Japanese consumers leave tire-kicking to the government

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

By

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.

"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.

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"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.

Moreover, in a country where harmony is a national virtue, few view liability suits as a route to compensation. Civil suits against companies are so rare that lawyers who will take them are difficult to find, and most disputes are settled long before anything gets to court.

"There are [almost] no lawyers, because people really don't really think about suing," says Yuko Kawanishi, a professor of sociology at Temple University Japan. "People try to avoid confrontation. And in a culture like that, you don't need lawyers." If someone does complain about the defectiveness of a company's product, she says, it is more likely that the "owner or someone in charge might come over and apologize. They don't even think about going to court."

While that may sound like a welcome human touch when compared to hyper-litigious America, it may mean that many companies fail to be held accountable for products with dangerous defects. In late August, police here raided Mitsubishi Motors Corp. under suspicion that for several decades the automaker systematically hid consumer complaints about car malfunctions from the Transportation Ministry. Mitsubishi categorized the complaints as "classified information" and quietly settled with accident victims, government officials say. In response, Mitsubishi announced a recall and offered to check 200,000 vehicles.

Even the oversight that such government agencies are supposed to perform is limited, consumer advocates say, given the tight alliance politicians here have with corporations, a government-business partnership once dubbed "Japan Inc."

"There is still a cozy relationship among companies, bureaucrats, and politicians, and it's still so strong that consumer groups cannot easily break through those ties," says Ms. Tomiyama at the Consumer's Union. "The right to express consumers' opinions is the most difficult to be achieved here because of the politics we have. Some politicians are connected to companies, and if such complaints are related to those companies, politicians won't act on behalf of the consumer."

Firestone's apparently faulty tires - which sometimes separate from their tread and cause the Explorers to roll over - do not appear to have a history of causing similar accidents on cars in Japan. Indeed, the company seems to be engaged in mutual fingerpointing with Ford, suggesting that the American carmaker equipped its automobiles with the wrong tire model.

"The reason we are being quiet about the Bridgestone case in the US is because there are no similar cases reported here," says Fumio Matsuda of the Japan Automobile User's Union. Otherwise, "we would speak up for sure," he says.

"We see that the US automaker decided to apply inappropriate tires to their car model," says Mr. Matsuda. "I assume that Bridgestone is pretty sure about it, but Ford is still one of their customers so they cannot point it out clearly in public."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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