World markets remain awash with manufactured products from Japan, despite its 'lost decade' of economic stagnation over the 1990s. Indeed, export markets have been Japan's lifeline preventing outright depression, and some now argue that they provide a model for Japan's resurgence over the medium term (Katz 2003). Japanese goods also retain a reputation for excellent design and reliability. Yet since mid-2000 a series of scandals has revealed serious quality control problems. They have afflicted jewels in the crown of Japan's export industries, as well as less competitive sectors focused on domestic markets. This book outlines some perspectives for appraising such developments, and issues of product safety more generally, comparing especially Japan's Product Liability Law (the 'PL Law', No. 85 of 1994). Before setting out the general approach and plan for this study, some conceptual challenges are illustrated by sketching in more detail the recent problems, and the conflicting perspectives offered on them by the media and academic commentary on Japan, its products and consumers, and its legal system.
The spate of product safety problems revealed in Japan from mid-2000 involved both staple foods like dairy products and beef, increasingly supplied from abroad, and familiar consumer durables such as automobiles and television sets for which Japan has developed an international reputation for product quality. Accordingly, they attracted extensive attention in the domestic and foreign media.
At 10.50 am on 27 June 2000, for example, health authorities in Osaka learned that a family was showing food poisoning symptoms after consuming low-fat milk produced by Snow Brand, the company with the largest market share among Japan's dairy food processors at the time. Despite urgings by various authorities, it took more than 53 hours for Snow Brand to go public with a recall. The delays exacerbated the problem, resulting in 14,849 victims (13,420 of whom had a causal relationship established between consuming Snow Brand products and developing the symptoms). Although no deaths have been reported, this makes the accident one of the biggest food poisoning cases in Japan's history, rivalling the arsenic contamination of milk produced by Morinaga in 1955 and