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Japan’s vehicle-recall system: a summary of its principles

by Kaho Shimizu

Following are basic facts about Japan’s automotive recall system:

Q. What is the motor vehicle recall system?

A. Under the Road Vehicles Law, the recall system obliges auto manufacturers and importers to collect and repair safety-deficient vehicles that are perceived to have design flaws or manufacturing defects. Tires and child seats are also subject to recall.

Companies that have obtained information on structural defects must investigate the cause and submit details of the investigation results to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry.

Automakers and importers are obliged to notify the users and provide them with free repairs.

In fiscal 2002, more than 3 million vehicles, including trucks, buses and motorcycles, were recalled, of which 92.5 percent were made in Japan.

The recall system was introduced in 1969 amid concerns over the growing number of traffic accidents caused by defective vehicles as Japan was experiencing rapid motorization.

Q. What are the penalties if companies falsify recall reports or fail to recall defective vehicles?

A. Under the current law, companies are fined up to 200 million yen for hiding safety defects and failing to recall the deficient vehicles, or making false reports on vehicle defects. When the law was revised in June 2000, the maximum fine for making false reports was raised 1,000-fold from the previous 200,000 yen and that for a recall coverup was raised 200-fold from 1 million yen.

The current law also sets a maximum prison term of one year and a maximum fine of 3 million yen for people involved in covering up safety defects that are subject to recalls. Previously, these transgressions were punishable only by a fine of up to 1 million yen.

What prompted the transport ministry to introduce tougher measures was a coverup scandal involving Mitsubishi Motors Corp. in 2000.

Mitsubishi Motors concealed customer complaints about auto defects that required recalls. The firm was found to have systematically covered up safety defects and individually repaired the deficient vehicles for about 30 years.

Experts say the increased penalties are still lax compared with overseas examples. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, for example, maintains that companies should be fined up to 500 million yen and that individual offenders should face a maximum three years in prison and a fine up to 3 million yen.

Q. What other measures does the transport ministry take to prevent companies from hiding safety defects?

A. The transport minister can recommend that automakers and parts makers deemed responsible for design or manufacturing flaws recall their products.

If the companies refuse to comply, the minister can publicly name them. The minister is empowered to order firms that still don’t comply to take remedial measures to clear safety requirements.

Companies and individuals that disobey the order face the same penalties as they do when covering up safety defects and making false reports.

The ministry also carries out a surprise inspection of automakers and vehicle importers once a year to ensure the firms are in compliance with the law.

Q. How does the transport ministry handle the information on defective cars?

A. The transport ministry discloses information on automotive recall on its Web site at www.mlit.go.jp/jidosha/recall/recall04/recall–.html. A searchable database allows users to search for information on recall reports and remedial actions taken over the past decade at www.motnet.go.jp/carinf/ris/asp/select.asp.

The ministry also accepts information on auto defects from car users so it can order manufacturers to conduct investigations and report to the ministry whether the cars need to be recalled.

Auto users can also provide information to the ministry toll free at (0120) 744-960, which is only available on weekdays, at (03) 3580-4434, which is available round-the-clock on automated voice service, or via its Web site at www.motnet.go.jp/carinf/cis/asp/cisrecc.asp.