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Japanese consumers leave tire-kicking to the government

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

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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.

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"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