Japan’s auto recall enforcement division, whose 16 members work from a cramped office on the eighth floor of the transport ministry building, only found out about safety issues with Takata Corp. air bags in late 2008 — more than three years after the company says it first learned there were problems.
The ministry, which acts as Japan’s safety regulator, then took a largely passive approach to the crisis unfolding in the United States — Takata’s biggest market where more than 10 million cars have since been recalled — rubber-stamping recall filings by automakers after incidents reported abroad.
“We had no idea there were already accidents in the United States, so there was no reason for us to be concerned at the time,” said Masato Sahashi, director of the recall office.
To be sure, Japanese automakers are not obliged to report overseas accidents to officials in Tokyo unless it leads to a recall. And, while defective Takata air bags have been linked to at least five deaths, all in Honda cars, there have been no reported fatalities or injuries in Japan.
But more than half a dozen air bag inflators have ruptured in cars in Japanese scrap yards, officials have said, and one of those incidents, in a 2003 Toyota WiLL Cypha, is being investigated and could prompt a wider recall. There have also been four explosions of Takata air bags in cars that were in use between 2011 and 2014 that led to recalls.
Now, the ministry, concerned about a broader PR fallout for the entire Japanese auto industry, is finally scrambling into action.
Late last month, it set up an eight-person task force to speed up recalls and learn more about why Takata’s air bags can explode with dangerous force. Honda, Takata’s biggest customer, opened its own investigation into the air bag problems in 2007.
The task force is in daily contact with Takata and holds regular meetings with a company representative, demanding information as the ministry weighs whether to order an expanded recall in Japan, as U.S. regulators have done, said a source with knowledge of the closed-door proceedings.
At the same time, a small group of officials in the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry is in touch with Takata and Japanese automakers about how to ensure the timely supply of millions of air bags to fix those recalled, an official said.
“We want to see Takata moving with a bit more urgency,” the official said.
To date, around 2.6 million vehicles have been recalled in Japan for potentially defective Takata air bags, out of a worldwide total of more than 16 million.
Japan’s regulator has come under fire in the past over a perceived leniency toward the prestigious car industry.
When Toyota initially chose not to recall its Prius hybrid in 2010 for braking issues, politicians floated proposals to toughen the government’s monitoring and enforcement authority over recalls. Reporting requirements were tweaked, but critics say officials blocked wholesale changes.
“There’s no sense of tension between the regulator and the industry here. They’re not a true watchdog,” said Yoshitaro Nomura, a Tokyo-based lawyer who sued Mitsubishi Motors on behalf of drivers after the company was found to have concealed information about its vehicles for decades to avoid recalls.
The ministry outsources testing for defects to the National Traffic Safety and Environment Laboratory — a team led by nine retired engineers from major automakers. To avoid possible conflicts of interest, engineers don’t investigate vehicles made by their former employers. Officials declined to say whether the lab is investigating Takata air bags.
Japan also lacks a U.S.-style class-action system, and lawsuits against companies over product liability are seen as costly and time-consuming, discouraging many consumers from filing complaints.
The far bigger U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has also been criticized for a piecemeal approach to the Takata crisis and for its earlier handling of a massive General Motors recall for faulty ignition switches.
The flurry of activity by Japanese regulators came after Takata balked at NHTSA’s suggestion — since upgraded to an order — that it cooperate in an expanded recall, and after Takata’s chief safety officer testified before a U.S. Senate panel.
“Japan needs to consider preventive measures and take proactive action to investigate problems,” said Hiroshi Osada, a professor at Bunkyo University who was an outside quality management adviser to Toyota during its 2010 recall crisis.
“If Japan is serious about improving the management and quality of Japanese firms, the related agencies have to be more committed to prevent accidents even before there’s been a fatality. That should be their role,” he said.