Takayuki Shiino drives a five-year-old Suzuki wagon with tires
made by Bridgestone Corp. But asked yesterday about the controversy
in the US over tires made by the Japanese company's subsidiary,
Bridgestone/Firestone, Mr. Shiino smiles politely and says he is
unaware of it.
"It doesn't worry me," says Mr. Shiino, suited in a cobalt-blue
jumpsuit and yellow armband that displays his cable-company employee
ID around his left bicep. "Maybe the tires Bridgestone made were
not used in an appropriate way in the US."
Last month's tire recall by Firestone continues to make headlines
in the United States; hearings on the matter are to begin again
today in the House Committee on Commerce. But in Japan it has been
viewed as a far-off rumbling to be tucked away in the foreign news
pages, underscoring how differently consumers here in the world's
second-largest economy view their role as purchasers of everything
from cars to ice cream.
"Japanese people basically don't have a consciousness for their
rights as consumers," says Yoko Tomiyama, a representative of the
Consumers Union of Japan, based in Tokyo.
Tuesday, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
raised the reported number of deaths from crashes linked to
Firestone tires to 103, with more than 400 injuries, an increase
from the figures it released late last month.
And congressional investigators now say they've discovered
evidence that Firestone's own test data showed serious problems in
passing high-speed durability tests as far back as 1996, fueling
consumer anger about whether the 6.5 million faulty tires -
outfitted primarily on Ford Explorers and made mainly in Decatur,
Ill., - caused the reported fatalities. Earlier this month,
Firestone began recalling 62,000 tires in Venezuela, and the
congressional investigation also began asking why recalls began in
16 Latin American, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries the year
before the US recall.
While consumer rights have become a cottage industry in the US -
with the modern pioneer of consumer activism, Ralph Nader, on the
Green Party's presidential ticket - the notion of the consumer as
corporate watchdog has only recently come to Japan, and has hardly
caught on as a potent political force.
"We have the right to know," says Ms. Tomiyama, "but to exercise
it, we also need information from companies, and in most cases they
refuse to do so on the grounds that it is a business secret."
Consumers here generally don't see it as their place to challenge
or interfere with big business. A case in point is this summer's
controversy with Snow Brand, one of Japan's largest milk producers.
Close to 15,000 people suffered food poisoning from contaminated
milk and dairy products that the company was slow to recall.
But in the case of the 146 tons of bad milk that had to be yanked
off Japanese supermarket shelves, the work of taking Snow Brand to
task was done almost exclusively by the government.
"Compared with the US and Europe, the consumer movement here in
Japan is not so powerful. We still work according to the old
system, where the government takes care of these things," says Hiro-
Tsugu Aida, a foreign-news editor at Japan's Kyodo News wire. …