A key pillar of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s program to remake the economy is raising Japan Inc.’s global game. His government introduced a U.K.-like stewardship code to give shareholders a bigger voice, prodded boards to hire more outside directors and launched a stock index showcasing 400 well-management Japanese companies. And here comes Takata, hogging global headlines and making a mockery of efforts to make wayward CEOs more accountable.
Shigehisa Takada personifies how old Japan is stymieing Abe’s plan to create a new, more international corporate sector. The scion of the 82 year-old Takata dynasty pulled a disappearing act last year amid a global outcry over mounting air bag deaths and injuries. So impressed was Takada by U.S. Senate hearings — and a grand jury subpoena — in November 2014 that he sent underlings in his place.
In the 12 months since, the scandal took on a life of its own and tripped up many Japan Inc. icons. Last Wednesday, Honda Motor Co. broke ranks, saying it won’t use Takata’s inflators in future models amid charges the supplier manipulated and misrepresented safety data. The news broke a day after U.S. regulators hit Takata with a $70 million fine.
It’s a minor speeding ticket for the 35,000-employee company, equivalent to less than five days of sales. But the two events have investors questioning whether Takata can survive. The overwhelming odds are that it will. Takata is too big to fail, a name deeply ingrained in the fabric of Japan’s proudest industry. With the air bag game already too tight for comfort, losing Takata isn’t an option. So, expect Japanese regulators to go easy with the fines, most automakers to look the other way and a compliant local media to bury the story.
The question isn’t whether Takata will survive, but whether it should. Absolutely not.
The thing is, Takata’s air bag debacle was quite survivable from a PR standpoint. What if, for example, the company had read from the Johnson & Johnson playbook? In the early 1980s, it pulled Extra Strength Tylenol from stores after seven deaths in the Chicago area. Last year, when President Takada was dodging U.S. hearings, the Takata death toll was of a similar magnitude. He could have halted production, devised a recall plan and offered a detailed strategy to fix the problem. Instead, he followed the Olympus script: downplay, obfuscate, feign contrition and return to business as usual.
Japanese love a museum. They have them for parasites, instant ramen, curry, robot sex, sand, wind and, of course, Japanese toilets. It’s time for a Corporate Hall of Shame Museum, with Takata getting its own wing. Its board couldn’t handle this crisis worse if it tried. And in the process, it’s reminding us how little Japan Inc. has changed since the sordid events of 2011.
That was the year, remember, when a $1.7 billion book-cooking scandal at Olympus left global investors aghast. It also was when Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s negligence led to a radiation crisis at Fukushima. At the time, lawmakers in Tokyo said never again. Four years on, though, Japan is seeing another wave of dodgy dealings. Take Toshiba, which had twice the number of outside directors “Abenomics” says is optimal and still is embroiled in a deepening accounting scandal.
Sharp, meanwhile, reminds us how shareholders aren’t finding their voice as hoped. For years now, analysts have been urging management to diversify away from the display business. In May, Sharp secured a nearly $2 billion bailout, its second bank-led rescue in three years. But investors are voting with their feet. Last week, the company’s default risk surged to a two-year high as losses top $10 billion.
When U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on Nov. 3 that “delay, misdirection and refusal to acknowledge the truth allowed a serious problem to become a massive crisis,” he was talking about Takata. But really, he was describing Japan Inc.’s decades-old playbook. And it’s time to turn the page.
Abe’s corporate governance plan needs a bailout itself — one backed by policies with real teeth. His strategy is more tweaks than big bangs — most of it voluntary and loaded with loopholes. Why not give a few speeches that name and shame companies tarnishing the Japan brand? Next, launch government investigations into misbehaving executives and toss a few in jail. Four years on, no one at Tepco or Olympus has seen the inside of a prison cell. Also, it’s time Abenomics forced companies to shape up (as opposed to just asking) with clear mandates and penalties.
Takata is as good a place to begin as any. Because it didn’t follow Johnson & Johnson’s crisis playbook, Takata stole a dubious record from the New Jersey-based company: the biggest product recall in U.S. history. It also stole some of Tokyo’s thunder the day Japan Post pulled off the nation’s biggest initial public offering in 30 years. Takata is no longer just a safety hazard to drivers, but to efforts to keep Japan’s economic future on the road.
William Pesek, executive editor of Barron’s Asia, is based in Tokyo and writes on Asian economics, markets and politics. www.barronsasia.com
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