Investigators have begun probing data fabrication by Kobe Steel Ltd., the company said Wednesday, in a move that could lead to criminal charges.
Prosecutors and police believe the company violated a law preventing unfair competition by misrepresenting its products in one of a series of recent scandals that have rocked the nation’s manufacturing industry, sources close to the matter said.
“We deeply apologize for causing great trouble to the people involved,” Kobe Steel said in a statement, adding that it will “sincerely respond (to the probe) and cooperate (with authorities).”
The U.S. Justice Department has already begun investigating the company, which has admitted to falsifying inspection data on aluminum and copper products.
The products have been supplied to over 600 companies and used in cars, aircraft, space rockets and defense equipment.
According to the company’s final report on the scandal released last month, the steelmaker altered strength and other data to make its products look as if they met specifications sought by clients.
The company said more than 40 employees were involved in the string of irregularities, including two who later became board members. Data had been fabricated since around the 1970s at its plant in Tochigi Prefecture, according to the company.
Major Japanese carmakers, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co., have said they used Kobe Steel products for their vehicles. Affected products have also been used by Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) for bullet trains and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. for Mitsubishi Regional Jet passenger planes.
The companies have said the falsified data does not impair the safety of their products.
Kobe Steel’s products have also been shipped to a number of companies abroad and customers in the United States and Canada have filed class-action civil lawsuits seeking compensation for the use of substandard metal products made by the firm.
Japan’s industrial sector faced a crisis last year as a series of quality control problems came to light, severely damaging its reputation.
Nissan Motor Co. and Subaru Corp. admitted to having unqualified workers conduct new car tests at their domestic plants, triggering recalls in the Japanese market. Mitsubishi Materials Corp. subsidiaries and Toray Industries Inc. also said products with falsified data were supplied to customers.
Kobe Steel is not new to scandal. In 1999, the company was found to have given funds to a sokaiya (corporate racketeer). In 2006, it was hit by a data fabrication scandal after an internal investigation found that data on soot and smoke released by one of its plants had been falsified.
A Kobe Steel subsidiary was found cheating on steel inspection data in 2008 while the head of Kobe Steel resigned in 2009 over illegal donations involving local assembly elections. Lack of legal compliance led to another quality issue at another unit in 2016.