese people basically don't have a consciousness for their rights as consumers," says Yoko Tomiyama, a representative of the Consumers Union of Japan, based in Tokyo.

Tuesday, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration raised the reported number of deaths from crashes linked to Firestone tires to 103, with more than 400 injuries, an increase from the figures it released late last month.

And congressional investigators now say they've discovered evidence that Firestone's own test data showed serious problems in passing high-speed durability tests as far back as 1996, fueling consumer anger about whether the 6.5 million faulty tires - outfitted primarily on Ford Explorers and made mainly in Decatur, Ill., - caused the reported fatalities. Earlier this month, Firestone began recalling 62,000 tires in Venezuela, and the congressional investigation also began asking why recalls began in 16 Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries the year before the US recall.

While consumer rights have become a cottage industry in the US - with the modern pioneer of consumer activism, Ralph Nader, on the Green Party's presidential ticket - the notion of the consumer as corporate watchdog has only recently come to Japan, and has hardly caught on as a potent political force.

"We have the right to know," says Ms. Tomiyama, "but to exercise it, we also need information from companies, and in most cases they refuse to do so on the grounds that it is a business secret."

Consumers here generally don't see it as their place to challenge or interfere with big business. A case in point is this summer's controversy with Snow Brand, one of Japan's largest milk producers. Close to 15,000 people suffered food poisoning from contaminated milk and dairy products that the company was slow to recall.

But in the case of the 146 tons of bad milk that had to be yanked off Japanese supermarket shelves, the work of taking Snow Brand to task was done almost exclusively by the government.

"Compared with the US and Europe, the consumer movement here in Japan is not so powerful. We still work according to the old system, where the government takes care of these things," says Hiro-Tsugu Aida, a foreign-news editor at Japan's Kyodo News wire.