Activist laments free ride Toyota receives at home

Consumer advocate fears impact of pioneering legal victories fading

by Yuri Kageyama

The Associated Press

KAMAKURA, Kanagawa Pref. — Japan’s most famous consumer activist is watching the safety problems enveloping Toyota with a sense of frustration.

For decades, Fumio Matsuda took on the country’s powerful carmakers, bringing his engineering expertise to landmark court battles that won damages for consumers and led companies to make their vehicles safer.

Yet his success has yet to inspire a new generation of Japanese consumer advocates, and few have been willing to stand up to Toyota Motor Corp. in courts of law or public opinion.

In the U.S., for example, the automaker has been hit with more than 200 lawsuits since it began recalling millions of vehicles worldwide last year for everything from defective gas pedals to faulty floor mats suspected of being linked to deadly highway crashes.

The number of such lawsuits in Japan: zero.

The contrast stems largely from the fact that the sticky pedals and faulty floor mats that forced recalls in the U.S. haven’t afflicted Toyota models in Japan. However, the Prius and other Toyota hybrid cars have been recalled in Japan for a braking software glitch; there have been no high-profile fatalities or injuries.

Still, Matsuda worries the absence of even modest criticism of Toyota over car defects in Japan shows the activism he ignited decades ago has lost momentum altogether.

“Japanese these days are defending Toyota as though it is getting bashed unfairly,” said Matsuda, 84, who heads his own group, largely a one-man show called Japan Automobile Consumers Union, although he is now semiretired. “But the story of Toyota reads like a study in cruelty.”

Feeble product liability laws, considered years behind those in other developed countries, may help explain why few have challenged Toyota in Japan. Experts say manufacturers rarely face meaningful consequences when defects surface. The nation also lacks an independent monitoring body like the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to seize evidence and keep automakers in line.

Japan’s first product liability law was passed only in 1994. When companies are forced to pay, the damages are frequently token by Western standards. Whistle-blowers are extremely rare and often ostracized — a law protecting them took effect four years ago, but no one has come forward so far under the new legal protection.

Matsuda recalls the 1970s, when his struggles were still making headlines, and boasts about the praise he once received from U.S. consumer advocacy icon Ralph Nader.

Back then, Matsuda spent his days challenging car companies over accidents, proving defects, testing cars at crash sites and winning damages and settlements. People deluged him with complaints of runaway vehicles. Once, he pressed for murder charges against auto executives to get around the primitive product liability laws that existed in Japan at that time.

But such tales are more than 20 years old.

“Automakers are the ones that have evidence on defects. So we have to force them to hand over the evidence,” he said in a recent interview at his home in Kamakura.

Were he still working full time, Matsuda says he would press Toyota to release a detailed breakdown of its spending on recall-related measures.

In the last three years, more than 1,700 consumer complaints against Toyota vehicles have been lodged with the transport ministry, including 300 over braking and accelerator problems. However, complaints against Toyota in Japan jumped tenfold after the scrutiny intensified in the U.S., according to the ministry.

The ministry says the jump is reasonable and the complaints proportionate to the number of Toyota vehicles traveling Japan’s roads.

The ministry itself has not taken special action against Toyota, except to urge the company to be more transparent and quicker when communicating problems with the government.

Katsuji Aoki, one of a small group of well-known attorneys tackling lawsuits against automakers, has another explanation for the dearth of legal opposition. He says lawsuits and criticism directed toward Toyota in the U.S. may have helped it curry sympathy among the Japanese.

“If anything, there is a lot of sympathy in Japan toward Toyota, and people are seeing it as another case of American Japan-bashing,” said Aoki, referring to the backlash Japanese automakers suffered in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Toyota, which was slapped with a record fine of $16.4 million in the U.S. for its slow response to sticking gas pedals, has repeatedly denied any coverup. The company isn’t facing any lawsuits in Japan similar to those filed in the U.S., Toyota officials say.

Aoki represented the mother of a woman who was crushed and killed in 2002 by a wheel that rolled off a Mitsubishi Motors Corp. truck. The damages he eventually won: ¥5.5 million.

The case was unusual because Mitsubishi Motors was embroiled in a scandal centered on a systematic coverup of auto defects that the company eventually acknowledged spanned at least two decades. Several MMC executives were convicted of professional negligence.

For his part, Matsuda says financial means may also explain why so few have followed in his footsteps. The heir of a rich landlord, he was able to support himself through years of courtroom battles that never brought much in the way of monetary rewards.

In the 1970s, Matsuda and his ally, Haruo Abe, a lawyer who has written one of the best-known books in Japan on auto defects, faced one of their toughest cases.

After suing Honda over what they say was a defective vehicle suspected in several deaths, the duo were slapped with criminal charges. Prosecutors maintained that Matsuda and Abe, by pressing Honda to pay damages in connection with the deaths, had blackmailed the big automaker.

Matsuda contends the case was politically motivated and highlights the difficulty of consumer advocacy in Japan.

Though he and Abe were convicted of blackmail and lost all appeals, Matsuda believes the two were exonerated in the end because they never had to serve jail terms.