Robert Mueller, now Donald Trump’s biggest problem, was until recently Takata’s. Before the former FBI director was tapped to investigate the U.S. president, he oversaw claims against Takata’s deadly airbags — a task now entrusted to famed compensation-dispute expert Kenneth Feinberg.
Just as men can be judged by the caliber of their enemies, a company’s troubles can be measured by the stature of those holding it to account. America, it’s worth noting, attacked Takata’s crisis with two of its best and brightest. Mueller’s bona fides have the White House on the run, while Feinberg led compensation claims related to Sept. 11, TARP (the U.S. Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program), BP’s massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and now exploding air bags that killed at least 16 people and injured more than 180.
Where are Japan’s few good men? Or, more to the point, where has Japan Inc. been as this embarrassing saga unfolded?
In the 31 months since the first U.S. Senate hearing on Takata’s fudged data and this week’s bankruptcy, Japanese lawmakers looked the other way. Regulators seemed to hope the whole mess would blow over. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe talked up his moves to add outside directors to corporate boards and give shareholders a bigger voice — all while ignoring how Takata, Toshiba, Sharp and others thumbed their noses at change.
Now, as Tokyo sorts out the biggest failure in postwar Japanese manufacturing, it’s all too possible its political and corporate cultures will learn little from “Takatagate.”
The January admission alone that the Tokyo-based company hid exploding air bag risks for 15 years should’ve sent shock waves through Nagatacho. Parliamentary hearings, massive fines and indictments would’ve been in order. Japan Business Federation, or Keidanren, might have passed word its members are aghast at how Takata is dragging the Japan brand down with it. The Tokyo Stock Exchange might have threatened to delist. Japan’s media seemed keen to leave unearthing Takata’s negligence to the New York Times and other Western outlets.
Most shocking of all, perhaps, Chief Executive Shigehisa Takada still has a job. Among his many derelictions of duty was blowing off Capitol Hill hearings (Takada sent underlings in his place to face angry U.S. lawmakers). But it’s good to be the grandson of the man who started Takata in 1933 to make lifelines for maritime rescues and parachutes. That family connection saved Takada, 51, from unemployment and allowed him to operate more like the leader of a South Korean chaebol — insular, family-run conglomerates — than a Topix-caliber name.
To be sure, one bad apple doesn’t mean Japan Inc. is rotten. Abe’s team deserves credit for pressuring executives to increase returns on investment. As Nicholas Smith of CLSA points out, the shareholder-activism zeitgeist helped the Nikkei (up more than 5 percent this year) and Topix weather the yen’s recent gains. My gripe is with the slow pace of these tweaks and the fact they’re largely voluntary. The Takata mess is emblematic of how Abe’s policies lack teeth. And how this story is bigger than one company.
In November 2015, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration slapped Takata with it biggest-ever fine. Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the company’s “delay, misdirection and refusal to acknowledge the truth allowed a serious problem to become a massive crisis.” Foxx, of course, could easily have been talking about Japan Inc.’s decades-old playbook for dealing with corporate malfeasance.
This statement could have applied to Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s doctored safety records before the March 2011 Fukushima crisis and its opacity afterward. Ditto for the $1.7 billion accounting fraud that rocked Olympus later that year. Toshiba’s book-cooking controversies also come to mind, as does Sharp waiting until the last moment to disclose contingent liabilities in merger talks. Toshiba, for example, has paid nary a price for overstating profits — other than getting demoted to the second tier of Tokyo Stock Exchange companies. Why has Toshiba dragged its $1 billion-plus accounting scandal on for two years? If it had come clean in 2015, it would be on the mend by now.
In her influential 1946 book, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword,” Ruth Benedict famously labeled Japan a “shame culture.” It breeds a debilitating fear of embarrassment that incentivizes executives to hide problems, underlings to look the other way, would-be whistleblowers to keep quiet and entrepreneurs not to gamble. From Fukushima to Olympus to Takata, the tendency is to circle the wagons and pretend all’s well.
It’s time Abe put Japan’s own best and brightest on the case. Steps to internationalize boardrooms and management styles would mean greater innovation, increased productivity and the higher wages eluding Abenomics to date. Bold changes are needed to shake up an insular, risk-adverse culture. Mandating more outside directors and women on boards, fewer takeover defenses and cross-shareholding schemes, phasing out seniority-based promotion and pay, and punishing rogue executives would put the economy into a higher gear.
All it takes is a few bold policy steps and few good men.
William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of “Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades.” Twitter: @williampesek